Whether you are a chess master or oblivious to the queen’s gambit and the Sicilian defense, or how to move a knight, “Ivory Vikings” is a fascinating tale of discovery and mystery.

It tells the story of the Lewis chessmen, 78 pieces carved from walrus tusks in a style that points to the 12th century, found on a sandy beach in the Scottish Hebrides in the early 1800s. Using clues from medieval sagas, modern archaeology, art history and what we know about Viking trade routes and the origins and evolution of chess, Brown examines theories placing the creation of these pieces in Norway, Iceland or the northern island reaches of Scotland.

She also weighs evidence on who might have carved the ivory pieces, “each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild.” And she clearly favors the claim of a talented but obscure woman, Margret the Adroit of Iceland, whose reputed skill in ivory work and her patron’s habit of sending gifts to the king of Norway and other notables are persuasive clues that she crafted the pieces.

These already are the most famous chess pieces in the world, divided between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. They have figured in the modern struggle for Scottish independence; a leader of that movement promises to repatriate the pieces now in England.

Earlier, Max von Sydow used Lewis knights as he played chess against Death in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film “The Seventh Seal,” and pieces also appeared in 1964’s “Becket” and 1968’s “The Lion in Winter.” More recently, Harry played with Lewis chessmen in 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Brown and other researchers have found clues to the pieces’ origins in their styling, the knights astride ponies suggestive of small Icelandic horses, and the rooks, carved not as castles but as warriors, biting their shields in the frenzy of battle. Such “berserks” are common features of Viking art and literature.

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

But it is a fascinating mystery that continues to intrigue. And it provides a charming reminder that these were people way back then, not so cold and distant as history may portray them. They played chess.


Chuck Haga is a former Star Tribune writer who lives in Grand Forks and admits to playing chess poorly.