Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Lewis Chessmen and the Icelandic Horse

The Knight is the last piece I place on the imaginary chessboard in Ivory Vikings, my biography of the Lewis chessmen--though it could have been the first.

When the Lewis chessmen came to the Cloisters Museum in New York for the "Game of Kings" exhibition in 2011, curator Barbara Drake Boehm wrote a blog post comparing the knights' horses to Icelandic horses. (Read it here.)

That blog post was one of the things that initially caught my interest and made me want to learn about the Lewis chessmen. I own Icelandic horses and have written a book about them, A Good Horse Has No Color. I'm also active in the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress (, through which I know the people Barbara spoke to and who took the photos of Icelandic horses that she used on her blog.

"Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen," Barbara wrote. "They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking era and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year [870]. For the last thousand years--that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved--there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental."

Barbara and Heleen are right. The chessmen's horses do resemble Icelandics. Here is a photo of my husband on one of our own Icelandic horses, looking very much like a Lewis knight.

But the similarity to Icelandic horses is not proof that the chessmen were carved in Iceland. Most horses in Northern Europe at that time were just as small--as we can see by comparing a Lewis knight with other 11th and 12th century images of people on horseback. In each case, the rider's feet dangle down, way down, below the horse's belly.

This horse from the Hunterian Psalter, an English manuscript dated before 1170 and now in the collection of Glasgow University, seems to me to be a perfect match for a Lewis knight's horse. (For more images from this beautiful manuscript, see

But horses of similar size can be found in art from Norway (the Baldisholl Tapestry), France (the Bayeux Tapestry), Iceland (the Valthjolfsstadur Door), and many other places.

That the chessmen's mounts look like "stocky, docile ponies," according to other experts, is proof that their carver had a sense of humor. But this, too, is a misunderstanding, I think. "Stocky" and "docile" are not genetically linked--as anyone knows who's ridden an Icelandic horse. These are strong, powerful animals, capable of carrying a large man all day over difficult terrain. (If you would like to try it, join me next summer on a tour in Iceland: See for the riding tours and riding-optional tours I lead.)

Plus, the chessmen's stockiness is functional. A chess knight must be easy to grasp, well-weighted and stable, with few protruberances to snap off when the piece is dropped, thrown, or the board overturned in a pique (which happens with some frequency in medieval narratives). Artistic license also applies: If the horses' bodies are disproportionately small compared to their heads, so too are the tiny feet of the knights. A chess-carver working in walrus ivory, as well, must make a rectangular form (the horse) from an oval-shaped material (the section of tusk) to fit a square space (on the chessboard).

The carver's sense of humor does peek through, however, in the horses' expressions. There's a touch of whimsy to them, as they peer from beneath their long, shaggy forelocks. Some even seem to be looking askance, as if to say, What are we in for now? Their manes, on the other hand, are neatly roached or braided. Their tack is quite exact. The arch in their necks and lack of tension on their reins show they are well trained; the prick of their ears show they are alert. This artist was well-acquainted with horses and their moods.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak at these events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, Ludlow, VT at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by The Book Nook. See

October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m. See

October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT at noon. See

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What is the Lewis Chess Queen Thinking? (Reprise)

As I was writing Ivory Vikings, my new book about the Lewis chessmen, I commented on this blog (here) that "One reason they are so popular is the expressiveness of their faces--and how hard those expressions are to interpret. The queens, particularly, mesmerize me. All have one hand pressed to their cheeks."

I pointed you, my readers, to the 360-degree interactive video from the British Museum in which you can turn the chess queen all the way around as if holding her in your hand. (See it again here)

The caption calls her expression sad or gloomy. When I used a photograph of a different one of the eight Lewis queens as an illustration in my earlier book, Song of the Vikings, I called her expression "aghast."

So I asked you to tell me, "What is the queen thinking?" Your answers were very creative--and some of them were very helpful--but they were also widely varied.

You described her as concerned, surprised, taken aback, wretched, perplexed, pensive—or perhaps suffering a toothache. "Do I really have fifteen kids who fight all the time?" said one of you; another described her state-of-mind as "weary of war and fools."

