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Matthew Rossi
Posted on Friday, May 28, 2004 - 01:03 am:   

Reposted from somewhere else because I'm egotistical enough to think it would be interesting, and because I hate leaving this place fallow.

Let's talk about Solomon Kane, shall we?

My Howard obsession continues unabated this week. I've been devouring his work... The Hour of the Dragon, the complete Kull and Solomon Kane stories, volume one of the new Del Ray/Ballantine Conan series, the Chaosium Nameless Cults collection, the Beyond the Borders stories... and I do think it's remarkable how, in spite of some very real racism (and not to defend it, but Howard's racism seems to come and go depending on the story and the character... Conan, for instance, tends to think everyone is equal in their debasement, whereas Solomon Kane's got the standard revulsion for people of other races you might expect of an english puritan adventurer) the stories still hold up. There's a visceral power to Howard's writing that really works for me, and the Solomon Kane stories are a fascinating presentation of a character who is wholly and completely convinced that everything that happens to him is because God wanted it that way.

The tone, and more especially the unexpected oath, coming as it did from Kane, slightly sobered Le Loup; his eyes narrowed and his hand moved towards his rapier. The air was tense for an instant; then the Wolf relaxed elaborately.
"Who was the girl?" he asked idly. "Your wife?"
"I never saw her before," answered Kane.
"Nom d'un dom!" swore the bandit. "What sort of a man are you, Monsieur, who takes up a fued of this sort merely to avenge a wench unknown to you?"
"That, sir, is my own affair; it is sufficient that I do so."
Kane could not have explained, even to himself, nor did he ever seek an explanation within himself. A true fanatic, his promptings were reasons enough for his actions.
- from Red Shadows

Kane is even more fanatical and obsessive than Batman, who avenges evil because of a horrible crime in his own past: Kane avenges evil because it is there. In the fragmentary story The Castle of the Devil, before it breaks off, Kane explains to a fellow englishman he meets in the depths of a German forest that he is a wanderer on the face of the earth and have no destination and later explains further that it has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns throughout the world, to ease various evil men of their lives. We have no idea why Kane does this... he volunteers no origin story, no great childhood trauma, no slain parents or wife and child to motivate him to this task. In short, to paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, he walks the earth like Caine in Kung Fu and is the shepherd who ends the tyranny of evil men. He pretends he does this solely out of his sense of morality and his religious principles, but Howard makes it clear on several occassions that Kane is both wrathful and somewhat lacking in introspection: he does what he does entirely because it wells up out of him and he doesn't spend a lot of time questioning himself about it. Unlike Conan, he has a moral code that binds him in iron: despite everything, he's a puritan inside and out, and not for him the hot kisses of rescued maidens (he rescues maidens fairly often, but never does he vouchsafe even the slightest interest in them as anything other than as people to be rescued - in The Moon of Skulls Kane actually spends several years rescuing Marilyn Taferal from her rather elaborate misfortune and despite Howard's description of her as a fetching young woman it never even seems to occur to Kane to do what Conan would have in a heartbeat). Quite literally, he does what he believes to be right entirely because it is right, and lives his entire life as though he were in the hand of God himself, leading him across Europe and Africa in search of evil to vanquish and wrongs to put right.

I don't know why, precisely, but it's this total lack of an origin that makes Solomon such an interesting character. A cold, precise duellist and marksman, a rangy and powerful man, who only blows up into a rage when confronted with some wholly unacceptable diabolarie or another, Kane's arrival on the scene is as powerful and violent as a storm breaking. In Blades of the Brotherhood Kane's pursuit of a pirate captain named the Fishhawk leads him into the middle of a romantic rivalry between an evil nobleman and a young soldier and the puritan simply acclimates to this new complication as though it were no complication at all. And indeed, he dispatches both the pirate and the noble with aplomb and leaves the young lovers with a speech reaffirming his wandering nature: "I am a landless man," a strange, intangible, almost mystic look flashed into his cold eyes. "I come out of the sunset and into the sunrise I go, wherever the Lord doth guide my feet. I seek - my soul's salvation, mayhap. I came, following the trail of vengeance. Now I must leave you. The dawn is not far away and I would not have it find me idle. It may be that I shall see you no more. My work here is done; the long red trail is ended. The man of blood is dead. But there be other men of blood and other trails of revenge and retribution. I work the will of God. While evil flourishes and wrongs grow rank, while men are persecuted and women wronged, while weak things, human and animal, are maltreated, there is no rest for me beneath the skies, nor peace at any board or bed. Farewell!"

