If two things are having a moment right now, it's chess and Vikings. So it seems opportune to revisit Nancy Marie Brown's wonderful Ivory Vikings - The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, published by St. Martin's Press of New York in 2015.

Since its celebrated arrival, NMB has written The Real Valkyrie - The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women about female Viking warriors and Looking for the Hidden Folk about elves in Iceland, while spending her summers there and her winters surrounded by four Icelandic horses at her home in northern Vermont. 

Opening gambit

Rather than chasing Norse myths, here NMB pins herself down to a real-life story involving actual human beings, unfolding in relatively recent times. 

It involves one of the most valuable historic treasures ever found in Britain, a set of beautifully carved figurines whose age and provenance can only be guesstimated – except that they're probably Norse, from the Viking era or just after. How they got across the wild North Sea has kept historians happily fascinated for generations.

Ivory Vikings is, therefore, a mystery, a history, crime fiction, and a flight of Nordic fancy all in one. In this fast-paced Whodunnit? (spoiler alert!), we don't actually find out the Who?, nor the Where?, nor the When?, nor the Why?, but almost anyone who picks up Ivory Vikings will know that before they dive in. 

This is not the only book about the Lewis chessmen – the reliably thorough author lists all other points of reference, including reports, papers, and articles – but it is one that puts many different strands into context and takes a brave and credible stab at the Who?

This is alluded to in the book's subtitle, The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Almost airbrushed out of history, only briefly mentioned in passing in an Icelandic saga that has never been translated into English, Margret the Adroit is the medieval craftsperson whom the writer presents as the most likely creator of the objects in question. 

The Why? will almost certainly remain a secret forever.

A rare find

The tale starts "in the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach" and introduces the 92 pieces of a (probably) Nordic game board exposed by the rushing sea waters lapping the sandbank of a Uig beach on the west coast of Skye. 

Seventy-eight of them are the chessmen in question; each face individual, stoic kings on carved thrones, aghast queens, moon-faced bishops, and, most telling of all, shield-biting rooks.

The location – the one generally agreed upon, that is, although there is a case for nearby nunnery ruins, the enigmatic House of the Black Women, being the findspot – is apt and allows this adept storyteller to bring key Norse elements to the table. 

Surrounded by Nordic place names – Uig itself comes from vik, meaning "bay" and etymologically linked to "Viking" – this was a haven of safe anchorages, not least for the many sailing over the rough waters from Iceland or Norway when they were all one kingdom, Northern Scotland included, until 1266.

Iceland or Norway. That is what the Where? boils down to. Were these figures created in Iceland, closer to the Greenland walrus ivory from which they were carved? Or Trondheim, the religious center of medieval Norway, with its cathedral doorway sporting similar carved detail? 

You can also make a case, as the writer dutifully attempts, for them to have been fashioned in Britain, where these pieces are now kept, 11 in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 82 in the British Museum in London.

How they got there is another twist in the tale, for their discovery may have involved the sea, those enigmatic black women, a shipwreck, a farmer obeying his wife, or a cow obeying the call of nature. 

From Uig to Edinburgh to Uigg

What we do know is that they were given to an Edinburgh watchmaker for safekeeping, which is how they were put up for auction and nabbed by the British Museum for GBP 80 in 1831.

In between, said jeweler T.A. Forrest also sold an initial ten, then one another, to a fellow Dunediner, Charles Kilpatrick Sharpe, which is why 11 can today be seen in Scotland's capital.

We also know that there are many pieces missing. If we assume that they should make up four complete chess sets, then they lack a knight, four rooks, and 44 pawns. That is, if we're talking about the regular game that has rediscovered a new popularity thanks to its adoption as a pandemic pastime, coupled with a hit TV series. 

But there was another chess variety doing the rounds among the aristocracy of medieval Scandinavia, which we know from the double-sided boards found in digs. This other game of strategy only involves one king, with one side attacking, the other defending.

And, as if the Hebridean waters weren't murky enough, there are the Highland Clearances that took place just when the auctioneer was raising his gavel for the British Museum to purchase them in 1831. Tenant farmers across these remote parts were evicted from their land, many emigrating to Canada. 

Uig emigrés founded Uigg on Prince Edward Island, for example. Did anybody take a couple of chess pieces with them, a beautiful souvenir of the home they'd never see again, elegant and easy to fit into the pocket of a tweed jacket?

Heroes and villains

Along with potential villains, NMB portrays a number of heroes, most notably the aforementioned Margret, a skilled ivory carver, probably responsible for the crozier belonging to Bishop Pall of Skalholt. 

Here we come to the crux of the matter, for this former religious center east of Reykjavík is where the author leads the reader to where she thinks the workshop would have been. 

Awash with walrus ivory, Arctic gold, as the writer memorably puts it, Iceland was also in thrall to the game of chess, as personified by a more modern-day hero, Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson. 

This local celebrity, who staged the famous match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972, has gatecrashed seminars and written to the two venerable institutions currently holding the Lewis chessmen, only to be frowned upon and, worse, ignored.

NMB follows Thorarinsson's lead and heads to Skalholt, where Bishop Pall, illegitimate nephew of Thorlak, a key figure in the Christianisation of Iceland, commissioned many forms of art. He also spent many years in the Orkneys, a reliable supplier of grain for much-needed ale.

After Pall's death, Margret briefly looked after the church there, but the key moment, the smoking gun, as it were, was either when Pall's son Loft traveled around northern Scotland around 1208-1210, or Gudmund the Good, bishop-elect of Holar, in 1202.

The writer even imagines the very occasion the chess pieces were delivered to the King of the Isles, perhaps to pay off landing tax for finding safe harbor, perhaps even as ransom… 

Each time she posits, she backs up her argument with fact and observation, watching the behavior of walruses or studying the small horses on the Bayeux Tapestry.

As well as a Viking history, conquering kings, wars of succession, and social interaction, this is the story of chess, from its earliest beginnings in India to its travels across Persia, the Middle East, and then Europe. We learn that the rook comes from the Arab word for chariot, rukh, and that the queen played a minor role until players got bored with never-ending chess sessions.

Strategically, the writer takes us around the board, starting with those shield-biting rooks, which allows her to delve into the Vikings' military past, then, through the bishops, its ecclesiastical one, and so on. 

Knights would have been an issue as they were unknown in Scandinavia at the time. Horses were "taxis to the battlefield" rather than deployed in combat, so we learn about breeding, the development of thoroughbreds, and why the stirrups of Norman soldiers used to trail along the ground. 

It's all gorgeous detail, laid out in an analytical yet entertaining fashion, chivvied along with gentle humor, and never without several layers of context. The writer obviously revels in the subject matter, and so, too, does the reader. 

It's crying out to be made into a feature film – perhaps with Tom Hanks as the recently bereaved Frederic Madden of the British Museum, another of the book's heroes? – but before then, track down a copy and let Nancy Marie Brown play with your imagination.

Ivory Vikings - The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, published by St. Martin's Press, New York, 2015, can be purchased on Amazon, here.

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