Icelandic author Fridrik Erlingsson responded most fully: "I think the expression on the Queen's face is an intimidating one; an expression of cold calculation, focus and determination: She is planning the next move!"

As I conclude in Ivory Vikings, no one agrees on what emotion the artist or artists intended to present. Here's what I found out when researching the gesture:

Actors in classical Roman theater, I learned, held a hand to the cheek to express grief, and Anglo-Saxon artists picked up on this gesture. In eleventh-century manuscripts from Canterbury, Adam and Eve cast out from Eden, a psalmist whose "spirit has failed," and a female personification of Unrighteousness all lament their fates with their hands on their cheeks. Yet there's a subtle difference between these images and the Lewis queens: In the Canterbury manuscripts, the hands are cupped and the fingers spread almost like claws. They hide the eye, sometimes even the nose and mouth. And rather than glaring at the observer, as the Lewis queens do, these grievers are hunched and cowed.

A twelfth-century life of Saint Alexis, made for the hermitess Christina of Markyate, depicts the saint's virgin bride standing stoically at the door, a hand to her cheek, as Alexis abandons her to become a holy beggar. Following Christian law, she would not be able to remarry while he lived. (See  it here) Still, her grief is hardly commensurate with that of the Virgin Mary who, in some twelfth-century Crucifixion scenes, likewise holds her hand to her cheek.

Comparing these contemporaneous images to the Lewis queens, James Robinson in a 2004 British Museum booklet explained that "There is an element of despair or grieving, but the emotional focus is really on contemplation." According to Neil Stratford in an earlier museum publication, "the queens adopt the traditional pose of composure and patience."

In a children’s book by British Museum curator Irving Finkel, they are "careworn and anxious," "disapproving," "imperious," and "not amused." Author Rosemary Sutcliff, in her children's book Chess-Dream in a Garden, imagines the queen feeling hurt and angry, having been accused, unfairly, of smiling "too sweetly" on one of the knights. A columnist for The Guardian found them "looking so wise (or so bored)." A New York Times reporter compared the gesture to Homer Simpson's "D'oh!"

Often your interpretation depends on which of the eight queens you look at--and how you turn her to the light. To poet Robert Peake, "She is worry cut from walrus tusk / … One hand on her face in disbelief." (Read more at To singer Dougie MacLean, "She holds her weary head."

Francesca Simon visited the British Museum's collection to publicize her book, The Sleeping Army, in which the Lewis chessmen wake to take a little girl on an adventure. In a 2011 video (see it on YouTube here), she said, "What I wasn't expecting was that they would seem so alive. ... The more you look at them the more you see, like the fact that the queen is always looking a little bit to the side. It's very difficult to get her to look at you. ... She's probably the most beautiful of all the pieces. She's got this wonderful expressive face and these kind of odd staring eyes, and to me what they always looked like was not only unhappy but almost shell-shocked, as if something pretty terrible has happened."

I think I'll stick with "aghast."

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or meet me at these upcoming events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, 88 Main Street,  Ludlow, VT, at 7 pm. Sponsored by The Book Nook, Ludlow, VT.

October 15, 2015: Kroch Library 2B48, home of the Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at 4:30 pm. See Book Talk: Ivory Vikings for more details.

October 17, 2015: the Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center Grange Hall, Winchester Center, CT, at noon. See for more details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Story of the Lewis Chessmen

One book leads to the next. It's a truism among writers, and particularly apt for explaining how my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, published by St Martin's press in September, came to be.

Ivory Vikings is a biography of the Lewis chessmen, the famous walrus-ivory chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis in far western Scotland in 1831. While gathering illustrations for my previous book about medieval Iceland, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I was surprised to learn that these chessmen, long considered icons of the Viking Age, had actually been carved over a hundred years later, between 1150 and 1250, during the lifetime of Snorri Sturluson.

According to one theory I read, they may even have been carved by a woman in Iceland whom Snorri knew, Margaret the Adroit, who worked for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Snorri's foster brother.