Kane's fanaticism is frightening... he truly believes himself to be an instrument of divine justice... but it's mollified to some degree by his tendency to back the weaker side in any conflict, his desire to aid those who cannot defend or avenge themselves. When in Wings in the Night Kane comes upon a man staked out and left for dead to be tormented and probably consumed by winged monstrosities he immediately takes up the fight against the creatures even though he has no idea how to defeat them. In Red Shadows he spends years of his life chasing the pirate Le Loup across Europe and eventually Africa entirely because the man fatally injured a young woman who just happened to fall along Kane's path and died telling him of the man's assault on her. In The Moon of Skulls Kane spends years finding out what happened after Sir John Taferal sold his young cousin into slavery, refusing all help from her relatives:

"Your brothers would have come with me, child, but it was not sure that you lived, and I was loth that any other Taferal should die in a land far from good English soil. I rid the country of an evil Taferal - 'twas but just I should restore in his place a good Taferal, if so be she still lived - I, and I alone." This explanation Kane himself believed. He never sought to analyze his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings. He was a man born out of his time - a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosophe and more than a touch of the pagan, though the last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was, a knight errant in the somber clothes of a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. - from The Moon of Skulls

Kane has a touch of that old impulse that leads to witch burnings and the like and so, he's never going to be the easy, comfortable hero others are, but his all-consuming passion to defend those weaker than himself keeps him from becoming an Ashcroft: he's too busy defending those who can't defend themselves, to the point of spending years of his life hunting down one lost girl sold into slavery in a lost city built by Atlanteans or waging war against horrible monsters for the crime of preying on one man he'd never met before in a village in darkest Africa to try and control others. What makes Kane a prototypical adventuring vigilante, a model for later characters like the Shadow or Batman, is that he's utterly obsessed: it never even occurs to Kane that he could do other than he does. He wages war on evil not because of a shocking loss, or an encounter in Tibet, but because he has no other choice. He is driven into a furious passion by his own nature, shaped by his honed religious impulses and his easily offended sense of honor combined with his own vanity: he takes the crimes of evil men personally, he seems them as an affront to himself, and many of his enemies like Le Loup and Hawk of Basti are twisted reflections of himself, fierce swordsmen and powerful souls who misuse their gifts to the detriment of those around them. Kane kills these men because they refuse to turn away from their path of cruelty and abuse, and in so doing, offend the tightly leashed but never fully controlled rage in his soul at the idea that anyone could have such gifts and deliberately misuse them. His knife-fight with the pirate Fishhawk in Blades of the Brotherhood comes out a sense of offended honor: furthermore, Kane's own history as a member of the crew of Drake's ship at some point or another (and his knowledge of Sir Richard Grenville, who died aboard the Revenge in an epic battle with the Spanish... Kane refers to him obliquely) shows that he himself has extensive knowledge of the sea and has lived a life not much different than a pirate himself in the past. Hawk of Basti, also known as Jeremy Hawk, knew Drake when both were seamen in Drake's fleet. Yet Kane's obsession led him away from any such life as piracy, and into his wandering quest to find and defeat evil.

I don't think it's necessary to know why Kane does what he does other than the reason Howard's already given. Kane fights evil because it is evil. He obviously had a life as a normal man, once.. in the poem Solomon Kane's Homecoming Howard has Kane inquire as to the whereabouts of a woman named Bess and he clearly regrets having given her reason to weep (his discovery that she's been dead for seven years causes him to respond ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and the fairest fade in a rare attempt at sentimentality) but in the end, Kane's origins are simple enough: he comes from Devonshire, he sailed under Drake and Grenville, he combs the world for evil and does his level best to destroy it, whether it is a cruel man, a wicked vampire queen, a flying demon or a murderous ghost that must be vanquished with the power of his own fanatic belief in his destiny. In a strange sort of way, knowing that (as an example) that Kane's family were slain by brigands while he was at sea would weaken him, steal from him the relentless obsession that his own vain quest forces upon him. This way, there can be no end to his struggle... there will always be other men of blood, as Kane himself put it, always another day over the horizon in his endless battle with those that would maltreat the weak. In the story The Footfalls Within the discovery of the corpse of a native girl left behind by slavers leads Kane to nearly end his own life by ambushing the slaver caravan by himself when he sees them mistreating their captives.

