One of the most famous sets of artefacts surviving from the medieval world, and of medieval Scotland in particular, is the collection popularly known as the ‘Lewis chessmen’. They are also seen as icons of Scandinavian and Romanesque art, made from Greenland walrus ivory, perhaps in the late 12th century and early 13th centuries, by craftspeople from Trondheim, Norway.
93 pieces in total constitute the ‘Lewis hoard’: 82 in the British Museum, 11 in the National Museums Scotland collections. These compromise 78 ‘chess pieces’, with 14 plain tablesmen, plus an ivory buckle.
Caldwell et al. (2009) point out that their deposition on Lewis, rather than simply the casual discard of a passing merchant, might reveal a significant role for the Outer Hebrides in trade and politics in the Middle Ages. Gaming sets were important for recreation on board ships and they might have possessed an enduring afterlife significance linked to martial and intellectual prowess, divination, and fate since the Viking Age. This last idea is explored further by Mark Hall in a recent paper in the European Journal of Archaeology (Hall 2016). They were also parts of important gifts carried by ships and gaming was one of the necessary pastimes for elites, including when travellers had to over-winter because of bad sailing conditions.
Yet the hoard can be understood in a context of Lewis, rather than simply in terms of travel to and from elsewhere. Caldwell et al. (2009) point out that the proposed provenance of the chessmen (supposedly found near the Uig ‘nunnery’) is largely erroneous; the stories about their discovery instead reveal more about early 19th-century responses to sea and landscape through folklore than historical details of the hoard’s discovery. Lewis in the mid-13th century was part of the Kingdom of the Isles, with strong links to the King of Norway, but perhaps controlled by a rival dynasty, the MacSorleys. The perpitatic bishops of Sodor would also visit Lewis.
The chessmen thus come from a time of conflict, competition and mobile elites. Whoever owned them, rather than being ‘lost’ on Lewis by passing merchants, perhaps Lewis was ‘where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed’. Caldwell et al. go further to postulate that gaming pieces might have been among the gifts exchanged between elites alongside weapons, jewellery, slaves, women, hunting dogs and ships. Playing chess is recorded in Orkneyinga Saga as one of the nine key skills of a nobleman.
The pieces were more mutable in function and meaning than the popular epithet ‘chessmen’ might imply. While called ‘chessmen’, the plain pieces might have been used to play hnefatafl as well, perhaps associated with a double-sided board. The bone buckle found with them might have been used to secure a large leather or textile bag to contain the gaming pieces from which different games might be played.
They explore in detail the characteristics of the pieces: they represent different craftsmen, possibly different workshops, perhaps 4 chess sets, meaning 1 knight, 4 warders and 44 pawns are missing. In a forthcoming paper, Caldwell and Hall (who kindly have shared their research with me for the purpose of this blog) argue that the gaming pieces might be heirlooms, circulating within particular families down several generations, famed and prestigious for their uses and their associations with gamers.
The kings’ appearance is particularly important for this discussion. They are all seated on thrones, each holding a sword across his knees, right hand on the grip, left hand grasping the scabbard or blade. All are bearded (bar two) and their hair is in long braids extended down their backs apart from one. They wear open crowns with four trefoils and long mantles. King 78 (see below) is attributed to Set 1 by Caldwell et al (2009), and represents perhaps the earliest, dating to the very end of the 12th century or very early 13th century.
The Life-History of the Lewis Chessmen
Caldwell et al. (2009) and Caldwell and Hall (forthcoming) give a full account of the Lewis hoard’s powerful and varied influence on 20th- and 21st-century popular culture. The gaming pieces have inspired a range of portrayals in literature, TV and film. For example, they note how they were first portrayed in The Seventh Seal (SW 1957), and Le Bossu (Fr 1959) and then English language films Becket (UK 1964), The Lion in Winter (UK 1968). For modern family audiences, they can be seen as indirectly inspiring the gigantic armoured chess pieces depicted in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (US 2001) based on J.K. Rowling’s novel. Earlier than this, The Saga of Noggin the Nog was already directly inspired by the Lewis chessmen (Caldwell et al. 2009: 164).