In Song of the Vikings, I argued that Snorri was responsible for most of what we know about Norse mythology. I argued that he invented the genre of "saga," which his countrymen in the 13th and 14th centuries developed into the masterpieces of world literature they are now universally acknowledged to be. I included an image of one of the Lewis queens in that book, referring to the theory of their Icelandic origin in a caption. But there was no room in Song of the Vikings to develop the idea that medieval Icelanders may also have been exceptional visual artists as well as world-class writers.

That idea nagged at the back of my mind. I wondered why I'd never heard anything like it before. Was the author of this Iceland theory of the Lewis chessmen a crackpot? I did some basic research and learned that the theory was, in fact, a very old one: Frederic Madden of the British Museum, who was the first person to write about the Lewis chessmen, the year after their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, concluded that they had been made in Iceland in the 12th century.

And yet, when Icelandic civil engineer and chess aficionado Gudmundur Thorarinsson reintroduced the Iceland theory, he was ridiculed. Alexander Woolf, a professor of medieval studies from the University of St Andrews, was particularly dismissive. Responding to a reporter from the New York Times, he said that Iceland was too poor and backward a place to produce such stunning works of art. "A hell of a lot of walrus ivory went into making those chessmen, and Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers," he said, adding, "You don't get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa."

(Woolf has since retracted his statement. The reporter had caught him off guard. Since meeting Gudmundur and visiting Skalholt in Iceland, Woolf has become a supporter of the Iceland theory.)

Woolf’s comment stung me. Having just spent several years researching and writing about the Iceland of that period, I knew he was wrong. Iceland in the late 12th and early 13th century was at the peak of its Golden Age: rich, independent, and in a frenzy of artistic creation.

Margret the Adroit by Svala Soleyg
The man Gudmundur believed had commissioned the Lewis chessmen, Bishop Pall of Skalholt, was not only the foster brother of Snorri Sturluson, he was the great-grandson of King Magnus Bare-Legs of Norway (1093-1103), who conquered northern Scotland and the islands and took his nickname from his fondness for wearing kilts. Magnus's line ruled the Norwegian empire without interruption from 1103 to 1264, when northern Scotland and the islands were ceded to the Scottish crown. During that century and a half, King Magnus's Icelandic kinsmen routinely visited Norway, where they were recognized as royalty. Many were knighted; Snorri Sturluson became the first Icelandic baron of Norway; his son-in-law became the first Icelandic earl of Norway.

Bishop Pall himself was a well-educated, well-traveled nobleman--hardly a "scrappy farmer." As a youth he became a retainer of Earl Harald, who ruled the Orkney islands and Caithness in northern Scotland. Later, Pall traveled to England to attend school at a cathedral university, probably Lincoln, where his uncle and predecessor at the see of Skalholt, Bishop Thorlak, had studied. Pall returned to Iceland and became a wealthy chieftain, marrying and having several children. He was famous for the breadth of his book-learning and his excellent Latin, the extravagance of his banquets, the beauty of his singing voice, and his love of fine things. He was known to have in his employ several artists, including Margaret the Adroit, known as the best ivory carver in Iceland.

The Lewis chessmen are the most famous chess pieces in the world. They are considered masterpieces of Romanesque art, among the most important archaeological finds from Scotland and the most popular exhibits at the British Museum. If there was a chance they could indeed have been made by a woman in Iceland around the year 1200, that was a story I needed to tell.

(This story is based on an interview with the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, published on September 4; an English version was published on on September 13.)

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Iceland Theory of the Lewis Chessmen

Where were the famous Lewis chessmen carved? Art historians usually assume, in the absence of other evidence, that an object was made close to where it was found. But while these chessmen found on Lewis are universally known as "the Lewis chessmen," few experts today have championed the Isle of Lewis as the home of an ivory carver of such sophistication. They consider medieval Lewis too "marginal" and "out of the way" to produce great art.

As I explain in my book Ivory Vikings, the same prejudice applies to medieval Iceland.

