Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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This ancient boardgame of stylized warfare emerged in recognizable form in India and China by about the 6th century, spreading westward to Europe by the 11th century. It appears early in Celtic Myth: in the Mabinogion, "Peredur Son of Efrawg" includes a magical chess-set whose pieces move unaided, prefiguring many later stories of anthropomorphized chessmen. One Merlin legend also features a self-playing chess set, which can checkmate any opponent. Irish and Scots Fairies were famous chess hustlers, challenging mortals to Three games and allowing them to win the first two and choose large prizes – whereupon the Sidhe would win the final game and require some near-impossible task or price. The hustlers in Lord Dunsany's "The Three Sailors' Gambit" (in Tales of Wonder 1916) do not even know chess, but read their unbeatable moves in a crystal Talisman acquired from the Devil. But generally the purely intellectual nature of chess seems to give humans a chance against otherwise irresistible foes: hence the tradition of the symbolic chess game with Death, most famously represented in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956). This theme has often been adapted – e.g., in Roger Zelazny's "Unicorn Variation" (1982), where the implacable opponent is a Unicorn.

Living chess pieces appear in many fantasies, notably Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass (1871) – whose eccentric chess-moves are usefully traced in The Annotated Alice (1960) by Martin Gardner (1914-2010), and which exploits the game's built-in Ugly Duckling transformation when Alice, a pawn, becomes a queen (see also Wonderland). Poul Anderson's florid Science Fantasy "The Immortal Game" (1954) dramatizes the moves of a genuine game between masters, as does John Brunner's subtler sf The Squares of the City (1965). Susan Cooper's Seaward (1983) enlists its protagonists as pieces in a chess match which is a Godgame. Queenmagic, Kingmagic (1986) by Ian Watson exuberantly develops the notion that the pieces' long-range abilities of movement and killing are Talents, and extends the conceit far beyond the usual, terminal Recognition that this is a game which must end. The Chess Garden, or The Twilight Letters of Gustav Uyterhoeven (1995) by Brooks Hansen (1965-    ) has an Imaginary Land inhabited by chess figures.

In 1763 Sir William Jones (1746-1794) whimsically invented the Muse of chess, Caissa, who also presides over the many variations (with changed rules, pieces and/or boards) generically known as Fairy chess. One such is jetan, played – and fully described – in Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Chessmen of Mars (1922). [DRL]

further reading: Pawn to Infinity (anth 1982) ed Fred Saberhagen with Joan Saberhagen, sf/fantasy chess stories.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.