Caldwell and Hall cite the deployment of the Lewis chess pieces as a metaphor of self-perceived superiority of intelligence of characters in a film context, and an analogy for the plot itself, foreshadowing conflict between characters and the conflicts they have already endured. They are also seen to articulate political instability, fate and mortality, as characters are ‘locked’ into a game: they discuss their appearance in this context in the 2012 film Brave in this regard.
Chess is widely deployed to articulate the underlying structure of contests between forces at play in drama, no more so (albeit without a direct Lewis influence) in the idea that people are all pawns within a ‘game’. Episode 9 of The Prisoner (1967) includes No. 6 being forced to play in a game of chess using ‘live’ pieces. It ends with the chess-player telling the female agent who manipulates No. 2: ‘we’re all pawns m’dear’.
The specific use of heavily personified ‘pieces’, including Lewis chessmen, has become replete in late 20th-century popular culture. Indeed, Lewis chessmen replicas abound today and are a popular gift. The official replica set can be purchased from National Museum of Scotland, made from laser scans of the originals. In addition, Caldwell and Hall emphasise the wider use as icons for beer, music and food. Most recently, monumental sculpture on Lewis has employed the chessmen, thus the chess pieces are sometimes generic allusions to ‘medieval-ness’ and ‘pastness’, sometimes specifically evoking Scottishness, Hebridean-ness and Lewis-ness, connected to time and place in different scales and measures.
The Governor and the King
The appearance of the Lewis chessmen in the internationally renown and long-running post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead represents an important new stage in the cultural biography of these medieval gaming pieces.
In episodes 6 and 7 of Season 4 of The Walking Dead, we find a replica chess set operating in the post-apocalyptic landscape, serving as a link between the old world and the new, between ‘civilization’ in which rules applied and child’s games had a place and the chaos of a world infested by animated cadavers and bands of violent militias. Indeed, it comes into the story of ‘Brian’: the reincarnted Governor after his utter defeat by Rick and his group, having slain his own people and left Woodberry to their fate.
The replica Lewis chesspieces provide a material focus for a narrative of the Governor’s failed redemption as well as the catalyst for his growing relationship with the Chambler family with whom he attempts redemption as a lover and a step-father.
The chess pieces appear when ‘Brian’ has had his hair cut, has befriended the Chambler family and has risked his life to get oxygen cylinders to help the dying David Chambler (father of Lilly and Tara). Sometime later, while her grandfather lies dying in bed in the next room, he teaches Meghan Chamber – Lilly’s girl – how to play chess. He is aware that they are ignorant of the fact that the dead will all rise as ‘biters’ no matter how they pass away. Hence he keeps an eye on the dying grandfather, fearing he will ‘turn’ once he dies.
The Governor introduces the replica Lewis chessmen and Meghan says: ‘it looks hard’. He assures her it is hard for some, but she is smart.
She asks what the pawns are and he tells her they are the ‘soldiers’. ‘Do they die?’, she enquires. ‘Sometimes’ he responds.
But it is his answer to her next question that is crucial to reveal his mentality towards the post-apocalyptic existence he inhabits. Meghan queries: ‘do you lose if they die’. The Governor reveals himself by stating ‘no not necessarily, you can lose a lot of soldiers and still win the game’. Here, by teaching Meghan chess, we foresee his plans for revenge against Rick and his group haven’t gone away, despite his many losses and despite potential failures to come. His determination for revenge outrank any aspirations for a return to a normal social life. Chess embodies his route to redemption and his doom.
In innocence, Meghan reveals his dilemma. She holds up the white king. He responds: ‘that’s the king, he’s the guy you want to capture’.
The king in the official set is King 19. The King in The Walking Dead Season 4 is King 78 (Caldwell et al. 2009). He is the most mournful to my eye, but perhaps also the least comedic and most determined of the Lewis kings. At least to my eye I see why he was chosen as the embodiment of the Governor as medieval king.