Frederic Madden of the British Museum published the first scholarly account of the chessmen in 1832. At the end of this nearly 100-page treatise he confidently concludes that they were made in Iceland.

This theory was accepted until 1874, when the Norwegian chess historian Antonius Van der Linde belittled Madden's suggestion that Iceland could produce anything approaching the sophistication of the Lewis chessmen. Icelanders, he scoffed, were too backward to even play chess.

Since then, although chess historians like Willard Fiske and H.J.R. Murray thought the chessmen came from Iceland, art historians have favored the Norway (or Trondheim) theory. This theory was strengthened between 1965 and 1999 by a series of studies of Romanesque sculpture by Norwegian art historians and archaeologists. But mostly the Norway theory has been strengthened by repetition—what one scholar has called "the snowball effect."

In 2010 David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland and his colleagues wrote that "the limited evidence favors Trondheim." Their main argument was that "most scholars would at present expect to locate the manufacture of such pieces in a town or large trading center. The craftsmen who made such prestigious items were, perhaps, more likely to thrive in such a setting."

When civil engineer and chess aficionado Gudmundur Thorarinsson posted his discussion of the Iceland theory on the internet, he was attacked. Said one critic, "The content is literally filled with faults and oversights. … This whole argument seems far-fetched."

Yet as I traced Gudmundur's path through libraries, cathedrals, and museums, from Reykjavik to Skalholt, from Edinburgh to Trondheim, Lund, and Lewis, I found very few "faults and oversights." Fewer, in fact, than I found exploring the Norwegian theory, which seems mostly to be based on that grand medieval concept of authority.

Building on Madden and Murray, Gudmundur added the insights of scholars who wrote in Icelandic and whose voices had not entered the international debate on the origins of the Lewis chessmen, such as art historian Bera Nordal, archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn and his colleagues, and historians Helgi Gudmundsson and Helgi Thorlaksson.

Before Gudmundur wrote his paper, no one discussing the Lewis chessmen connected them with the extraordinarily rich 12th-century bishopric at Skalholt, its wooden church larger than any in Norway. No one mentioned the art-loving Bishop Pall Jonsson, who surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the most skillful ivory carver in Iceland.

Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall? Unless proof of an ivory workshop is found at Skalholt, we cannot say yes or no. But "the limited evidence," I believe, places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation. Someone else will need to argue the case for Lewis.

(This story is based on an interview with the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, published on September 4.)

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak about the book at these events:

September 19: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont at 7:00 p.m.

September 21: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York at 6:30 p.m.

October 15: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m.

October 17: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT, time to be announced.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Meeting the Lewis Chessmen--In Person

"If you knew what they were valued at ..."

During a research trip to Edinburgh for my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, I had hoped to meet James Robinson, who wrote an excellent guidebook on the Lewis chessmen for the British Museum. Robinson is now a curator at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), where 11 of the chessmen reside. I received no answer to my initial query, so I planned my research trip to Edinburgh without him.

A week before I left for Scotland, I tried again. Robinson immediately responded, apologizing that my email had been buried under a deluge of others while he'd been traveling. He would be away again while I was visiting Edinburgh, so we could not meet, but "I will forward your message to request access to the pieces for you," he said.

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that I might "request access," that is, to see and handle the chessmen outside of their display case. And yet, because of Robinson's generous reading of my letter, that is exactly what happened. My request made its way to curator George Dalgleish, who asked which ones I wanted to see. He passed that information on to curator Jackie Moran, who cheerfully wrote to tell me that "I will get the chessmen off display at 08:00, as long as I can get the gallery lights switched on."

By 08:30 I was set up in Jackie's office at the NMS, with my computer, my notes, my camera, a borrowed magnifying glass, and the four chessmen I had chosen in a padded carrying case on the table in front of me. Jackie spread tissue on the tabletop and handed me a set of bright purple latex gloves, then returned to her own work at the desk behind me, leaving me face to face with these exquisite little 800-year-old works of art: a warder-rook, biting his shield like a Viking berserk; a bishop, raising his hand in blessing; and a king and queen pair.

