Sunday, August 16, 2020

What’s in a Name?: Discovering the Origin of Solomon Kane’s Name by Todd B. Vick


In early 1935, Robert E. Howard sent a letter to his friend Alvin Earl Perry. In this letter, Howard briefly delineates the origins of his popular characters: El Borak (Francis Xavier Gordon), Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, King Kull, and Conan. For some of these characters, this is the only place Robert explains their creative origin. With such scant information given, we are left to piece together other aspects of their origin from other various sources and historical data. In the case of Solomon Kane, here Howard explains that he created the character when he was in high school, at around age sixteen. Nothing further is provided except this explanation: “[Solomon Kane] was probably the result of an admiration for a certain type of cold, steely nerved duelist that existed in the sixteenth century.” (CL 3.287)  

Solomon Kane (Ken Kelly)

Howard’s admiration for a cold, steely nerved duelist stems from a number of likely sources, most of which come from his reading of Rafael Sabatini, coupled with Rudyard Kipling’s, Arthur O. Friel’s, and H. Rider Haggard’s swashbuckling sword duels and jungle settings. A more detailed look into Howard’s influences and the creation of Solomon Kane are in the upcoming biography Renegades and Rogues. For now, let's leave those details alone in this article, since those elements present Howard’s use of those writers, the development of the character, and their stories to create the settings, sword-play, and various plot devices used for his Solomon Kane stories. But what about the name, Solomon Kane? Where did Howard come up with his character’s name? What details do we know about that?

There has been some previous speculation about the dour Puritan’s name. Howard never explains in any letter or essay how he conjured Solomon Kane's name. At a previous Howard Days, it was suggested that the name was a combination of two Biblical people: King Solomon, the wise and wealthy, if flawed, Hebrew King, and Cain, an aggressive but pious murderer. Howard did enjoy several Old Testament stories, though he was partial to Saul, the first Hebrew King (CL 2.208), and the story of Samson. With regard to King Solomon, Howard told Lovecraft in a June 1931 letter that he lost interest in Biblical history after King David, calling Solomon “a typical Oriental ruler.” (CL 2.208) While there is likely more to unpack in the notion that Solomon Kane is a combination of King Solomon and Cain (changed to Kane), the idea is novel, but ultimately seems to be a bit of a stretch. It’s possible that Howard may have used Dr. Solomon Chambers’ first name. Dr. Chambers was a friend of the Howards who practiced medicine with Dr. Howard in and around the Cross Cut and Burkett, Texas area. But there is still too much uncertainty as to why or where Howard derived the ‘Kane’ portion.

Recently, Kurt B. Shoemaker’s zine, “The Happiest Blue Elephant,” was published in PEAPS (The Pulp Era Amateur Press Society). In Shoemaker's zine there is a section titled “‘Sir Piegan Passes’ by W.C. Tuttle.” (PEAPS #31, 15 June 2020) In this section Shoemaker discusses Tuttle’s story (“Sir Piegan Passes”) that was published in Adventure 10 August 1923. Shoemaker summarizes Tuttle’s story and explains how it was used for several silent films during Tuttle’s early writing career. Shoemaker also details each film based on “Sir Piegan Passes.” Whether Shoemaker realized it or not, he dropped a small bomb on the history and speculation about where Howard may have derived the name Solomon Kane. “Solomon Kane’s heart would, if properly broken up, have made a number of perfectly good arrowheads. His conscience, if properly cut to certain lengths, would have made any number of perfectly good corkscrews. Outside of that, Solomon Kane was normal.” (Adventure XLII.1.121)  

Adventure  (10 August 1923)

When Tuttle’s story was published in the August 10, 1923 edition of Adventure magazine, Howard had been reading the magazine for approximately two years. Tuttle’s story published when Howard was just seventeen, near the age he declared (about sixteen) when he claims he created Solomon Kane. Tuttle’s character, Solomon Kane, is used pretty much throughout the story. What are we to make of this? Is it a mere coincidence that Tuttle and Howard concocted the same name for a character? It seems possible, but unlikely. Howard certainly read W. C. Tuttle’s works; his personal library contained almost a dozen Adventure magazines with Tuttle’s stories in them. Is it possible that Howard created his character around age sixteen but had not yet established a name for him? Then along comes Tuttle's "Sir Piegan Passes" providing Howard with a name. It is quite conceivable that Howard did, in fact, read Tuttle’s story from this issue of Adventure.

Howard loved Adventure, he declared on several occasions it was one of his favorite magazines. Moreover, several authors who immensely influenced Howard’s own work were regulars in Adventure: Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and Rafael Sabatini. Howard would have gone out of his way to read these author’s stories. And, two of them (Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb) appeared in the August 10 1923 Adventure along with Tuttle’s story. Add this fact to the fact that reading material was so scarce in and around Cross Plains, Texas, that Howard was prone to read everything he could get his hands on, and read it thoroughly. The implication here is that if Howard owned this magazine, he would have read it from cover to cover.

