Friday, August 9, 2019

FFB: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn - Philip Craig

US 1st edition (Doubleday, 1969)
THE STORY: A quartet of unlikely exploring adventurers set out for a little known island off the coast of Sweden. There they hope to find proof that the events described in the epic poem Beowulf were based on historical fact. Professor Cyril Ashman is sure that they will find Beowulf's tomb and a hoard of ancient treasure on the island.

THE CHARACTERS: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1969) is narrated by grifting poker player Luther Martingale who has a past littered with trouble and scandal. He was forced out of Weststock College by an angry manipulative literature professor who learned that Luther was responsible for getting his niece pregnant. Subsequently she chooses to have an abortion. Prof. Ashman not knowing the truth of the matter suspects that Luther abandoned her and left her to take care of matters on her own. Luther's future depends on his getting a college degree and that degree has to be from Weststock all because of his wealthy relative. Aunt Delia has taken a liking to her nephew and is proud of the Martingale men having a long history of being matriculated from Weststock. If Luther manages to graduate successfully with a degree from Weststock he will be her sole heir and stands to gain millions from her estate.

As the novel opens Luther is engaged in an elaborate scheme to win as much money as he can in a series of poker games from his very poor card playing opponents. Hopefully he can use the winnings to bribe his way back into the good graces of the Weststock admissions team. Astoundingly, he finds himself with the title to a yacht after a round of feverish games (and a combination of wily skill and incredible luck) in which he trounced a foreigner named Beorn Wiglafson. Luther having taken all his money leaves Wiglafson with no other choice but to offer up the yacht as collateral in lieu of cash poker stakes.

"Beowulf fights the dragon"
illustration by Lynd Ward
(Heritage Press Ltd Ed., 1939)
When Luther learns that Prof. Ashman has an obsession with discovering the tomb of Beowulf, who he is certain is not just a legendary figure of the epic poem but a real person, Luther comes up with a plan to make the literature professor's dream come true. Using his newly acquired yacht, a few choice crew members, and some obscure manuscripts the professor owns, he will find the island and Beowulf's tomb and burial site.

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the story of the band of adventurers made up of Luther; Dottie, Luther's former girlfriend and hopefully future wife; Professor Ashman, her uncle; and Beorn who after a violent attempt to re-possess his yacht is surprisingly recruited to helm Gate of Horn and navigate safely across the Atlantic to the Scandinavian coastline. The bulk of the story is made up of a detailed nautical adventure in which slowly but surely Luther and Beorn become comrades at sea, Beorn's gruff malevolent nature gives way to his inherent affability and the two become an excellent team as they sail the alternately calm and furious ocean. Without Beorn's near supernatural knowledge of weather and oceanography Luther would never have made it to the island. When they two men meet up with Uncle Cyril and his niece (who wisely flew to Copenhagen ahead of the sailors) everyone is in for awesome shocks and marvelous surprises on the island of Beowulf's ancestors.

UK 1st edition (Macmillan, 1970)
Craig has a deft manner in sketching out his four characters. There are fascinating cat-and-mouse scenes between Prof. Ashman and Luther in both the beginning of the book and the ironic finale. He tries his best to make Dottie appear to be an independent woman not so easily taken advantage of, but we only see her through Luther's arrogant chauvinistic eyes and she often comes across as a horrible depiction of an abused woman. At one point he refers to her as "a sexy wench by any standard" and actually says this about her when she refuses his advances in their post-abortion relationship: "I watched her undulate away. If only I had the character to assault her! A good rape might do her good." It's extremely hard for me to see this as wit or ironic humor in the context of the first 45 pages. Thankfully this is the only instance of raunchy offensive chauvinism but it ruined my opinion of Craig as a writer. He was 35 at the time and working in a liquor store after being fired from a college for being too liberal with his teaching methods and too coarse in his writing. Callow youth? Who knows.