The most interesting to me was the queen, whom I had thought at first had been broken and repaired. Now I could tell, studying her up close, that the patch had been applied (with four tiny ivory pegs) before the artist had finished her carving, in order to cover over a weak spot in the original walrus tusk. The workmanship was so fine and the materials so poor, compared to the other pieces, that I really had to wonder what was going through the artist's mind to have even tried to make a chess piece out of this defective lump of tusk.

Seated on her richly decorated throne, she has terrible posture. Her spine is hunched, her head juts forward; she looks old and almost all done in. Her hair is braided and looped up under a veil that is clipped in back. She wears a pleated skirt, a short gown, a robe with embroidered or fur-trimmed edges, a jewel at her throat, her wrists ringed with bangles. She is brooding, her jaw clenched. She claps her right hand to her cheek, cradles her elbow with the left.

Such love went into the making of that queen, I thought, marveling over her tiny fingers. Her left thumb curves back like mine does.

I was concentrating so hard on this little queen in my hand, turning her to take photos from all angles, that at one point my camera slipped out of my grasp. Thunk. I heard Jackie gasp. "It was the camera," I mumbled, and kept on with my work.

It wasn't until the next day, as I was having tea with former NMS curator David Caldwell in the museum cafe, that I realized how shocked Jackie must have been to have heard that thunk—and how completely the beauty of these pieces had made me forget everything but the desire to understand them. Said David, “If you knew what they were valued at, you wouldn’t want to pick one up.”

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ivory Vikings Published Today!

Today is the official publication day of Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them.

As a writer I live for such days, when the book that's been my world and work for the past three years finally meets you, the readers.

And the first reviews have reassured me that you're going to love it:

"Absorbing ... bristles with fascinating facts," said The Economist.

"A fascinating tale of discovery and mystery," said the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"This book is a delight," said Booklist: "endlessly fascinating."

The New York Post included it in "This Week's Must-Read Books."

And on it's listed in "Best Books of the Month."

That's in addition to the wonderful blurbs it received from advance readers like Pulitzer-prize winner Geraldine Brooks, who said, "Brown's book is a true cornucopia, bursting with delicious revelations. Whether your passion is chess, art, archaeology, literature, or the uncanny and beautiful landscape of Iceland, Ivory Vikings offers rich and original insights by a writer who is as erudite as she is engaging."

To whet your appetite, here is the opening passage:

In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-two game pieces carved of ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen--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: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shield in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps--simple octagons--and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, like checkers. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets--only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing--about three pounds of ivory treasure.
Who carved them? Where? How did they arrive in that sandbank or, as another account says, that underground cist--on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland? No one knows for sure: History, too, has many pieces missing. To play the game, we fill the empty squares with pieces of our own imagination.
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 claimed 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 an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
The Lewis chessmen are the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. To David Caldwell, former curator at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where eleven of the chessmen now reside, they may also be the most valuable: "It is difficult to translate that worth into money," he and Mark Hall wrote in a museum guidebook in 2010, "and practically impossible to measure their cultural significance and the enjoyment they have given countless museum visitors over the years." Or, as Caldwell phrased it to me over tea one afternoon in the museum's cafeteria: "If you knew what they were valued at, you wouldn't want to pick one up."
Too late for that. I'd already spent an hour handling four of them. Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they'd require, they make a satisfying click.

I hope you'll join me at one of these events introducing Ivory Vikings. As more dates are scheduled, I'll add them to the Events page on my website at

September 9, 2015: Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, VT at 7:00 p.m.

September 11, 2015: Book Launch Party at 7:00 p.m. For an invitation, contact Kim at Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, VT.

September 19, 2015: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT at 7:00 p.m.

September 21, 2015: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York at 6:30 p.m.

October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m.

October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT; time to be announced.

November 1, 2015: Vermont Voices at Stone Church, Chester, VT at 2 p.m., hosted by Misty Valley Books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Did Tolkien Ever Go to Iceland?

