Sunday, September 6, 2015

Nancy Marie Brown's "Ivory Vikings"

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of six general interest books and one young adult novel: Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them (September 2015), The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (the novel; June 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 applied the “Page 99 Test” to Ivory Vikings and reported the following:
I think of Ivory Vikings as a biography of the Lewis chessmen, the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks. As their curator at the British Museum once said, “Few objects compete with the Lewis chessmen in terms of their popular appeal.”

Yet we know so little about them. Who carved them? Where? When? How did they arrive on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland, where they were discovered in 1831? No one knows for sure.

Instead of facts about these chessmen, we have clues. Some come from medieval sagas. Others from modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. The story of the Lewis chessmen encompasses the whole history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, from 793 to 1066, when the sea road connected places we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the Orkney Islands and Greenland, the Hebrides and Newfoundland. Their story questions the economics behind the Viking voyages to the west, explores the Viking impact on Scotland, and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for almost five hundred years, until the Scottish king finally reclaimed his islands in 1266. It reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows a talented artist of the twelfth century, Margret the Adroit, who may have made the chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall of Iceland.

Ivory Vikings is organized around the five face pieces: rooks (who in these sets are berserk warriors), bishops, queens, kings, and knights. Flipping to page 99, I find myself in the chapter about the bishops—both chess bishops, of which the Lewis chessmen are the earliest extant examples, and real Scandinavian bishops, including Pall. The page explores several key themes—the luxury trade in walrus ivory; the sea road between Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland; Bishop Pall’s wealth and status. But mostly it points out the unreliability of much of our information about this period of history. It ends, as so much of my research did, with more questions. As such, it represents the entire book: Ivory Vikings passes the Page 99 test.
Visit Nancy Marie Brown's website.

--Marshal Zeringue