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Monday, August 17, 2015

Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings:  The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them    

Nancy Marie Brown's book is a true cornucopia, bursting with delicious revelations. Whether your passion is chess, art, archeology, 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. (Geraldine Brooks, author of CALEB'S CROSSING)

The above description pretty much sums up everything I've thought of to say and so succinctly.

I've always found the Lewis Chessmen beautiful, but have been strangely incurious about their provenance.  Where did they come from originally, who carved them, how did they end up buried on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis?  

Brown's book is a fascinating history of chess and of the Vikings: their art, journeys, medieval sagas and literature, leaders, their economic life, society, religion, and impact. The first 20% of the book, I was highlighting almost every page; there is simply so much of interest.

Brown's theory is that the chessmen were Icelandic (following the lead of Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Einar Einarsson) and she does an excellent job of presenting her evidence, but she doesn't neglect the other prominent theories.

I was enthralled by Brown's beautifully detailed descriptions of the pieces themselves, by the walrus hunts (most of the chess pieces are carved from walrus teeth, a few from whale teeth), the names (Magnus Bare-legs, Ketil Flat-Nose, Harald Fair-Hair, Unn the Deep-Minded, Harald Hard-Rule), the sagas (Tolkien loved the Icelandic sagas and was profoundly influenced by them), and much more.

If you love chess, Norse history, art, or archaeology, you will find Ivory Vikings an engrossing and illuminating read.  Brown is a skillful writer who makes history come alive and a renowned Norse scholar.  Does she prove her point?  While so much is lost in time that Margaret the Adroit cannot be definitely proven to be the creator of the Lewis chessmen, Brown convinced me that the Icelandic theory of origin is the most likely.  

And it doesn't even matter, the information provided is so well researched and documented that regardless of which theory of origin is accurate, the historical journey is a pleasure.

Read in June.  Blog post scheduled for Aug. 17, 2015.

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press

Nonfiction/History.  Sept. 1, 2015.  Print version:  288 pages.


  1. I love archeology, and fiction and/or history set in Iceland and also tv shows about Vikings, so this doesn't intimidate me the way I thought it would at first glance. I don't read much historical books anymore & I don't play chess but my son does and he is a big history buff, so I will certainly be pointing him towards this book-- then I can borrow it and skim through it too :)
    Thanks for a very different choice featured here.

    1. I love it when an academic can write history with such lively passion. This is not a mystery solved, but a mystery explored...and evidently with delight and enthusiasm. Are the chessmen Icelandic or Norwegian in origin? Brown is convincing in her theory, but doesn't neglect alternate opinions. I really enjoyed it!

  2. While chess itself has never been an interest of mine, I do love history and archaeology. This sounds like a fascinating read, Jenclair.

    1. :) I was only interesting in some the odd aspects concerning chess pieces and the history of chess--playing chess is definitely not my thing! My seven-year-old granddaughter beats me repeatedly at Go Fish, chess requires more brain cells than I could ever muster!

      My interest, like yours, is in the historical and archaeological elements like the fact that India and Persia created some of the earliest versions of chess pieces using elephants and chariots. The facts about what the Lewis chess pieces reveal about their time and culture--that was intriguing. One of the pics above is a berserker biting his shield; it is recorded that they did so in Old Norse sagas, but did they really do it in battle? Is it a metaphor for fury?

  3. "Margaret the Adroit" - I am putting my mind to my Norse name now. It would probably be something like "Vicki the Clumsy", responsible for the non-survival of the chess set. A fascinating-sounding book!

    1. :) I'm thinking mine would include "the lazy" and in fact, I think there was a minor king or local ruler who was called "the lazy."