The Lewis Chessmen


British Museum; Scandinavian, c. 1150


These people have known nothing beside warfare —

eyes strained against ambush, fists clamped fast

on spear or sword. Even the bishops, giving the world

their two benedictional fingers, plainly belong

to the Church Militant. They proclaim

God's judgement on the foe, the obdurate Others.


The king's gifts to his thanes are mailshirt and spear,

helmet and hard-edged sword. A handful champ their shields:

berserkers, frantic to surrender

to the wonderful extravagance of rage.

Most, though, face out doom

with dour mouths, driven purely by a formal pattern

they cannot move beyond. 'Better a man should die

than live a life of blame.' The sombre queens

will offer their ale-horns only to heroes.


I was a child when I saw them first.

The shock of that mass glare still works in me.

And the instant after, staring, eyeball to eyeball, sensing

their stubborn resistance, their grief;

saluting, below all reason, unlooked-for, the presence of kin.


Published in As Girls Could Boast, ed Christina Dunhill (Oscars Press)

copyright Gillian Spraggs


Click here for a picture of the chessmen

Return to the List of Writers