Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl Article at National Library of Wales

Reproduction of tawlbwrdd illustration
Reproduction of tawlbwrdd illustration

Thursday, 15th August 2013

I've just noticed that an influential 1940s article on tawlbwrdd is now on-line at the National Library of Wales. "Gwerin Ffristial a Thawlbwrdd", by F. R. Lewis, was published in the 1941 edition of Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, and has been cited in a number of studies of hnefatafl.

The article has a lot of detail about the Ancient Laws of Wales and the position of tawlbwrdd in society. It has some common-sense ideas about the use of materials in the construction of gaming boards and pieces, and draws the same conclusions as later scholars about the identity and cohesion of games in the hnefatafl family.

A couple of items in the document are particularly interesting. It presents a diagram of tawlbwrdd as found in the portion of the Peniarth manuscript written by Robert ap Ifan, correcting misinformation that has circulated on the Internet among those who have never seen the manuscript. And it suggests that while Willard Fiske was struggling to identify hnefatafl, and long before H. J. R. Murray's "chance discovery" of 1913, Icelandic scholars had already cracked the puzzle during the 19th century.

At 23 pages it's a very interesting read. You can read it in your browser or download the PDF from the National Library of Wales for more comfortable off-line reading. It's at


Nice web-site. Many Thanks. It's too late at night. But was it in the Welsh article I read the attackers were called 'watchers' or ''warders' ? Coincidentally, in Alea Evang inspicere means to watch over, and porrigi means with a fence.. I think there may be more information about the game itself in the text; and not just the lay-out as I first thought. Also perhaps the board had no marks except the centre bare spot and the four varius squares, described as like sticking plasters sparsim (sparsum is a plaster -im adverbial) That would explain why the very elaborate mnemonic for placing the pieces was concocted.

Hugh - 02:34, 19/10/2013

I haven't seen the watchers/warders reference, although some of the rooks in the Lewis chessmen are often called warders.

I've often thought that there might be more in the alea evangelii description than I could see, but not having enough skill to read the Latin, or patience to read the English, some of it has probably slipped by me.

There's also the pitfall of reading too much into the account while knowing too little, hence people mistaking the variegated men (probably markings, as you suggest) for elite guards clustered around the king.

Damian Walker - 14:11, 26/10/2013

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