Harry Potter and the Ivory Vikings

There was once an artist. Her name was Margret the Adroit, and she was one of the finest artists of her time. Her story—and her work—is documented in a 12th century Icelandic saga entitled The Saga of Bishop Pall. Unlike many sagas, this particular story was not written by a scribe looking back across decades or even centuries. It was written by the bishop’s son, Loft, who spoke of his and his father’s personal knowledge of Margret. Why does it matter? Because Margret possibly created of some of the most beloved carvings in the world.

If you remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Ron is teaching Harry how to play Wizard’s Chess, you will remember the ivory and crimson chess pieces they used (most likely it is the irritated queen who gets up from her throne and uses it to smash her opposing knight that you remember), but those pieces are replicas of the original Lewis Chessmen (pieces) found buried on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1831. Capturing the imaginations of avid HP fans everywhere, that scene launched the inscrutable and controversial carvings to worldwide fame. Often today, instead of being called by their rightful name, they are simply known as the Harry Potter Chessmen (pieces).

But the origins of the chess pieces are unclear. What we know for certain is that a total of 93 carvings were unearthed on that coastline. The hoard, as it is sometimes called, appears to be the remains of four different chess sets, as well as a handful of other small decorative pieces. They were quickly absorbed into private collections but eventually made their way into the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland. The pieces have not been carbon dated, as experts prefer not to slice away even the smallest shaving of ivory to be used in testing. But in considering the style of the carvings, the hats the bishops wear, the horses and the trappings of the knights, and the shield-biting berserkers that stand in for rooks, it is thought that the pieces were carved at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, meaning that after they mysteriously landed on that beach, the Lewis Chessmen (pieces) waited for 600 years before being unearthed again.

Experts in both archeology and art agree that the craftsmanship of these small sculptures is impeccable. Carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth, the faces are unique with dour frowns, humor, or boredom. The decorative scrollwork of vines and dragons found on the thrones of the kings and queens is intricate. But the artist or artists are unknown. Indeed, even the legends of their finding—which happened in much more recent history—number no less than nine. For being such solid and enduring little icons, their past is as ephemeral as the Atlantic mists that shrouded them over the centuries.

Personally, I had not given much thought to the chess pieces used by Ron and Harry, and it wasn’t until I was researching the Viking raids of Britain that they were brought again to mind. In my research I ran across the book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. True, it’s not a title that rolls off the tongue, but the story itself is fascinating.

Countering the current theory, that the game pieces were carved in Norway by multiple artists, Brown supports the interpretation of Frederic Madden of the British Museum. In 1832, Madden wrote that the depiction of the shield-biting rooks uniquely reflected Odin’s berserkers, who were
characterized in early Icelandic sagas proving they had been carved in the tradition of an Icelandic artist. Taking up this thread, Brown weaves together such disparate aspects as Viking history and trade routes, the evolution of the church, women in religion and battle, and natural history. She traces Bishop Pall and his penchant for lavish arts and illustrious friends. She
examines the nationalistic fervor between countries vying to claim the Lewis Chessmen (pieces) as their own. And she describes in detail the intricacies of the rooks, knights, kings and queens and how their design reflects other known archeological finds. Her enchantment with the droll little game pieces brings them to life and all the while she is leading us to the woman who she
believes made them. In its first English translation to be published, Brown quotes from the saga:

…Bishop Pall sent many gifts to his friends abroad, both gyrfalcons and other treasures. He sent Archbishop Thorir a bishop’s crozier of walrus ivory, carved so skillfully that no one in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before; it was made by Margret the Adroit, who at that time was the most
skilled carver in all of Iceland….

Because key locations have long since been developed and built upon, excavations of Margret’s workshop and other pertinent sites cannot be conducted. And because the chess pieces were not specifically referred to in the saga, the origin of the Lewis Chessmen (pieces) will remain a mystery without resolution. Perhaps it is only fitting, after these many years, that they be left to their veil of secrets. But what we can take away from Brown’s research is that there truly was a woman named Margret the Adroit, and she was hailed as the finest artisan of her day.