This review will look at Robert E. Howard’s second most important hero to Conan the Barbarian—namely, the puritan hero Solomon Kane. Kane could have been a more ideological hero than Conan, yet the stories themselves don’t read that way.
For the purposes of analysis, I shall be looking at a curiosity that was published in 1968 by a hitherto obscure house called Peter Haddock limited. The volume, entitled The Hand of Kane, bears the imprimatur of Glenn Lord, the then executor for the Howard estate and was printed in Hungary (behind the Iron Curtain) to reduce printing costs. It consists of four stories about Solomon Kane all set in darkest Africa—a continent or template which Howard uses for dreaming and that gives free reign to his love of the supernatural.
Solomon Kane is a Puritan from the turn of the 17th century and is one of the most direct attempts in history to mine the Protestant heritage for heroic myths and motifs. The stories are slightly less developed than the Conan saga, but they are still very fine in terms of tales of action within a fantasy genre. Theologically we are never told what sect Solomon is in or was born into, so we have to presume that it was a mainstream Puritan or non-conformist current.
One of the fascinating things about Solomon Kane is the degree to which he is not a Christian hero. Admittedly he tends to fight for the underdog and oppressed, but his actions are closer to the paganism or stoicism of the ancient world. Christianity—for Solomon—is a highly Gentile faith where the individual battles the forces of darkness in order to lead to a redemptive outcome, and the God of his people (the English) is readily invoked.
Howard isn’t particularly interested in Protestant theology—and much of the character’s grimness and sobriety could be attributed to other causes. Although steeped in Calvinism, Solomon invokes the Bible relatively rarely—although at the end of the story “Wings in the Night” there is a superb passage of the Authorised Version (1611) in which the author gives full vent to a kind of literary ventriloquism. The text goes something like:
The absence of the Lord’s light upon the earth led to plunder by the forces of darkness. Men were chained, alone, friendless, and found themselves covered by a dark pall. Only when the fight is resumed against the powers of the dark can a man come who walks squarely in the ways of the Lord. Heed me! All who would enter the Kingdom must strive to free Man from his toils in order to lead a life free from the curse of those evil powers which beset him.
It all then becomes an issue of what you define—in this Manichean cosmos—as good and evil. Given that the stories are all incredibly violent and predatory—and Mankind is everywhere depicted as living in a state of Nature—it is relatively easy to compute: evil is what oppresses you.
Another interesting feature is how nearly Solomon’s antics equate to power morality purely on the individual level. This veers towards the later Calvinist heresy known as Antinomianism which is fiercely bound up with doctrines of election. In Calvinism, the elect is predetermined for salvation but knows not itself. In Antinomianism, however, the elect can become apprised of their salvation.
If the Elect knows it will be saved, what is to stop them acting in a power-moral, aristocratic, or non-dualist fashion? Very little, one supposes: this offers the intriguing spectacle of Nietzsche and Stirner being approached well over two hundred years before their time. All of these permutations led to one of the greatest works of Scottish literature, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. (This text is a remarkable example of gothic Romanticism which was revived by Andre Gide in the early part of the 20th century.)
In the four story volume, The Hand of Kane, which I mentioned earlier, four stories are to be found called “The Hills of the Dead,” “Hawk of Basti,” “Wings in the Night,” and “The Children of Asshur.” All of them give free reign to Howard’s love of the supernatural—although the incongruity of a Puritan hero using magic against darker forms of the same seems to escape Howard.
Sometimes one realizes that Solomon Kane is one of the stepping-stones towards Conan the Barbarian and his commitment to Protestantism is synthetic at best.
In the “Hills of the Dead,” Kane rescues an inter-connected series of villages from a plague of vampires. “’Tis a thing against Nature,” he states laconically. “In my land they are called vampires. I never expected to discover an entire nation of them.” In the climax of the story a great array of vultures swoop down upon the living dead-men as Kane battles a host of around 150 of the creatures. This resembles a watercolor by Frank Frazetta, as Solomon Kane swings his musket repeatedly in order to batter into smithereens the skulls of this vampire army.
In “Hawk of Basti” Kane meets a fellow white man in the jungle who uses European knowledge to dominate various tribes of Africans. Some of the period detail is interesting—particularly when the “Hawk” discusses the Tudor period with Solomon, most of whose replies are blunt and to the point. Mary Tudor harried mercilessly the folk of his faith; whereas Elisabeth proved more tolerable, but later on, promises were broken.
Behind all of this lies the inescapable reality—from Howard’s perspective—that Puritan dissatisfaction with England led to the creation of early modern America. For, as Tomislav Sunić forcibly points out in Homo americanus, America is a Protestant fundamentalist society in which secular liberalism lodges as a necessary counter-balance.
The third story leads to Kane battling, as the Chosen savior (sic), a wedge of Harpies who were driven down into Africa by Jason in antiquity. This extremely bloody and sadistic tale involves an inferno at the end that delineates one of the Hellish triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch—although orthodox Catholic—very much shares the same Apocalyptic fancies as the Protestants of later centuries.
The final tale, “Children of Asshur,” deals with the fate of the Assyrians whom the Old Testament designates as the “accursed of God” because of their enslavement of the ancient Israelites.
All in all, Solomon Kane is a worthy forerunner to Conan in the unfolding Howard mythos—and the heroic mantle of the Puritan reaver and warrior, dressed all in black, with a lugubrious countenance, a large slouch hat, pistols, dirk, broadsword, and shot, stays long in the memory.