I THOUGHT I'd show you an interesting little something which I made a few years ago as the final piece on my Book Arts & Crafts degree...
This piece is an ancient opening casket board game with an accompanying book which tells a story. The story, which I have written in rhyme, is set in a ‘Dark Age’ land not unlike England, and describes a man’s journey around his land in search of its people’s lost happiness and to overturn the evil king. Meanwhile two children dig up an old game and begin to play it. The journey takes a year and a day and as the main character travels, he passes through the four quarters (seasons, directions, elements, and times of day) which echo the four corners of the game and meets important characters on the way. Each move in the children’s game is mirrored in real life and a desperate battle between the rich few and the downtrodden masses builds momentum. The characters’ names are all Anglo-Saxon words which all have particular significance to the story. A glossary is included at the end of the book.
The story encompasses many themes –
~ The struggles of ordinary people under the rule of the dishonest rich and powerful, and a dream for equality, justice and a voice for us all;
~ My love for the earth and anger at its destruction;
~ A search to find value once again in life’s simple truths;
~ An exploration of ancient Pagan beliefs and Dark Age ideas about the world;
~ Ideas about balance and the wheel of life – accepting both life and death, day and night in all things;
~ A longing for a time before cars, concrete and all things industrial and corporate;
~ A desire to reawaken a love for stories and recognition of their importance in society.
The rules of this board game are based on an Anglo-Saxon game, ‘Hnefatafl’ popular in this country between about AD 400 and AD 1000 when chess arrived. It was carried here from Scandinavia by the Norsemen who were continuing an ancient tradition amongst the northern European tribes. A more detailed history is contained within the accompanying book. This game is appropriate to the time in which the story is set, and the opposing forces are of unequal size and have different objectives. This ties in with the political theme to the book.
Board games in ancient societies played a significant role over and above that of mere entertainment. The grid or chequerboard pattern has been described as a form of cosmological divination, representing the land, the universe, or the human body. The central square, as in Hnefatafl, signifies the city or the navel (indeed the word ‘hnefi’ - the king-piece - is also thought to be cognate with the word navel). Often this central point in a country was marked out by a sacred tree as in Glastonbury or Carmarthen, or a stone as at Tara. This place is one of central convergence, often the setting for fairs and obviously in the case of cities it is the seat of the ruler. The rules of Hnefatafl require that for the king’s side to win, the king must reach the edge of the board, signifying his complete dominion over the land. The opposing larger force must capture the king.
The illustrations are based loosely on a gospel page illumination from the Book of Durrow (St Matthew's Gospel Folio 21v). This manuscript was produced around the 7th century at the monastery of Durrow, County Offaly which was founded by St Columba. Saint Matthew is depicted with a chequerboard body, echoing the idea of the board game/body, and the decorations are examples of Celtic and Pictish design.
The font design is based on alphabets in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and other illuminated gospel books like the Books of Durrow and Kells.
The board is made from spruce wood, stained and antiqued, making it look as if it has just been dug up. It is decorated to echo the illustrations from the book and each side corresponds with the four directions, seasons, elements and times of day. Each gift given to the main character by those he meets on the way is illustrated on the four sides. The board also displays symbols from the Ogham – an ancient magical script – the Celtic equivalent to the Runes. Each Ogham letter relates to a particular tree and time of year and is correspondingly displayed around the board.
And here is an extract from the story:
As summer fullness smiled;
In contented, heady, pregnant air
Our Faran’s time was whiled.
Then around a corner one midday
Beside a meadow sweet
Came fiddle music, frisking-fast and
The sound of tapping feet.
Faran neared, intrigued to find
A flabbergasting sight ~
A motley stranger, red and yellow,
His costume chequered bright.
A wood contraption round his shoulders,
And hooked onto one end
A wobbling little whimsy-man,
A dancing puppet friend.
As the jester played the devil’s tune
And jigged all up and down,
It caused those puppet feet to tap
Of the wee lopsided clown.
By his side, a patchwork knapsack,
All bulging, tied with twine;
Some strange light from out the bag
Mysteriously did shine.
Faran tiptoed, quite bewildered
Closer to the gleeman;
‘How-di-do?’ The stranger asked him,
‘I s’pose you must be Faran?’
His face was funny, his eyes were fiery,
He’d a lilting, joking voice;
The puppet danced whene’er he moved
Because he had no choice.
‘My name’s Fyr’ grinned the jester,
‘I’ve come to join the dance;
Come sit awhile beside me here
And play my game of chance.’
The harlequin, ungainly-tall,
Sat his bright body down;
The wood contraption clacked and rattled;
The puppet seemed to frown.
So Faran sat and watched in awe
As the motley-magic-man
Reached inside his coloured sack;
And wild his blood it ran.
Out came dice and playing cards
And jumping beans and dominoes
And candles, tricks and keys.
And tiny phials all filled with fire
And stones and beads and sticks
And rare glass balls and wooden spoons,
A mad embroidered mix!
Chancy games and fateful tricks
The harlequin did play;
And all the while the puppet watched,
Not one word did he say.
Copyright © Rima Staines 2008