Monday, November 21, 2011
61. Lewis Chessmen (Norway?, AD 1150-1200)
MacGregor now jumps across the world to the Scottish Hebrides islands, where a famous chess set (you can buy a replica from the British Museum gift shop...or watch the life-size version kick butt on Harry Potter Part One), presumably created in Norway, turned up. He’s making another point about trade and the migration of cultures: here’s a board game, invented in India, the rules set down in Persia, built and traded and played way over on the other side of the world. Admittedly, it’s a great game, and wherever human beings engage in war they understand and get excited about chess. MacGregor plays some footage of Bobby Fisher, from the ‘60s, talking about how odd it is that the struggle between the US and Russia, the entire cold war, came to hinge on one game of chess.
One of the things that’s fun to follow is how chess pieces change from region to region and culture to culture—in India, the knights rode war elephants (where ours ride horses); in Persia, instead of a queen the king puts his vizier out in front of him (the queen, presumably, is off the board in his harem somewhere). Where modern chess sets have rooks, this Norwegian/Hebredian one has berserkers, the bear-hair-shirt wearing lunatics of Norse battlefields, driven mad by the furor teutonicus and their quest to die a death that will get them a quick Valkyrie-lift to Valhalla.