Solomon Kane: The Original Dark Knight

Saturday , 21, January 2017 34 Comments

Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and Edgar Rice Burrough’s tales of Barsoom were my primary entry points into the world of pulp SFF over the past couple of years. For me, the blood-pumping action and arguably unparalleled prose of the old masters are but one source of pleasure. Perhaps equally gratifying is the insight gained in relation to succeeding works over the years. Though never a comic connoisseur, I am denizen of various spheres of nerdom, and thrilled when I learned of John Carter’s part in the birth of Superman.

Conan’s role as progenitor for the noble barbarian archetype is pretty well-trodden ground. Look-alike characters scatter the landscape of our modern culture, across SFF and less serious genres.

The original

The posers

 

The look, feel, and even voice (thanks, Arnie) of Conan have become commonplace tropes for brutish fighting men, often apart from civilization and yet above it. As much as I’ve come to relish Conan’s adventures, however, an expanding awareness of Howard’s works has also brought a sort of melancholy. Despite the large shadow cast by his Cimmerian, the Texan was no one-trick pony; during his short time he created a number of memorable characters and settings that have continued to inspire his successors in the craft. Their current obscurity is tragic.

One of these characters, often overlooked but perhaps not so obscure as the rest, is the wandering Puritan, Solomon Kane. I’ve only recently begun to dig into his stories, but already I am receiving flashes of insight and blinks of cloudy suspicion. Kane shows a depth and ambiguity unlike that of his more barbaric Howardian brethren. While equally skilled and competent as Conan or Krull or Bran Mak Morn, Kane is driven by a fury of presumably divine origin. Conan possesses his own code of honor but most often seeks self-enrichment. Kane, on the other hand, possesses no riches and seeks no power. The execution of justice and the defense or avenging of the innocent are his. Were he less dark and brooding, less haunted and more pious, he could be more strongly evocative of the paladin paradigm. As it is, he is something different.

Howard describes Kane thusly:

“He was a man born out of his time—a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more man s 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 sombre domes 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. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.” – “The Moon of Skulls”

This fanaticism and obsession (for that is the clear nature of his impetus) separates him from his counterparts. So too does his fearlessness (or perhaps his grim acceptance) of the strange and occult. In “Skulls in the Stars,” Kane refuses to flee from a spectral foe, grapples with the wraith, and comes out on top. As awesome as Conan is, I can’t imagine him fighting a ghost unless backed into a corner with no hope of escape.

During my brief time thus far with the noble Puritan, the resemblance of at least two major heroes has struck me, though neither of which, so far as I know, has been acknowledged to have been inspired by Howard’s champion.

Though the concept of the Black Knight was nothing new during Howard’s time, I struggle to think of many preceding heroes demonstrating a similar duality: the tortured hero – compassionate protector and guardian; avenger and arbiter of justice. Though throughout his stories we are frequently told of periodic pangs of guilt or regret, Kane is unerring in his resolve and in his belief in his divine mandate to punish the wicked.

It’s no wonder, then, that now the appellations “Caped Crusader” and “Dark Knight” conjure images not only of Batman for me, but of Solomon Kane, though there is no officially spoken link between the two. Batman is said to have been chiefly inspired by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, the Shadow, and Zorro. The latter, then, could be a possible intersection of the two. Howard did write a poem called “Senor Zorro,” though I haven’t been able to track it down; it’s possible that Zorro provided elements of the Kane character. Still, Zorro, from what I know of him, was a somewhat flashy and flamboyant Robin Hood-type champion of the down-trodden. Despite his mask and black attire, he wasn’t a skulker. Both Kane and Batman, on the other hand, are denizens of the darkness. They both use the shadows to their advantage, and when possible seem to materialize out of the night to frighten their enemies.

There was no moon, and Le Loup’s keen imagination pictured the dark slayer, Solomon Kane, gliding through the blackness, a shadow among shadows. – “Red Shadows”

The other character in which I see subtle (and not so subtle) reflections of the Puritan is another namesake of the original cursed, Biblical wanderer – Kwai Chang Caine, from the hit series Kung Fu. Where Solomon’s curse is largely brought about by his zealous thirst for justice and hatred for evil and his inability to abandon the Quest, Kwai Chang is forced to flee China for a (justified) killing. Thus his curse to wander is more a result of a perverted justice, with Caine as the hunted rather than the hunter. This reversal aside, both men in their wanderings fight to protect the weak, unlike the original Cain.

Caine, not Kane

What other commonalities and ties between contemporary (nerd) culture and SFF are out there waiting to be discovered? I look forward to digging deeper as I continue to read about Solomon Kane and beyond.

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

34 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Pretty neat. And I freaking love that Conan image (done by Frank Cho, apparently.)

  • Nathan says:

    Hmm.. perhaps Dr. Satan wasn’t the first attempt at a Weird Tales hero pulp after all. Kane screams kindred spirit to the Shadow, although there aren’t many quick points of similarity.

    The recent Solomon Kane movie was good, but the main character only had the name of Solomon Kane. The main character in The Book of Eli was closer in portrayal.

  • anonme says:

    One of these days PC Bushi, I’d love to see your take on Doc Savage and the influence he had on superheros. I know Doc Savage himself was based on Tarzan and Sherlock holmes, but I’ve seen it argued that Savage helped influence Superman, and other super heroes.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    Not an antecedent but, I always thought that the comics Ghost Rider later known as Phantom Rider) and Ghost Rider (the one with the motorcycle) also have that Dark Knight feel. The earlier western Ghost Rider is much like Zorro with six guns but, much darker.

    Also, good show Soloman Kane is my favorite Howard character. I particularly like the poem “The One Black Stain.”

