Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nancy Brown's "Ivory Vikings": Book Review

Product ImageNancy Marie Brown, who knows the Icelandic and Norse sagas well in the original, is an ideal and enthusiastic chronicler of the modern battle among scholars to prove the Icelandic rather than the Trondheim (Norway) origin of the chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis two centuries ago. Despite the subtitle claiming "the woman who made them," careful scrutiny of her opening remarks closing her preface, and repeated in the "Queens" chapter, reveal many qualifying "ifs" and "she could have" for Margret the Adroit's crafting of the pieces.

She follows a logical set-up. The rooks title a chapter on the composition of the Lewis pieces. The bishops tell of who may have commissioned their making. Queens, of course, bring in Margret's suggested role. The pieces would have been gifts for kings. And, knights have championed their impact since the 1800s. Pawns, too, are appended, as the sources Brown draws upon and integrates.

The Vine version is a galley, so I am not sure if color illustrations will replace the monochrome ones I reviewed. But this should be a handsome book. Brown writes in a lively style, incorporating Gudmundur Thorarinson's recent argument for an Icelandic provenance for the chess pieces, and she documents the debate over the past centuries among medievalists that led to the current one. As a medievalist by training, I liked her evocation of the world of the Church around 1200, and the overlay of Viking and pagan influences that spread across the North Atlantic, along of course with these little ivory archeological treasures. (Amazon US 7-14-15)

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