Freedom, Fighting Fate & The Cursed Man: A Quick Look At 3 Of Robert E. Howard’s Characters
I like books, I always have… well maybe not always and definitely NOT every kind of book. I mean I am not going to pick up a math or science text anytime soon because both really bore the hell out of me. Now good fiction I’ll always have time for. I’m not just talking Fantasy & Sci-Fi either. I love a good deal of the classics including works by Dumas, Fielding, Joyce, Conrad and yes even the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I think I could sit and read Coleridge with a side of Elliot all day but not necessarily everyday. I think not enough people bother to read Dorothy Parker’s work and in turn are missing one of the most brilliant writers/wits of the last 100 years. I’ve got a wide and varied list of books that I’ve read and sometimes I sit in amazement that there is even more that I HAVEN’T read yet. The mere fact that there are great authors out there that I haven’t read makes me want to read them even more.
Right now my big thing is reading as much of Robert E. Howard’s body of work as I can. Del Rey’s collections of Howard’s Conan stories are just really great dark sword and sorcery stories, filled with less of what most would classify to be fantasy and more of very grim tales that reflect Howard’s own philosophy of life (that being, when Barbarism and Civility clash it is Barbarism that must logically prevail). So far I’ve read the first 2 Conan collections (The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian and The Conquering Sword Of Conan), the amazing collection of Solomon Kane (The Savage Tales Of Solomon Kane) and the real eye-opener that is Bran Mak Morn The Last King.
I was recently blessed by my friend Jeff lending me his copy of The Black Stranger And Other American Tales, a great collection of Howard short stories that use the North American continent as their setting. It even includes a Conan tale depicting the Hyborian Age equivalent of the Americas and the Native Americans. I am really looking forward to getting Howard’s volume of historical fiction that features Red Sonya of Rogatino, first introduced in the short story Shadow Of The Vulture. The Original Red Sonya was a female swashbuckler fighting the Saracens. It was this character that was then modified to create the comic character of Red Sonja. I’m also trying to track down a volume of Howard’s Black Agnes stories printed in the 80s as The Sword Woman. There is so much Howard material out there and so much of it is making its way back into print, what’s more is that I have this hunger to read it.
Of the material I’ve read I actually like Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn stories best, even more than I like the Conan tales. The Solomon Kane tales are just pure fun and action, telling of one man’s quest to hunt and destroy evil where ever he may find it. Howard’s poem “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” is by far one of my favorite little poems by any author. It is so simple at getting across what the character of Solomon Kane is about. In it Kane returns home, to Devon, after years abroad fighting all sorts of supernatural evil. It is a straightforward and sad little telling of how Kane has finally come home to rest, share his tales of adventure with his townsfolk and be with a person he actually loves. The tragedy is that Kane has been gone so long that the woman that waited for him died 7 years ago. Realizing that what he returned home for is no longer there, Kane tells the people in the local tavern the things he has seen. He does this quickly because he knows that Devon is no longer the place for him that he hoped it would be. So instead of staying to enjoy a retirement, Kane stalks off into the night, returning to the work he has spent his life doing… hunting evil.
“Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” is 11 verses for a total of 88 lines. In that short amount of space you get to hear about the marvelous and yet horrific things Solomon Kane has seen and done. The tragedy of it all is that all he has fought for is for naught, as Bess, the woman that has waited for him and has been the driving force for him to return to Devon is long dead. It is because of his life’s work that Kane is denied the happiness he seeks. He can’t know happiness because there is always evil and thus there is always a need for Solomon Kane.
The tragedy that Howard besets Solomon Kane with is nothing though, compared to the hopeless task he gives Bran Mak Morn, the last King of The Picts. Howard’s Picts are not meant to be the true historical Picts, as the Picts appear throughout his pseudo-Historical work. They are there in the tales of Kull, a barbaric people who live for pure savagery. They survive the Atlantean Cataclysm that ends Kull’s age and appear again several times during Conan’s Hyborian Age, still savage as ever. In fact it is the Picts that Conan is fleeing from in the opening of “The Black Stranger.” In the tales of Bran Mak Morn, set during the Roman occupation of Britain, the Picts still struggle to maintain who they are despite the march of Rome and civilization. It is here that Bran Mak Morn leads what few of his Picts are left in hopes to drive out the Romans and save his people from actual extinction. He rises up to be a figure of nobility amongst a people that have no sense of what it means to be noble. Thus is the tragedy that pervades all of the Bran Mak Morn stories, because he knows his people cannot change from their low and savage ways and are thus doomed to die out as a tribe of savages. He tries everything in his limited power, from summoning long dead Kull Of Atlantis to aid him, to assassinating a Roman Governor. He even goes as far as to make a pact with a Lovecraftian Elder God, only to realize that such a pact will not only doom his people but all of mankind.
2 different characters yet both are equally tragic. Both are amazingly deep despite their classifications as ‘Pulp Characters’. That right there is why Howard is such a magnificent writer. These characters deal with tragedy that isn’t directly presented by actions in the their tales, but rather by what you aren’t reading in the tales. Solomon Kane is cursed, plain and simple because it is impossible for evil to not exist. Thus Solomon Kane’s life’s work will never be truly done. Bran Mak Morn is all about fighting against a doomed fate that is inevitable. Bran Mak Morn would rather fight against what he knows is inevitable because otherwise, what is the point of there being Freewill?
There are layers to everything and the layers to any of Howard’s characters show not only men of action but men of reluctant philosophy. One fights against fate, the other fights against evil. Both are long term fights that neither will win. So what does this then make Conan Of Cimmeria?
Conan is the concept of Freewill given the shape of man. Conan lives by his own set of laws and guidelines. No man nor God will deny him his freedom and those that try usually end up dead. He is what every man dreams of being.. free, unbound and living as he pleases. For Conan that is the simple things like good wine, sultry women and a good fight now and then. That is why Crom is his God, because Crom has no real interest in the affairs of man. Crom lets Conan be Conan and doesn’t make the Cimmerian do anything that is contrary to who and what he is. As long as Conan is free, all is right with Conan.
Well this was so not what I was planning on writing about, but I am not upset that my little look at Howard came out. I was originally just talk about what other things I’m reading, yet ironically, right now all I’m reading is Howard. Mind you, I’m not counting my comic book reading because as much as I do believe comics are literature I still view reading a book is a more in depth experience. An actual book and the written word allows your mind to paint the picture of the story, where as comics take the mental picture away. Thus thee days, my mental pictures are filled with images of grim barbarians, a cursed Puritan and a doomed King. Thank you Robert E. Howard for letting me in your imagination, it is a truly marvelous trip.