September 04, 2004

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard

Back when I was in my mid-teens, my older brother started buying and then loaning to me a series of books about a big bruiser named Conan the Barbarian. The original tales were by Robert E. Howard, of course, but L. Sprague de Camp, the editor of the paperback series, had gone to great lengths to put them all in some kind of consistent order based on their internal chronology, and if I recall correctly he added some Conan tales of his own to fill in the gaps and round out the series. I read every one of them, and then I gave them back to my brother, and I haven't seen them since. Most of Howard's other output was also available in those days, and just as with Conan my brother bought them and I got to read them. Just hearing the names brings back those days: Kull of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn the Pict, Cormac Mac was great stuff.

I read it all once, and never again, because I don't have the books on my shelves, and they haven't been in print in years.

Then Forager 23 reprinted a post of his in which he contrasted Howard with Tolkien to the latter's detriment (a dispute upon which I will not venture an opinion at this time except to say that Howard is pretty darned good and Forager is still bananas), and that got me thinking about ol' Conan and his ilk. And so the next time I was at the bookstore I looked for Howard and discovered that Chaosium (the outfit that publishes the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) is republishing Howard's fantastic fiction. They had exactly one volume; and somewhat ironically, perhaps, it's the one major character of Howard's that my brother never got to (not that I recall, anyway): Solomon Kane, a stern Puritan of the 16th century.

Kane is a tall stern man; he wears black, naturally, with a broad slouch hat, and his face has a dark pallor. I'm not sure how you have a dark pallor, but the words were used in a number of the stories, and who am I to argue? Kane's the sort who will verbally rebuke those who offend his morals with loose talk or blasphemies but he reserves his anger for those whose crimes are considerably more active--at which point he begins to regard himself more-or-less as God's executioner. And once on the trail he will pursue his quarry quite literally to the ends of the earth.

The tales were precisely the sort of thing I remember--swordplay, bold speeches, inhuman fiends, and the like--with the striking difference that the hero never gets the girl (well, he's a Puritan after all). I enjoyed them, certainly, though they didn't seem quite as good as I remember Howard's other stuff being. But it's so hard to tell, from this remove; I was less discerning in those days, and that's a sword that cuts both ways. I really need to re-read some stuff I remember from before.

There were a couple of things I noticed that I know I would have either missed or ignored had I read these tales way back then. The first is a logical error: Howard describes Kane as always acting on impulse; a true fanatic, he never considers the true reasons for his actions but just goes straight ahead. And yet, isn't it the hallmark of the true fanatic that he always knows exactly why he does why he does, and can explain it to you in great and appalling detail? In any event, Solomon Kane was first envisioned by Howard while the author was still in his teens, and I think it's fair to say that the darkly pallid fellow owes more to Howard's imagination and youthful misconceptions than he does to any Puritan who actually walked the earth.

The other issue is a shocking degree of racism. About half the stories in the book take place in central Africa, and Kane several times runs into lost cities once inhabited by proud races of a higher type than the savage black negroes of Africa who have since replaced them. It's only fair to say that the proud races in question are not presented as being less cruel than their successors; just more civilized and racially more advanced.

The racial foolishness didn't spoil my enjoyment, not the way it would have if the stories were of a more recent vintage; I don't regard these stories as being about the real world anyway, and anyway they were written in the 1930's, a time when such sentiments were frequently held about present-day Africans, let alone those in the forgotten jungles of the 1500's. Howard was, after all, a man of his day. But if you're the sort who is excessively bothered by this kind of thing you'll want to give the book a miss.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 4, 2004 08:44 PM