Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen by Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World's Most Famous Chessmen by Nancy Marie Brown

Do you remember the Wizard’s Chess game where Ron deftly maneuvered Hermione and Harry through the board? The pieces on that board played exactly as every other chess set out there, with one great distinction: they destroy their opponents.  Not only did the pieces “look” unlike others many had seen, they actually modeled the set after the Lewis Chessmen,  a set of ivory Norse netsuke, discovered on the Isle of Lewis, an outer Hebrides island.  Unique and evocative, the history of these little figures are presented in today’s review of Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown.

Book Review:

For years I’ve been fascinated with mythology and history: not simply the better known Greek and Roman, or even the lore from the Brothers Grimm, but the lesser known folk tales, beliefs and history of other cultures.  Often the ‘discovering’ of this information is quite a dry read: more scholarly in nature, with frequent references that assume (or require) a broad base of historic knowledge to ‘place’ an object in time.  While this often carries the onus of coursework you ‘have’ to complete, rather than wish to investigate, the time spent is always beneficial.  But, to find complex history where the author has placed items into context of time, culture and lore opens a well of richness that spurns imagination and helps to vividly imprint that information.

In Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown delves into the rich history of the years where the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, courageously (and without advantage of modern technology) establishing presence on areas as diverse as Greenland and Scotland, England and Norway, Ireland and Iceland and even into modern-day Scandinavia.  While myth and discoveries intertwine, there is also the story of the artist, the creator of the very wondrous pieces, a woman (yes – I too was surprised) Margaret the Adroit.

Woven through all of the information and history, including the construct of the pieces, the background and history to each piece on the board and information on the discovery of the pieces, who holds the best argument for provenance, and even using archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) to illustrate the story.  The history and legend of Iceland, life and beliefs are also highlights, with information coming fast and furiously, well-documented and placed to present a solid history for the pieces.

I couldn’t put this down, and I have a list as long as I am tall to ‘look for’ later: most importantly, I wanted to touch the pieces, stroke them. There is a certain ‘life’ to ivory (for those who haven’t felt an old carving or piano key) that has a warmth…somewhere along the way I had read that ancient people preferred items carved from bone or ivory, believing the spirit of the animal helped to infuse a life and warmth, if not special powers.  While the use of the visages from the set may forever be encapsulated by the Wizard’s chess games in the Harry Potter books, the set, on display at the British Museum, can spur imagination and questions evermore.  Brown has answered some of those questions, and given readers more to investigate along the way.

Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen by Nancy Marie Brown

Title: Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World's Most Famous Chessmen
Author: Nancy Marie Brown
Genre: Non Fiction
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Trade
ISBN: 1137279370
Published on: September 1st 2015
Pages: 256
Rated: four-stars
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In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.


About Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of one young adult novel and five general interest books: The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), Song of the Vikings (2012), The Abacus and the Cross (2010), The Far Traveler (2007), Mendel in the Kitchen (2004), and A Good Horse Has No Color (2001).

She writes about Iceland and Vikings, science and sagas. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and modern archaeology, myths and facts. They ask, What have we overlooked? What have we forgotten? Whose history must not be lost?

For 20 years, Nancy worked as a science writer and editor at Penn State University. She now lives in northern Vermont, where she keeps four Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog, and spends part of each summer in Iceland, offering history and horseback tours in collaboration with America2Iceland.

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