29 July 2018

Fiske's 'Chess in Iceland'

In this monthly series on The Sociology of Chess (November 2016), many of the posts -- like last month's The Sociology/Psychology/Philosophy of Chess (June 2018) -- have featured videos. Thanks to a recent post on Chess-books and Chess-players, which introduced the Open Library, I found several books relevant to the sociology of chess. Take, for example, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature, with Historical Notes on Other Table-games by Willard Fiske (openlibrary.org). A handful of posts on this blog have mentioned Fiske in passing, but no more; for example:-

  • Best of Batgirl (October 2013); 'Paul Morphy by Willard Fiske'; and
  • Davidson's Mismatch (April 2012); 'hard to accept Fiske's theory that the game was introduced [to Scandinavia] more or less directly from the East'

Wikipedia's page, Willard Fiske, informs,

Daniel Willard Fiske (1831–1904) was an American librarian and scholar, born at Ellisburg, New York. [...] Upon the opening of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York [1865], Fiske was named university librarian and professor in 1868. He made a reputation as an authority on the Northern European languages, and Icelandic language and culture in particular. [...] Fiske donated thousands of volumes to Cornell including a 1536 edition of the Divine Comedy that he purchased in April 1892 and directed to be sent directly to Cornell.

More about the 'Fiske Icelandic Collection' can be found at Icelandic and Old Norse History and Culture, 'unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world'.

Getting back to Fiske's 'Chess in Iceland', a couple of excerpts from the first chapter set the tone for the rest of the book.

The island of Iceland is an anomaly and a marvel -- an anomaly in its natural history, for almost everywhere in its domain we find the living fierceness of volcanic heat coping with the death-like desolation of Arctic cold; and a marvel in its political history, which exhibits the spectacle of a pagan people, at an age preceding the morning of modern civilization on the mainland of Europe, building up, without any aid from the jurisprudence or polity of Rome, a complex but consistent code of laws, and a remarkable system of self-government, in which both the rights of the individual and the general good of the community were cautiously cared for. [...]

In the chronicles, the romances, the poetic productions of Iceland there are many allusions to chess. Certain of the romancers do not hesitate to put allusions to chess, or some similar game, into the mouth of all-father Odin himself. Archaeologists, who have made the island's antiquities an object of their research, travellers who have visited the country, and various native authors themselves are all agreed in the assertion that the game has been, for several centuries, esteemed and practiced in the land of the Geysers.

The Icelandic chess-nomenclature indicates -- as will he more particularly noted hereafter -- that a knowledge of the sport reached the island, at a very early day, by way of Great Britain, while the variations introduced into its practice -- such as giving different values to different sorts of checkmate -- show that it soon became a favorite winter-evening diversion in the farmsteads of the Northern land. From one of the best-known books of travel in Iceland, published in the last century, and the more trustworthy because its authors were natives of the soil they traversed, we are able to glean some particulars relative to the peculiarities of the Icelandic game.

Fiske was working on the book at the time of his death and it's not clear how much was left undone. At nearly 400 pages, it's a scholarly work along the same lines as H.J.R. Murray's 'History of Chess'.

No comments: