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Sword and Solomon: The Beginning of Sword and Sorcery

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 | Posted by James Enge

The great Jeffrey Catherine Jones envisions Solomon Kane.

I haven’t been the most reliable blogger on the Blog Gate lately–something like the least reliable, in fact: my day job and nightly visits from werewolves have conspired to keep me out of the blogosphere almost entirely, these days. But I wanted to show my virtual face here and raise a virtual glass of something intoxicating in honor of Robert E. Howard’s birthday–and in honor of someone who never existed, and probably wouldn’t approve of me toasting him even in non-existent liquor.

Robert E. Howard wrote a lot of stuff worth reading, but for me his central importance lies in the invention of sword-and-sorcery (as the genre was later named by Fritz Leiber). Not in the Conan stories, though: I go along with those who argue that sword-and-sorcery actually begins with the Solomon Kane stories (some of which are online, having battled their way past Mickey Mouse into the public domain; all of them have been collected into a wonderful Ballantine volume, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane).


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There is some racism in some of these stories, which are adventure fiction from the late 20s and 30s, and I don’t think that should be laughed off. But I don’t think that’s what the stories are about, either.

It’s harder to say what they are about, but Kane is a pretty interesting, if sometimes sinister, hero. He has his own fanatical beliefs, which REH clearly does not share, that drive him to do things and take risks beyond the rational. Magic and the supernatural horrors make as much sense in his world as anything does. His hotheaded pursuit of justice set the temperature for the perfect fusion of horror, historical fiction and fantasy which is sword-and-sorcery. And it makes him an outsider everywhere he goes, in Europe or Africa–another essential element of the s&s hero.

REH’s very best s&s would come with the Conan stories. Everyone who reads the stories will have their favorites; my own are probably “Rogues in the House” and “Tower of the Elephant”.

But it (sword-and-sorcery; the “sacred genre”; whatever you want to call it) all begins with the grim Puritan. So, in his honor and REH’s, I’m going off to do something insanely reckless in pursuit of justice. (Or maybe I’ll just take the swamp road home.)

5 Comments »

  1. Nice one, James. As much of a life-long Conan fan as I am, I prefer the KULL stories when it comes to Howard’s prose. They’re more poetic and Shakespearean, if a little rougher around the edges. They came earlier than the Conan tales, and his voice was still in the process of forming, but perhaps for that reason the KULL tales read like lurid sword-and-sorcery poetry…lyrical and steeped in tragedy…and they also seem somehow more PRIMAL…this is the world thousands of years before Conan was born, and it’s even more savage than the grim Hyborian Age. Plus there’s Atlantis in its infancy.
    My favorite Conan story might be “Hour of the Dragon” (Howard’s only Conan novel), and that story brings back a lot of the KULL elements. King Conan was heavily inspired by the tales of King Kull, who came before. It seems almost certain that Conan was the literary descendent of Kull.
    It’s all good…

    Comment by John R. Fultz - January 22, 2010 9:29 pm

  2. Also wanted to mention that Dark Horse Comics has revived SOLOMON KANE in a new series of comics that is genuinely fantastic. In fact, the KANE comics they’re doing right now are superior to both their CONAN and KULL comics, usually. The first of the new KANE collections is “Castle of the Devil.” A new 4-issue series just kicked off: “Death’s Black Riders.”

    Comment by John R. Fultz - January 22, 2010 9:35 pm

  3. I became a fan of REH a couple years ago when I read the Conan stories for the first time. Previously I had a very wrong, it turned out, assumption about what these stories would be (probably based on the Arnold S. film adaptations). I found them to be well-written, engaging, and so full of much more story then I would have believed. I have read really good things about the Kane stories and hope to get to them sometime.

    Comment by Carl V. - January 25, 2010 5:30 pm

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