The investigation into the origins of the 92 ivory chessmen discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the early 1800s provides a good avenue for Brown (Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, 2012, etc.) to explore the rich tapestry of Icelandic and Viking history.
Iceland was a primary source of walrus ivory and produced more indigenous literature than any other language save Latin in the 11th and 12th centuries. The author tells of the intriguing “dragon scale,” which rates the historicity of the tales; the more dragons, trolls, ghosts, and walking dead, the less likely the accuracy of the saga. They were categorized as Family Sagas, Sagas of Ancient Times, Kings’ Sagas, and Contemporary Sagas, with the Family and Contemporary scoring low on the dragon scale. Reading the medieval sagas in the original Icelandic, Brown has extra insight into the life of Iceland’s golden age, and she finds frequent references to the culture of chess, royal gifts of chessmen, and actual chess matches. Chess was invented in India, taken to Persia by the mid-500s, and moved with Persian silver into the global trade routes. It was a king’s game of strategy and courtly love, initially with only one king, highly outnumbered. The author shows how different pieces evolved, as the vizier became first a weak queen, and then strong, and rooks become berserks, Odin’s warriors. Dating the delightfully quirky Lewis chessmen around 1200, Brown notes that their Romanesque style continued its popularity in Iceland. She is convincing in her assertion that Bishop Pall of Skalholt commissioned one of his four artisans, Margret the Adroit, to carve them. Photos of the chessmen enhance the narrative.
Well-written and scholarly without being pedantic—an enlightening history of the broad influence the Vikings exerted in a very short period.