The next moment is key: Meghan decides to draw on the white king, giving him a black eyepatch like ‘Brian’; so that the Governor is subsequently playing chess against a personification of himself: a medieval king with one eye. ‘Looks like you’, she says. But is it the Governor of the past, or the ‘Brian’ of the present? Which future will the one-eyed man choose? Will he become the all-seeing Lord Odin or not?
Now the Governor’s games are with himself as he plays chess with Meghan. This is intended as a metaphor for how he is struggling to cultivate a relationship with Meghan, whilst simultaneously chess-playing reveals his scheming to exact vengenace. Fate has already chosen.
Father and Child, Good and Evil
At the start of Episode 7, we meet the chess set again in a new environment: the Chamblers and ‘Brian’ (the Governor) went on the road, seeking a new home and find a new group which offers the Governor a route to exact revenge on Rick.
Lilly is now the Governor’s lover, and his relationship has grown with Meghan, whom he now loves and calls ‘pumpkin’.
Meghan asks why he will never let her win. He responds ‘that wouldn’t be winning’. The Governor retorts that his daddy never let him win, ‘in fact he used to beat me at everything’, revealing the kind of mentality that forged a personality that prepared him for the apocalypse.
Meghan asks whether the Governor’s dad was mean. ‘Sometimes’, he replies. ‘Were you bad?’ Meghan asks. ‘Sometimes’ he answers.
Meghan asks whether she is bad, and the Governor assures her that she is good and that they are all going to be ok. ‘Because we’re all good’, Meghan asks. The Governor doesn’t respond, aware that he is conscious of his own evil past, and his own evil present. Meghan’s final response, having made her move, is intended to be an unintended double entendre. ‘Your turn’ says Meghan, unaware in innocence that the Governor aims to return to his evil.
The Governor’s fate is thus sealed: he is doomed by believing chess holds the key to his future.
Through the Lewis chessmen, we learn of the Governor’s evil past and his brutal childhood in which his father would never let him win. Chess has been with the Governor since before the dead began walking.
Through the chesspieces, he returns to fantasise about a ‘medieval’ order of kill or be killed under his governance. Or in his one-eyed state, perhaps he imagines he has second-sight and is destined to prevail. For the Governor, the chessmen reveal his potential for redemption and love through Meghan and Lilly, but equally it conjures his delusions and fosters his return to his ultimate goals of revenge and victory.
The Governor’s failed bid for power and revenge leads to the deaths of many of his followers, just as in a chess game, but he ultimately fails, slain by two women: once by his ultimate enemy, and a second time by the woman claims to love.
Perhaps the lesson is that chess is neither an appropriate model for human relationships and politics, anymore in the Middle Ages as in the post-apocalyptic future.
There is a final twist. As the Governor dies, so does the one-eyed king appear on the battlefield, crushed under foot by one of the zombie horde attracted by the sounds of battle. The Viking and medieval allusions are replete in this battlefield of carrion-feeders: in the post-apocalyptic world, not ravens and wolves, but the walking dead. Yet the Governor doesn’t become ‘Odin’, or even a victorious secular ruler. Instead, his plots defeat him, and he kills himself by playing a game he imagines he can win at any cost. Just as the chess piece he combats looks back at him with one eye, chess defeats him.
Most fascinating, it is left unclear how this one piece alone finds its way to the prison where the Governor meets his fate: does Lilly bring it with the body of Meghan, or does the Governor bring the game to the battle?
Caldwell, D. H, Hall, M. A. and Wilkinson, C. M. 2009. The Lewis hoard of gaming pieces: a re-examination of their context, meanings, discovery and manufacture, Medieval Archaeology 53(1): 155-203.
Caldwell, D.H and Hall, M.A. forthcoming The hoard of gaming pieces from Lewis, Scotland: context and meaning.
Hall, M. A. 2016. Board games in boat burials: play in the performance of Migration and Viking Age mortuary practice, European Journal of Archaeology 19(3): 439-55.