Friday, April 4, 2014

The Soul of the Jungle

A couple of earlier posts discussed Robert E. Howard’s character of Solomon Kane.  He appears in Rattle of Bones (1929), The Hills of the Dead (1930), and numerous other stories that were originally published in the 1930s.  Many of these were gathered into an excellent illustrated collection published by Del Ray Books, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, in1998.

Kane is a lot like Howard’s more famous Conan the Barbarian, but a bit more pious, thoughtful, and restrained. He is an avenger, a “fanatic who devotes his life to battling the powers of darkness.”  He appears to have unlimited funding for his various adventures, chiefly in Europe and Africa.  As with H.P. Lovecraft’s character of Randolph Carter, it is fascinating to see how the author’s creation changes across several stories.

The novella Red Shadows (1928) is noteworthy for being the first of Howard’s stories to feature Solomon Kane, as well as his side-kick, the ju-ju man N’Longa.  Though racial stereotypes occur frequently in Howard’s stories, Africans and others are depicted with considerable nuance, and Caucasians, (especially the French), are typically the more villainous characters.  N’Longa saves Kane’s life on more than once occasion, and makes an interesting theological contrast with the Puritan strongman.  He is older, wiser, and more deeply attuned to his natural and supernatural environment.  He also has a sense of humor.  Kane is somewhat of a klutz.

Red Shadows begins and ends with a fair amount of swashbuckling.  Somewhere in Europe, Kane tangles with a party of blood thirsty bandits, led by the brutish Le Loup.  (Mysteriously, Le Loup’s partner is called ‘the Rat’, instead of le Rat.)  The thieves have terrorized a village and stolen all its gold.  They have also defiled and mortally wounded a young maiden, which enrages Kane.  In case the reader overlooks the idea that Le Loup is a stand in for Satan, Howard has his character spout off interjections like “Gods of Hell!” and “Hoofs of the Devil!”  In a righteous fury, Kane dispatches all of the thieves except for Le Loup, who escapes through a secret passageway.  

Kane tracks Le Loup to an especially uncivilized area of Africa.  This sets the plot in motion towards an eventual showdown between the two adversaries.  But the final swordfight between the only two Caucasians in the story is almost an afterthought.  Howard seems much more interested in the primeval wisdom that N’Longa possesses, which allows him to rescue Kane from the tribe of cannibals.  The latter have been oppressed by the corrupt and sinister King Songa, his henchman, Gulka the gorilla-slayer, and Le Loup—together these three form a sort of a multi-cultural Unholy Trinity.

The author spends considerable time talking about the “Black God” and the language and song of the African drums:

“There is wisdom in the shadows (brooded the drums), wisdom and magic; go into the darkness for wisdom; ancient magic shuns the light; we remember the lost ages (whispered the drums), ere man became wise and foolish…”

Superficially this will appear as racist drivel to some contemporary readers, but the tone is really more of awe and respect.  The “Black God” Howard writes of dwarfs the puny Western religion that Solomon Kane carries around with him on his adventures; it is bigger, older and unavoidable—especially in the wilder areas of the earth.  It is not Satan, because it is beyond good and evil, or perhaps, before.  Kane’s Puritanism drives him to do good and bring about justice among the merely human, but is almost useless against manifestations of the older deity.  His friend N’Longa encourages him to become knowledgeable of this primeval force.

Elsewhere in Red Shadows Kane experiences moments of doubt in his traditional faith.  He acknowledges “the dim beings who rule men’s destinies”, and speculates about past lives “he had visioned dimly in wild nightmares, when the wings of sleep bore him back through lost ages.”  He also has moments of déjà vu as he contemplates his impending death at the hands of his cannibal captors.  N’Longa’s efficacious religious powers and his own impotence force Kane to expand his conceptions of the supernatural world.  In the end, it is the African witch doctor saves the day.  (There is also an entertaining, if gruesome scene in which an angry and aggrieved gorilla also administers justice.)
In future stories, it is clear that Solomon Kane will need more than his sword, pistol and religious fanaticism.

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