Solomon Kane and Robert E. Howard’s religious beliefs

Now that I’m thinking of Solomon Kane, I thought I’d do a brief post about the character, his adventures, and the clear influence Howard’s religious beliefs had on both.

Solomon Kane is a 16th century English Puritan, warrior and wanderer.  Stereotypically dour and fanatical, he wanders the globe, primarily traveling through Europe and Africa, in search of evil to vanquish and, in later stories, answers to his own theological unease.  Like all of Robert E. Howard’s fictional heroes, he is larger than life and almost elemental in his pursuits.

Kane is dressed drably, as one would expect.  Perhaps it is best to let Howard describe Kane’s garb (from Blades of the Brotherhood):

The stranger’s cloth was severely plain and suited the man.  His  hat was a black slouch, featherless.  From heel to neck he was clad in close-fitting garments of a somber hue, unrelieved by ornament or jewel.  No ring adorned his powerful fingers; no gem twinkled on his rapier hilt and its long blade was cased in a plain leather sheath.  There were no silver buttons on his garments, no bright buckles on his shoes.

Strangely enough the drab monotone of his dress was broken in a novel and bizarre manner by a wide sash knotted gypsy-like about his waist.  This sash was silk of Oriental workmanship; its color was a shimmering green, and from it projected a dirk hilt and the butts of two heavy pistols.

Kane’s weapons are typically a pair of flintlock pistols, a dirk, and a rapier, and he is master of them all.  His desire to fight evil and avenge justice leads him to pursue his quarry to the ends of the earth, and that hunt can begin with a seemingly fleeting encounter.

To illustrate this, we draw on Howard’s words again (from Red Shadows):

Warily he advanced, his eyes striving to pierce the darkness that brooded under the trees… Then his hand fell away from the hilt and he leaned forward.  Death indeed was there, but not in such shape as might cause him fear.

“The fires of Hades!” he murmured.  “A girl!  What has harmed you, child?  Be not afraid of me.”

The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.

“You – who are – you?” her words came in gasps.

“Naught but a wanderer, a landless man, but a friend to all in need.”  The gentle voice sounded somehow incongruous, coming from the man.

The girl sought to prop herself up on her elbow, and instantly he knelt and raised her to a sitting position… His hand touched her breast and came away red and wet.

“Tell me.”  His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.

“Le Loup,” she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker.  “He and his men – descended upon our village… They robbed – slew – burned -”

“I ran.  He, the Wolf, pursued me – and – caught me -”  The words died away in a shuddering silence.

“I understand, child.  Then -?”

“Then – he – he stabbed me – with his dagger – oh, blessed saints!  mercy -”

Suddenly the slim form went limp.  The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.

“Dead!” he muttered.

Slowly he rose, mechanically, wiping his hands upon his cloak.  A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow.  Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.

“Men shall die for this,” he said coldly.

I love that scene!

Kane quickly comes to learn that justice often comes in a form that does not fit with his black-and-white view of morality.  In pursuing Le Loup to Africa, he encounters a tribal witch doctor without whose help he could not have prevailed.  The wilds and darkness of the jungle calls to him, and he explores it, seeking something unknown even to him.  As often as not, his witch doctor ‘brother’ N’longa aids him in his adventures, and the conflict within Kane from allying with forces he has assumed to be dark is evident in many of the stories.  In Skulls in the Stars, for instance, Kane in some sense essentially sacrifices a wicked man to a spirit to end a grave threat:

“Life was  good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,” Kane sighed.  “Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest of fungous things.  Yet my heart is heavy within me.”

“Nay, sir,” one of the villagers spoke, “You have done but the will of God, and good alone shall come of this night’s deed.”

“Nay,” answered Kane heavily, “I know not – I know not.”

At other times, though, Kane demonstrates a fervent religiosity, and makes speeches worthy of any ‘hellfire and brimstone’ preacher.

This ‘uncertain faith’ seems to be at least a partial reflection of Howard’s own views.  To quote from a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, received 22 September 1932:

I noted with interest your comments regarding the supernatural, etc., and am not equipped to dispute any point of your theories.  I never gave a name to my views – or lack of views – but I guess an Agnostic is what I am, if that means skepticism regarding all human gropings.  Perhaps the main reason that I dislike to take a firm stand in any direction, is because of the respect I have for my father’s intelligence.  He is not by any means convinced that there is nothing in the matters mentioned.  He is far better educated than I, and has more natural sense than I’ll ever have.  Scientist?  He is a practical scientist is ever lived one.  For more than thirty years he has been applying science in his daily life.  There is no better physician in the state of Texas, though there are many who have made more of a financial success.

And if he, who has plunged his hands deep into the very guts of Life and Death, and seen things that an average man seldom even dreams, if he is not ready to deny the existence of a future state, then I for one do not care to deny it.  These college professors I mentioned thought they knew  things because they had read the books.  He has read the books, and more than that, he has known Life in its reddest, rawest, most elemental phases.  Honest men, thieves; white men, negroes, Mexicans, to all he has given, and gives, the same earnest attention.  It has mattered little to him whether the man or woman under his care were a saint or a criminal, a rich man or a beggar.  Many and many a time he has kept watch over the sick-bed of some poor pauper, himself neither eating or sleeping, oblivious to all else except the battle he was waging with the destroyer.

This passage suggests two things to me: that Howard had a bit of conflict himself about religion, and that he describes his father as very much the sort of hero he writes about!

I’ve also noted previously a passage in a Conan story, in which King Conan rebukes those subjects who would subject others to religious persecution.

Those interested in reading the Solomon Kane stories will find numerous complete collections available.  One of the more recent is The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane,  though I recommend the Baen publication Solomon Kane, which not only contains the stories but has the unfinished works completed by none other than my hero Ramsey Campbell!

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One Response to Solomon Kane and Robert E. Howard’s religious beliefs

  1. Pingback: Tower Of The Elephant – MacKenzie Nicole Portfolio

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