War and pieces

I think on the whole I tend to agree with Byron that ''Life's too short for chess.'' Or too busy, anyway. Not that is was Lord Byron who made the remark (what he thought about the game I haven't the slightest notion); no, it was one Henry James Byron, an English playwright, 1834 to 1884. This lesser Byron, it is reported, ''had many friends and was justly popular for geniality and imperturbable good temper.'' Is it possible that there was a connection between his warmth of character and his lack of time for chess? After all, chess is, in essence, a war game. How could it possibly bring out the best in one?

History informs us that an eleventh-century cardinal-bishop of Ostia muttered darkly against the ''pollution'' of this ''sacrilegious game,'' and even imposed a penance on a bishop he caught playing it. Quite right too. King Canute is reputed to have quarrelled so viciously over a game of chess that he had his opponent done in. Is it any wonder that the Bohemian religious reformer, John Huss, when he was in prison, is known to have deplored his own weakness of resolve when he submitted to a game of chess . . . ''whereby he had lost time and run the risk of being subject to violent passions''? Even today one only has to touch lightly on the stirring of temperament at world championship level to realize that the ''royal game'' is still not entirely peaceable in effect or necessarily conducive to amiability of conduct or ease of mind.

I will have to admit, though, that such chess disruptions do seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, it has been, over the centuries, a game enjoyed between people who like each other, an absorbing intellectual challenge, and even, at one period, one of the ''seven knightly accomplishments.'' As early as the twelfth century it had become, according to one authority, Europe's most popular upper class game. So I suppose I'm going to have to come clean and admit that the real reason that I don't much like chess is that I've never yet managed to see more than one move ahead. Nonchalant seven-year-olds trounce me at it, which is not, as a rule, good for one's carefully fostered self-respect. . . .

However, there is one aspect of chess that can be a delight even to such as me and Byron (H. J.) and, who knows, even perhaps John Huss: and that is the aesthetic and imaginative appeal of chess pieces. The little abstract sculptures used nowadays are in fact one of the least inspired conventions of chess design. Pieces have, down the centuries, been transformed into a vast variety of themes and variations. They have taken on the dress and manners of Indian armies, Chinese courts, the circles of Louis XIV and Henry VIII; they have represented angels and devils, Swiss bears, and by an appropriate reflex action have even been fashioned after the characters in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. (When Alice stepped through the looking glass in a later volume she found herself enacting an absurd charade with animated chess pieces, and was eventually herself turned from being a pawn into a queen.)

Not all chess pieces have been works of art. Improvisation has reigned in some places. Certain desert Arabs just play it on the sand with pebbles. In Sumatra it is a custom to make fresh pieces for each game out of bamboo or the midrib of a palm leaf. In the trenches of the Great War cartridges were used. And indeed some of the earliest chess pieces to have survived are crude and primitive. Some are roughly made abstract conventions. Others look like tiny and weird surrealist sculptures, proto Max Ernsts.

But more than one expert on the subject maintains that a particular group of very early pieces constitutes the ''outstanding ancient chessmen of the world.'' These are the twelfth-century Lewis Chessmen. There are seventy-eight of them, all carved out of walrus ivory, and all thought to have originated in Scandinavia. Sixty-seven of them belong to the British Museum, and eleven to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. Six of the latter are in the photograph shown here.

The entire group was discovered in 1831 on the deserted coastline of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, according to one contemporary newspaper, ''by a peasant of the place, whilst digging in a sandbank.'' Other descriptions of the find, however, involved the tides or even a cow. Nobody really knows.

The Lewis pawns are abstract, but all the other pieces are representational - kings, queens, bishops, knights and ''warders'' (later to become known as rooks or castles). The warders are foot soldiers, and in the Lewis sets they are among the most delightful figures. Some of them glare, biting the tops of their shields with rows of huge teeth. I fear they say nothing for the peaceful intentions of the game at this early date. They have been likened to ''berserks, '' those frenzied warriors of Norse folklore who couldn't look at a cow pasture without seeing it as a battlefield, and who, in battle, howled and foamed and generally carried on with exaggerated bellicosity.

To us these wonderful little sculptures seem to contain strong elements of humour. The queens look either aghast or morosely burdened by the cares of state. The kings are solid figures of judicial, staring, solemnity. The knights (some of them) ride horses which are more like children's ponies than heroic, swift stallions. The bishops press their croziers pensively against their cheeks as though considering the consequences of their last move.

The tallest of the Lewis chess pieces (and no two are alike) is only four and an eighth inches high. Nevertheless they very impressively illustrate Hanns Swarzenski's contention that in the Romanesque period ''the monumental quality of the art . . . is in no sense determined by size.''

Michael Taylor, in an excellent monograph on the Lewis Chessmen, points out how robust they are, how ideal for handling, and how their compact, strong forms are without any fragile protrusions. He writes that they are ''imbued with a remarkable presence'' and praises their ''quality, vigour and humour as well as their quantity, for few examples survive at all from the Middle Ages, and the majority lack appreciable quality.''

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