    • PCBushi says:

      My knowledge of comic book characters is pretty limited, but from what I do know of Ghost Rider, I could see that. Though Ghost Rider is demonically-powered, isn’t he? Kinda like Spawn? I’d say that fits the tortured hero mold, though it’s a rather stark differentiation from Solomon Kane’s divine mandate.

  • PCBushi says:

    Hmmm, I must confess I’m not familiar with Dr. Satan but will look into him. The Shadow, yeah, another hero of the darkness!

    Must check out that movie…I’ve only caught bits of it on TV.

  • Mike says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and useful article. I’m now inspired to read Howard’s Kane stories.

  • deuce says:

    Interesting post. Regarding Zorro, there probably wasn’t much influence. That poem aside, REH doesn’t seem to have ever mentioned McCulley or his creation:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20060705091154/http://www.rehupa.com/bookshelf_m.htm

    There’s a good argument to be made for SK being inspired in large part by Howard’s own father. Doc Howard was a tall, commanding black-haired man. A surgeon, he was good with a “blade” and he wandered, taking his family with him for years until settling in Cross Palins. He would do medical service for free from time to time. He also was a devout Christian, BUT he also followed the “New Thought” movement and used hypnosis in his practice.

    In addition, we know Howard read Sabatini and Dumas, both of whom had their darker protagonists. REH also read WESTWARD HO. He even mentions a couple of characters from it in a Solomon Kane poem.

    I don’t think a bit of Solomon Kane influence on the Shadow is out of bounds at all. There is a certain physical resemblance and both possess magical items which help them in their pursuit of justice. Of course, it’s almost a straight line from the Shadow to the Batman.

    • PCBushi says:

      Great points. I read somewhere that REH was an agnostic (and not an atheist) in large part because of his respect for his father’s intellect, and as you say his father was devout. Was thinking of writing about that sometime in the future if I have the chance to obtain some published version of Howard’s letters.

    • Nathan says:

      The Shadow also drew a lot from the Phantom of the Opera, Arsene Lupin, and Fantomas.

  • deuce says:

    Tomorrow is Robert E. Howard’s birthday, by the way.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “Batman is said to have been chiefly inspired by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, the Shadow, and Zorro.”

    You know who else attacked unseen from the cimmerian shadows and struck fear in the superstitious hearts of evil men?

    Tarzan.

    I know Batman had black hair and blue eyes. I wonder what the coloring of Dick Tracy and the Shadow are?

  • TFA303 says:

    Excellent insight! Kane is a fascinating character and merits much more acclaim than he currently enjoys.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    PCBushi: I think Dark Paladin is as good a description of Solomon Kane as any.

    Hooc Ott: Dick Tracy, Lee Falk’s The Phantom, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, all are men of action who use their wits before brawn, and all have the black hair – blue/grey eyes coloring.

    Tarzan had a long reach.

  • The Mixed GM says:

    Of all of REH’s creations, I think Solomon Kane was his best. There is something inspiring about his unyielding moral code. I wish more modern characters in speculative fiction had a moral code, period.

    Also, do I see a picture of “Conan the Librarian” from the movie UHF?

  • PCBushi says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I love writing about this stuff; compounded gratification if I can introduce some of these characters to someone who’s unfamiliar.

  • Twila Price says:

    Hmmm. I have never thought Solomon Kane was cursed, so much as just… inspired by his experiences with Sir Richard Grenville and the Dons of Spain (those Inquisitorial dungeons and the galley slave years that he suffered) to become a wandering paladin who avenged those wronged and succored the innocent as best he could. I don’t think he ever regretted any of the deaths he brought to wrong-doers, though he might have been sad about their damnation, by their own choice. I don’t think he could ever have been happy after what happened with the Spanish. Kind of like Frodo, that way. Scarred but doing his best to save others from that scarring. I do love him probably second out of Howard’s heroes — Kull of Atlantis is my absolute favorite.

    But you’ve never read Tarzan? Gasp! Tarzan is … the font and wellspring of the beau ideal of pulp heroes — handsome as a Greek god, noble savage who can assimilate into high society without a trace of his apish upbringing, and yet who values such upbringing as more moral and clean than anything human… Intelligent enough to teach himself to read English from stray books and to learn idiomatic French in mere months… yeah. Tarzan is perfect.

    • PC Bushi says:

      Point well taken, and I didn’t mean that he is literally cursed. It’s clear from Howard’s writing, though, that Kane is burdened by his quest. It’s a heavy responsibility. See his weariness in “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming.”

      So far as the pangs I talk about, here’s one from “The Moon of Skulls:”

      “A momentary pang smote him as he thought of the myriad of crushed, still forms lying amid those ruins; then the blasting memory of their evil crimes surged over him and his eyes hardened.”

      And from “The Skull in the Stars:”

      “‘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 or fungus 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.'”

      I think more often you’re right – Kane doesn’t much regret the slaying of evil men. But there are numerous instances where he feels bad afterwards, even if their killings were justified (and in some cases like the first above, he then stops feeling guilty). But he is a man, after all, and killing does something to a man. Kane believes that he is doing God’s work, but he also knows that he may be judged harshly for what he does, and he admits the possibility in text (I can’t recall which story offhand).

      I’ll get to Tarzan. I just started exploring the classics and pulps a year or so ago. A lot of ground to cover. 😉

      • Andy says:

        I think with Kane, the burdens he carries are those of anyone who makes a point of helping the weak. As your example from Moon of Skulls shows, for every one he saves he knows there are many he couldn’t get to in time, and there are things he’s seen and learned that he probably wishes he could unsee and unlearn.

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