No, Tolkien never went to Iceland. Elsewhere on this blog (see "The Tolkien Connection"), I've talked about how much Tolkien was inspired by Iceland and Icelandic literature--and how his love of Iceland inspired me.

Tolkien's trolls are Icelandic trolls. His hobbit holes are like Icelandic turf houses. Bilbo's ride to Rivendell matches, more or less, a ride through the Icelandic landscape. Gandalf's character comes from Icelandic tales of Odin. Hobbits, too, may have Icelandic antecedants. But Tolkien never went to Iceland.

I've always thought that was sad. It was Tolkien who, in a roundabout way, sent me to Iceland the first time, and I've been back about 20 times since. Iceland has inspired five of my seven books.

But a recent conversation on the listserv of the Mythopoeic Society made me think of Tolkien's travel gap in a different way. Wrote David Bratman, a librarian and Tolkien scholar, "Tolkien, and the Inklings in general, tended to consider merely visiting places to be over-rated as a way of getting to know them."

Bratman refers to a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1943, in which he complains about what some people might call progress: "The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. ... At any rate it ought to cut down on travel. There will be nowhere to go. So people will (I opine) go all the faster."

Instead of travelers, Bratman explains, Tolkien and his friends were "bookmen, who learned of places through deep immersion in the literature of a place, and not just in reports by other visitors. Tolkien's thorough knowledge of Icelandic civilization came from his intensive and lifelong reading of Old Norse literature."

For Tolkien, that approach obviously worked. For me--not so much.

For one thing, I write history and historical fiction, not fantasy. What places actually look like matters to me. When I wrote Song of the Vikings, for example, I spent several weeks tromping around in the area Snorri Sturluson ruled in the 13th century. Suddenly I understood why his father, in Sturlunga Saga, got involved in a feud over the ownership of the seemingly inconsequential farm of Deildartunga.

Nowhere in the saga does it explain that Deildartunga owned the highest-volume hotspring in the world. Because of this feud, Snorri was fostered by Jon Loftsson and educated at Oddi, where he learned to write. This hotspring, you could say, led directly to the writing of Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway and The Prose Edda, containing nearly all that we know of Norse mythology, and perhaps even Egil's Saga, which influenced the writing of so many other sagas.

Such on-the-ground research in Iceland and Greenland also helped me write The Far Traveler and my young adult novel based on it, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler. I spent months living where Gudrid lived, walking where Gudrid walked, taking a boat down the fjord Gudrid sailed or a horse into the mountains where Gudrid rode.

True, things have changed since she lived there around the year 1000. I took full advantage of electric lights, geothermal heat, jeeps, power boats, hi-tech hiking clothes, you name it. But some things hadn't changed: the wind on my face, the stinging rain, the way the sun sank behind the mountains, the cries of the birds, the smell of the seaweed or the hay, the spirited horses, how difficult it was to walk through a lumpy, bumpy, frost-heaved pasture without twisting an ankle, the way the tide surged in over the sea flats.

Armchair travel is one of my favorite pastimes. All winter I travel through books--and it's the only way I know to travel back in time. But come summer, my wanderlust isn't so easily contained and you can find me--for at least part of the time--in Iceland. After 20 visits in nearly 30 years, I'm just getting to know the place.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Iceland's Deserts

 "There's a difference between a natural desert and a manmade desert," Magnus said as we crossed an imaginary line in the sand on our way to the hot spring area Landmannalaugar.

I've long loved Iceland for its contrasts. Not just the clash of ice and fire that everyone remarks upon, but the juxtaposition of jewel-green fields and jagged black lava, of fertile horse pastures and sand-blasted wastelands. But after a day spent with Magnús Jóhannsson, the botanist who runs Mudshark Adventure Tours [see] out of Hella, in Iceland's south, I realized my perception of Iceland's beauty was rather romantic--and more than a little bit skewed.

I've known Magnús and his wife, Anna María Ágústsdóttir, since before they earned their Ph.D.s at Penn State some years ago. I've visited them several times in Iceland and heard about their work at Landgræslan ríkisins, Iceland's soil conservation service.

