Heyyyyyyyyyyy guys! ‘Sup? I am here to bless your Sunday with something I like to call a NONFICTION BENEDICTION. Yes, I used a rhyming dictionary. No, I am not ashamed that I own a rhyming dictionary. That would be extremely contrary. Though I could have got one for free at the local library. Omg, this post is going to be legendary. I’m rapidly expanding my vocabulary. (Help me.) SOMEONE ALERT THE CONSTABULARY (Robyn, stop), PELASE GET SOME CHOCOLATE FROM THE CONFECTIONARY–
What is a NONFICTION BENEDICTION, you ask? It is me, the book slinger, chucking a work of – gasp- nonfiction at your lovely head(s). One of my resolutions for 2016 was to read more nonfiction and poetry (specifically, one of each a month), so damn it, that’s what I’ve been doing. January’s nonfiction was Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown.
The Deal: In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects. Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
Robyn says: First things first. Did you read that synopsis? Did you have to google “netsuke”? Yeah, me too. (It’s a Japanese word for a small sculptural object.)
I’ve been researching Vikings for the past five or six years (for a novel I’m too damn lazy/afraid to actually sit down and write but we won’t talk about that now… *cry-laughs into laptop*), so I read a lot about Norse mythology and Scandinavian history. It’s no surprise that as soon as I saw this book on the “recently ordered” list at my local public library, I clicked “reserve title” so fast I might have broken the sound barrier.
This is my favourite kind of nonfiction to read. I love learning about small topics – small compared to, say, the general history of major events or historical periods. I like the microscopic focus, the 150% zoom on a tiny part of history. And I love knowing that there are people existing in the world for whom this topic isn’t small at all, people who have devoted their lives to learning everything there is to know about a subject and who have generously decided to share just a tiny bit of their vast knowledge with the rest of us.
So this book, ostensibly a history of the famous Lewis chessmen (read more about them here and here, was something I was really looking forward to, and it shot to the top of my TBR pile when I picked it up from the library.
Alas. It failed to live up to my high hopes.
My biggest complaint was that this was a messy book that didn’t really meet the goals of the subtitle. I learned a lot about a number of obscure topics–the medieval walrus tusk trade, Iceland’s religious history, the evolution of chess–but not as much about the Lewis chessmen themselves as I’d hoped. The book was disorganized and unfocused, and I have to agree with several other reviews I’ve read in that there was too much speculation and too little evidence to draw any meaningful conclusions. I had expected to hear a good case for one specific Medieval Icelandic carver, Margaret the Adroit, being the chessmen’s creator. Only one chapter discussed Margaret in detail, and the evidence for her being the carver was pretty thin.
And really, who the hell decided not to include any photographs??? Absurd. I was desperate for a visual reference when the author described the intricate details on the famous chess pieces. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to find photos online of specific Lewis chessmen – most of the images are of the prettier ones, like the queens and the Berserker knights. Which made me feel very :/
Verdict: Probably don’t read it… although I guess it was an acceptable introduction, and had some merit in providing a contextual background to the world in which the Lewis chessmen were created. Nonetheless, I’m going to look for some other books about the Lewis chessmen, because the dearth of information in this book has whetted my investigative appetite and challenged my librarian’s soul. The game is afoot!
Best lines: “But ask where the Lewis chessmen come from–or who carved them–and fists start to fly” (p. 13) (Yeah, I know, that’s a pathetic quote. Whatever. It’s nonfiction.)
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 tiny, beautiful statues of medieval queens that somehow survived relatively unscathed for a thousand years. A thousand years!
ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT: When I was standing in front of the Lewis chessmen in the British museum, probably looking like I was admiring the intricate carving, marveling over the unbelievable expressiveness of the little faces, pondering their immeasurable cultural significance, what I was really thinking was, “God, I’d really love to smash this glass and heist the f*ck outta those little babies.” Academic in the streets, barbarian in the sheets.
And now, over to Book Cat.
Ignore his griping, he loves it.
Until next time, shieldmaidens and berserkers! May your days be filled with whatever glorious goat-filled madness is happening here…