I keep thinking you could easily adapt a few of Kane's stories into a hell of a movie. Take the character of Le Loup and having him kidnap Marilyn Taferal in league with Sir John. Kane kills Taferal, finds out that Marilyn has been sold into slavery (you could easily use the device of having John tell Kane, as was the case in the story) and Kane then pursues Le Loup to the lost Atlantean city in Moon of Skulls, where the evil pirate has forged an alliance with Nakari the Vampire Queen of the Negari, offering to help her procure the firearms she seeks in order to conquer all of Africa. Perhaps on the way he could take out the Fishhawk and commander his ship, after helping Jack Hollister against Sir George Banway. You could easily weave three or four of the stories into a coherent narrative that gives Kane a chance to fight mundane evil as well as dark magic. Considering the success of Pirates of the Caribbean I think it could really work.
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Matthew Rossi
Posted on Friday, May 28, 2004 - 01:07 am:   

I should also append to this my current thinking about Robert E Howard in general and his Kull and Conan characters in particular:

Conan's basic philosophy as outlined in Queen of the Black Coast is as follows: "In this word men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle... let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content." This would never be acceptable to Kull who broods on his throne, who barely even concerns himself with the existence of women at all and who feels himself a speck in oceans of time. You may be in a universe which goes to make up a gem on the robe you wore on Valusia's throne or that universe you knew may be in the spiderweb which lies there on the grass near your feet. I tell you, size and space and time are relative and do not really exist. The difference between Kull and Conan is that Kull laps up that kind of talk and Conan would be completely bored with it. While both are powerful barbarians who seize the throne of a decadent nation, Kull does so as the high point of his life, whereas Conan does so after years and years of successful adventuring. Things that seem vastly important to Kull, like the mystical whisperings of an ancient cat or a sorceror's reality-twisting mirrors are simply distractions to Conan, who has decided that whether or not his life is a mere bubble on the froth, he intends to live it anyway.
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Posted on Friday, May 28, 2004 - 09:23 am:   

Very nice. The Solomon Kane stories (in the three, slim paperback Centaur volumes) were the first Howard stories I read and perhaps for this reason he's still my favorite of Howard's characters. I'm looking forward to rereading them in the new Ballantine reprint.
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Posted on Saturday, May 29, 2004 - 04:52 am:   

That Solomon Kane piece is absolutely fascinating... The character is so interesting, with the contradictions, the mix between honour and fanaticism, puritanism and impulse.

I love Howard as well. I've loved his work for twenty years. But I've only recently started getting into C.L. Moore. What are your opinions (if any) on Jirel of Joiry?
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Matthew Rossi
Posted on Saturday, May 29, 2004 - 05:42 am:   

I've only (unfortunately) read Shambleau as I've only got the resources of a couple of used book stores and a relative paucity of funds to gain books. (Well, that's not entirely true... I also have the library) so I don't have an opinion yet, but I've just added Moore to my list so hopefully once I find the stories, I'll have an answer for you. Right now, I'm moving into a re-examination of Fritz Leiber and Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Outlaw of Torn, but I'm interested enough in Moore to track her down next. I should thank you for the reminder, actually.
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Posted on Saturday, May 29, 2004 - 07:30 pm:   

I've always thought the Jirel stories very enjoyable, it's too bad she didn't write more of them. They have a gothic feel you don't see much of in S&S, perhaps because it's not always so easy to fuse the gothic with the heroic. (Elric is the exception and Moore's stories are, thankfully, far less lugubrious.) One story in particular, I think it's "Hellsgarde" but I'm too lazy to go check, reads like something of a collaboration between Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. She was not generally as good a writer as either REH or CAS, I don't think, but "Shambleau" remains as good a science fiction horror story as anyone's ever written.

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