Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
A book about Iceland, Vikings, and medieval history. Here’s the official “pitch”:
A richly imagined journey to the Viking world that created what the New York Times has called “the most important chess pieces in history.”
Discovered in the 1830s on a remote Hebridean beach, the 93 Lewis chessmen are the best-known Scottish archaeological find of all time. At the Scottish National Museum and the British Museum, they are among the most frequently viewed and beloved objects. Songs, fantasies, thrillers, and films feature these quirky figurines: Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.
Drawing from medieval Icelandic sagas, modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games, Ivory Vikings links the Lewis chessmen to the Vikings’ luxury trade in walrus ivory and to a Norwegian king’s fondness for wearing kilts. It presents a vivid history of the 400 years when Norsemen ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea road connected places we think of as culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, Greenland and North America. Finally, Ivory Vikings brings from the shadows Margret the Adroit of Iceland, the talented 12th-century artist who carved the Lewis chessmen–maybe. “With a single chess set,” notes Brown, “you can play an infinite number of games.”
In a starred review, Booklist calls it “a delight” and “endlessly fascinating.” The New Yorker chimes in with “exciting” and “absorbing,” while according to The Economist, “the story bristles with fascinating facts.”
Ivory Vikings is “a true cornucopia, bursting with delicious revelations,” says advance reader Geraldine Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer prize. “Whether your passion is chess, art, archaeology, literature, or the uncanny and beautiful landscape of Iceland, Ivory Vikings offers rich and original insights by a writer who is as erudite as she is engaging.”
In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-three game pieces carved from walrus ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen—the Lewis chessmen—the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: The kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but mail-shirted Vikings, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps—and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, perhaps something like backgammon. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and most of the pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.
Who carved them? Where? Why were they buried in a sandbank or a secret chamber on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides? These mysteries The Ivory Vikings will explore by connecting medieval sagas to modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, The Ivory Vikings will present a history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, when the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the islands of the Hebrides and Orkneys, and even Greenland and Norse North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economics behind the Viking voyages to the west. It illuminates the Viking impact on Scotland and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for over 400 years, from the early 800s until the mid-1200s, when the Scottish king finally reclaimed his islands. The story of the Lewis chessmen reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.