joanna kavenna

I was in Luxor, playing a game without rules. I don’t mean life. The ancient Egyptian game of Senet is one of the oldest in the world. It was played for thousands of years, from around 3000 BC until it fell out of fashion sometime around AD 400. Senet boards were liberally placed in Pharaonic tombs: Tutankhamun was buried with no fewer than four sets to allay the boredom of eternity. The word Senet means ‘passing’. There were two players and a board of thirty squares. Some of the pieces look like pawns, others like cotton reels. The boards survived but the rules were lost. Theories on these abound, as well as on the ontological nature of the game. For if a game has no rules, then is it really a game at all? Or is it just a box?

The Pharaoh’s Gambit

and Crete. Everyone played it for thousands of years, but once again the rules were lost. In 2007, the legendary Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum translated a cuneiform tablet written by a Babylonian astronomer in the sec-

ond century BC. The astronomer thought that the twelve central squares of the board might correspond to the signs of the zodiac. Each piece was different from the others and was governed by a specific set of rules. The pieces were distinct individuals. Or planets – depending on whose version of the game you were playing.

I bought a replica of the Royal Game from the museum shop. Then I ran to catch the train to Banbury. Dusk fell across the damp hills. The train spluttered, then stopped altogether. But it was all right because I was playing the Royal Game of Ur with an invisible opponent. My neighbour politely asked me what I was doing. It was a hard question to answer. Was I moving planets along the ecliptic? Was it a cosmic game, or just a box? I didn’t say any of this to my neighbour. Another thing I didn’t say: Xul Solar, artist and friend of Borges, devised a cosmic game of ‘Pan-chess’. The board consists of squares; the pieces represent letters and symbols. When you play the game you invent new languages and, perhaps, new worlds. Xul Solar described it as a ‘serious game that no one plays’ and pronounced himself world champion. Meanwhile, Borges played his own game with Xul Solar and made him a minor character in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. In this story, Borges tells us not to mistake the rigour of chess masters for the revelations of angels. We can order pieces on a board, but our games may have no bearing on the universe at all. This would have been dismal news for the ancient Egyptians. Perhaps Borges didn’t entirely believe it. Elsewhere he writes that we don’t know if the universe was created in a realist mode or a fantastical one. A fantastical universe could easily be governed by a game of cosmic chess.

In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga says that in order for a game to be a game, it must be fun. I thought about this as I walked along the banks of the Nile. A work trip to Egypt had been coronised, so now I was in virtual reality: ‘like reality but better’, apparently. The Nile was a post-natural shade of turquoise and feluccas drifted slowly downstream, their white sails fired by the fake sun. In VR your mind is present but your body is elsewhere. It’s like extreme dualism. Still, Luxor is always beautiful. Not long ago, I was there in actual person. I stayed in an airy room full of plants so perfect I wasn’t sure they were real. It was very peaceful. Each morning I rose at dawn and walked to the Temple of Karnak. Hantoors, horse-drawn carriages, clattered along the streets. On the west bank lay the snowy-white limestone of the Valley of the Kings, rising into a cloudless sky. After a few days at Karnak, it became clear to me that the Hall of Thutmose III resembled a massive Senet board. Or perhaps I had succumbed to heatstroke. In the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the deceased must play Senet with an invisible opponent to ensure safe passage to the afterlife. If you tend to lose at board games, this could be disastrous.

Soon after that, I was in London. The sky was the colour of milk. The wind was so ferocious, you could barely lift your head. I went to the British Library to finish writing something about Nietzsche. He famously argued that if ‘God is Dead’ then the rules have changed forever. Here the game is life. Without God there are no metaphysical absolutes, just humans on a tightrope above an abyss. That doesn’t sound much fun but Nietzsche says it’s all right so long as you keep dancing (I paraphrase). At the close of the day, I went to the British Museum, arriving as everyone else departed. The British Museum contains another ancient game, the Royal Game of Ur. The board has twenty squares. There are two players, each with seven pieces. Or twelve. Or five. It was first discovered in the 1920s at the ruins of the city of Ur, in southern Iraq. While Senet was mostly confined to Egypt, the Royal Game of Ur spread across the ancient world, from the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia, Sri Lanka

A few days later, I attended a party at the Lamb and Flag pub in Oxford. It’s a famous old pub on St Giles’. During the pandemic, like many other pubs, it sadly went bust and was forced to close. Fortunately, it has now been rescued by a local community group, named the Inklings after the original gang – J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield et al – who met at the pub. There are now almost three hundred new Inklings. Among their number is a chess grandmaster, Dave Norwood. He has writ-

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ten a novel about Bobby Fischer. Barfield was a devoted chess player as well. He saw chess as the perfect embodiment of polarity, a Coleridgean idea he developed in his own work. The greater the opposition, the greater the unity, so long as no one throws the board across the room. Extreme dualism is quite stressful, but polarity is a lot more fun. This applies to all games – with and without rules.

That’s another thing my kind neighbour on the train asked me. ‘Are you having fun?’ I said I was.

march 2022 | Literary Review 1