Truly the best part of the book is Beorn. The way Craig manages to transform his character from indignant and malevolent poker loser to comrade at sea to deceitful Judas is remarkable. Beorn is described as a giant Viking, ageless in appearance, menacing in his physicality, and otherworldly in his knowledge of Mother Nature and her fickle ways. At one point I was certain it would be revealed that he was an immortal descended from Beowulf's ancestors and warrior colleagues. As it turned out I was not far off the mark. There is one glaring clue Craig gives very early in the book and does not refer back until the climax once the four adventurers reach the island. It's an ingeniously calculated moment. I'm sure most readers will miss it and the climax will come as a nifty and gasp inducing surprise. Beorn is genuinely the best character in the book and it is thanks to his magnetic presence I whipped through this 190 page novel in practically a single day.

THINGS I LEARNED: As you can imagine sailing and ship navigation are prominent throughout the story. I learned loads of yachting terms and all sorts of unusual facts like the use of a completely different set of sails during stormy weather.

Beowulf, illustration by Lynd Ward
There are several sections that discuss the history of the Beowulf epic poem, its various translations, and the continuing (at the time) debate on whether or not the poem is based on historical fact. Prof. Ashman uses Schliemann's discovery of Troy as proof of the historicity of Homer's Iliad as the basis for his own expedition to prove Beowulf was real. Among the many facts I learned (perhaps relearned since I did study Beowulf in my high school Brit Lit class) was the earliest English translation dates to about 1000, three centuries after its initial Scandinavian composition.

The novel's title comes from a passage in The Odyssey when Odysseus is speaking to Penelope of dreams and she answers him that dreams are hard to understand. The passage Ashman quotes from memory is: "Twain are the gates of shadowy dreams,/The one is made of horn, the other ivory;/Such dreams as pass the portals of ivory/Are deceitful, and bear tidings that are unfulfilled./But the dreams that pass through the gate of horn/Bring true issue to whoever of mortals behold them." Beorn's yacht is named Gate of Horn.

QUOTES: It was no surprise that men of those times, unlettered, unable to know anything of the world beyond their senses, except for what old men and bards told of past days and far lands, were so filled with fatalism and superstition. In literal darkness, it is easy to accustom yourself to the fragility of life, to the necessity of bravery, and to the ready belief in monsters. How else could a man of that time feel? Without books to tell him of his history, to keep his mind sure, in the accumulated experience of the men who preceded him and wrote down their experience, he was, in every generation, a First Man in an unknown world.

Men alone, without history. No wonder that the bards sang of heroes, for the people were in need of heroes to prove by their might and valor that men could survive or, failing that, could, in death, triumph against their enemies and, nearly, death itself.

(courtesy of
THE AUTHOR: Philip R. Craig was born in 1933 in Santa Monica California, raised on a small ranch in Colorado. He studied religion and philosophy at Boston College during the late 1950s where he facetiously claimed he really majored in fencing and minored in bridge (two pastimes that crop up in his mystery fiction much later in his life). In 1962 he achieved an MFA in creative writing at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and went on to teach English and writing at several small colleges in Massachusetts. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn was published by Doubleday's Crime Club in 1969, but he would not have another novel published for two decades. He is best known for a series of mystery novels set on Martha's Vineyard where he and his family eventually settled (his wife was originally from Edgartown). A longtime member of several crime fiction writing associations and attendee of many mystery writing conferences Craig's career includes over twenty mystery novels and one cookbook written in collaboration with his wife. He died in 2007. For more on his books and a detailed and wittily composed biography visit his website, still maintained by his family.


  1. The extended quotation makes me think he is a good writer. The rape remark sounds like a character being drawn. Characters can have an ugly side.

    1. In the year it was published the rape bit could easily be seen as satire of extreme chauvinism. But it’s awful hard In our age to take it as acerbic wit. Despite that one unsettling passage I very much enjoyed this book. It’s very well told, genuinely suspenseful, and highly original. Who’d dare write something about the historical Beowulf today? Too risky for a newcomer, too weird for an established or mega selling writer. I’m going to find the one Martha’s Vineyard book that has fencing in it. I figure when he’s writing about his passion he’s in his element.