Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Nancy Marie Brown
Art, archaeology

This is a frustrating book about the Lewis Chessmen. It has some really good good parts, and it has some really disappointing not-so-good parts.

Brown wants to assert that a woman known as Margaret the Adroit ("the most skilled carver in Iceland", according to an Icelandic family saga) created the Lewis chessmen for the 12th-century bishop Pall Jonsson. To get there, however, she has to make a series of assumptions, many of which are unstated. To detail only the grossest level: if the chessmen came from Iceland, and if they would have been considered a work of unusual skill, and if they were made for Bishop Pall, then it is plausible that Margaret made them. That's a lot of ifs for a person whose entire documented existence consists of a sentence or two. Some of the reasoning is decidedly dodgy, along the lines of what historical person X "would have said" or "would have thought". I can't help but suspect that Brown started with the conclusion, and then worked backward.

(Also: an author who chooses to put as her biographical blurb the facts that she speaks Icelandic and lives in Vermont with four Icelandic horses does nothing to dispel my impression of a deep and perhaps non-dispassionate connection to the subject. I freely admit that this is blatant stereotyping and unjustifiable speculation on my part.)

Then, too, Brown is not a master of factual organization. She has a clever approach--each chapter is named for a chess piece, and she uses that piece to explore the social history and position of both the piece and its real-world counterpart. Unfortunately, in doing this, she is forced away from a chronological approach. That's not necessarily bad, but Brown doesn't pull it off; she darts back and forward in time, with similarly-named actors doing similar things in different chapters, and loses the thread repeatedly.

On the other hand, the Icelandic-origin theory seems (at least according to Ivory Vikings) to have been unfairly pooh-poohed by scholars. The competing origin fables--Norway is the most popular--are also highly speculative. More importantly, Iceland wasn't some provincial backwater, but a wealthy and flourishing (if hard and remote) society. So Brown at least deserves credit for establishing that "plausible" thing.

But where she truly excels is in evoking the lost, strange, brutal, evocative, beautiful Northern world. And it truly was a world--an economic and cultural continuum spanning from Greenland into Russia, not long past the paganism of Thor and Odin, where trading and raiding coexisted for centuries: a place in the medieval European orbit, but fully not of it. There are stories here to conjure with, and names as well: Erlang Skew-Neck, King Magnus III Barelegs, Unn the Deep-Minded, Harold Hard-ruler, Ketil Flat-Nose. There are intrepid venturers in "white gold", walrus ivory. There are feuds and betrayals and ironic humor. In the best parts of Ivory Vikings, Braun dives deep into both the facts and the stories of the North, with particularly good scholarship on the Icelandic sagas.

I don't know that I'd be in a rush to read another non-fiction book by Nancy Marie Brown. On the other hand, if she ever publishes any translations of those sagas, I'm there.


  1. Do you have a sudden interest in small, carved figures or is it just one book led to another? That said, I think the review above works well because it ends on a positive note.

    1. Thanks. No, there's nothing but coincidence at work here. I like art, and I like chess, and I've seen the Lewis Chessmen; that's all.