Apparently, I wasn't paying attention.

Twice in the 1990s, while they were still in school, I rode on horseback from a farm near Hella around the volcano Hekla to the hotspring area at Landmannalaugar. Once we had six days of driving rain (read about that trip here: 2/29/12). The second trip I got badly sunburned and rode like Jesse James with a bandanna tied around my nose and mouth to filter out the suffocating dust.

I'd always assumed the deserts of blowing black sand I'd ridden across were inescapable--a constantly fought, constantly to-be-reckoned-with natural hazard of this volcanically active land. They're not. In many places, Magnus pointed out, as we drove a similar route to Landmannalaugar in the Mudshark Land Rover, these deserts are manmade. They are both preventable and capable of being restored to a healthy green.

True, volcanic eruptions do periodically blanket some areas in ash. But the ash doesn't necessarily kill off the vegetation, I learned from reading a scientific paper Anna María recently published in the journal Natural Hazards [get link]. Only if the area is already under stress--from overgrazing, usually--is the ashfall catastrophic. A healthy ecosystem can bounce back.

Our tour began in the town of Hella, where one of Magnús and Anna María's neighbors keeps a garden of apple trees (a curiosity in Iceland). We passed the headquarters of the soil conservation service on a road bordered by tall imported trees. Fields of barley and rapeseed rippled in the wind (quite uncommon in Iceland, where the only reliable crop for generations has been hay). A demonstration forest hugged a small hill.

When we entered the desert I had ridden through in the 1990s, I was surprised to see islands of native birch had established themselves. In other places, the soil conservation service had seeded acres of black sand with Alaskan lupine, a nitrogen-fixing legume, to enrich the soil, and with native lyme grass, to stabilize the dunes.

We passed a waterfall I knew well from my rides, Troll Woman's Leap. I had a picture on my office wall back home of our horse herd resting at that very spot: Black sand spread from the riverbanks in every direction, our many-colored herd looking bright in contrast. Now the place was transformed with grass and flowers.

Then we crossed through a gate in a fence, and the vegetation disappeared. The black sand deserts I'd ridden through reappeared. We'd left the soil conservation area, and entered a section of the highlands where sheep were allowed to graze. We saw a ewe and two lambs here and there. Nothing you could call a "flock," just the rare family of animals. Yet it was enough to suppress regrowth. These were the manmade deserts Magnús had referred to.

At some point (was there a gate? I don't recall) we transitioned smoothly into the natural desert: We had reached the highlands, where snow and cold defeat all but the alpine flowers (blooming in lush profusion in sheltered spots) and the hardy moss, which did its best to soften the jagged lumps of lava.

Like the many tourists we met at Landmannalaugar, we marveled at the vast range of color in the rocks, at the astonishing sulfur vents reeking of rotten egg, at the steam rising from the river, and at the stark beauty of the bleak, lake-filled landscape in Iceland's harsh interior.

When the first settlers came to Iceland in the ninth century, scientists have determined, birch woodlands covered 25% of the island. The settlers cut the trees to make charcoal. They burned the scrubby forests to clear land for planting. They introduced grazing animals--horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs--which kept the forests from regenerating. The winds ate at the edges of the overgrazed fields, and the volcanoes did their part, periodically coating the landscape with ash. Over centuries, the stresses accumulated: cutting, burning, grazing, wind erosion, ash fall...

The story of Iceland's desertification is well told at the soil conservation service's new museum, Safnagardur [website], just east of Hella, where these two photos were taken. The bottom one shows a surprisingly large piece of petrified wood found in Iceland.

The museum tells, too, the new story of re-greening the land. Now Iceland's forested area is a little over 1% of the country--and growing steadily.

Anyone like me who is enthralled by Iceland's beauty, and who wonders why it looks the way it does, should spend an instructive hour at Safnagardur. Better yet, take Magnús's Mudshark Ecosystems tour [see] or, like I did, his Landmannalaugar tour []