There are vast differences between Tuttle’s and Howard’s Kanes. Tuttle’s story, “Sir Piegan Passes” is a western. Tuttle’s Solomon Kane is an assayer in Micaville, who is less than reputable and does his best to swindle people by misrepresenting their gold and mineral weight and values. This is a far cry from the dour Puritan we all know, who exacts his own retributive justice on those who take advantage of the helpless. Frankly, I think the name Solomon Kane is better suited to Howard’s character than Tuttle’s. But perhaps this is merely my own bias toward Howard’s Solomon Kane stories. Howard was certainly no stranger to lifting ideas from authors he enjoyed reading. He also re-used names of characters for stories (e.g. the various Steve Costigans, Conans: the Reaver and the Cimmerian, etc.). It was common for Howard to use foreign words in his own stories that he found in Adventure magazines. So, lifting the name of a character used in a story from Adventure should not surprise us. That being the case, the likeliest scenario is that Howard read Tuttle’s story, liked the name Solomon Kane, possibly wrote it down and earmarked it for his own character.  

Adventure cover (10 Aug. 1923)

It would not be a surprise if Howard refrained from using the name Solomon Kane to see if Tuttle would ever include his own Solomon Kane in another story. While this is speculation, it is interesting that Howard’s Kane would not see print until five years, to the month, after “Sir Piegan Passes” was published in Adventure. And as far as can be determined, Tuttle never used his Solomon Kane character in any of his subsequent stories. If this is the case, it raises a question. With the popularity of Weird Tales, how is it that Tuttle never said anything about Howard’s Solomon Kane? It is possible that Tuttle never read Weird Tales magazine? Perhaps he did not care for those kinds of stories. If this is the case, he may have never known that Howard used the name Solomon Kane. It is also possible that Tuttle knew that Howard used the name and he simply did not care. Whatever the case, Tuttle never kicked up any dirt over it.

Howard was a thoughtful writer, not prone to taking words, names, and other ideas from the sources he read and giving them no thought as to how he could use them. With Howard’s Solomon Kane, there is a certain amount of development that went into the character. It took half a decade before the character was created, named, developed and then placed on the printed (and published) page. His thoughts and ideas had time to percolate. He had time to add and change things when he needed, and he likely continued to develop these ideas even after Solomon Kane came alive for the reading public. But as for where Howard discovered the name Solomon Kane, Tuttle’s story certainly plays an integral if not the pivotal part.

While it is not definitive proof, it is certainly highly credible that Howard got the name for his character from W. C. Tuttle’s story, casting a shadow over the idea that Howard combined two biblical people into one name, or that he may have borrowed Dr. Solomon Chamber’s first name. With this new information, all the quintessential elements for the nomenclature of Howard’s Solomon Kane come together almost to a fault. Perhaps we can now put to rest further speculation about the origin of Solomon Kane’s name, until further information is discovered.
Works Cited
CL             Collected Letters
The Pulp Era Amateur Press Society
ADV         Adventure

[Special thanks to Bobby Derie for his input on this article]


Ira Henkin said...

Great research

Unknown said...

Given that Malachi Grim was previously used by REH for Solomon Kane, the idea that REH gathered catchy names from the Bible might hold some water. Malachi was a prophet whose book is just before the New Testament.

Great article. Now I wonder if Tuttle ever used Malachi as a name for a character?

Todd B. Vick said...

Unknown, it's interesting that you should mention Malachi Grim, who is a rewrite (from "Blue Flame of Vengeance" to "Blades of the Brotherhood") of Solomon Kane with a character name change and plot change. If you are familiar at all with the U.S. South, as well as Texas, at the turn of the 20th century and well into the mid-20th century, Malachi was a fairly popular name (perhaps even more so with North East Christian sects, e.g. Quakers and Amish). I'd love to find out how he came up with Malachi Grim.

While I'm not totally sold on the idea that REH developed the name from people in the Bible (though Malachi is the name of a minor OT prophet), I have not completely eliminated that as a possibility. But this information really does cast a looming shadow on that idea, in my humble opinion. Thanks for the interesting feedback. Cheers!

Todd B. Vick said...

Ira, thank you.

Rawvans said...

"Adventure" as source sounds likely, and yet it might be the Bible connection that made it 'stick' with REH.

Speaking of Biblical - I can't help but read the blog's URL as "Onan Underwood 5". ;-)


Mathieu Paul Gagnon said...

This is a great discovery. I am eagerly awaiting your biography!

Todd B. Vick said...

Thank you, Mathieu Paul Gagnon. I hope you enjoy the bio when it hits the shelves! Cheers!

Buntybarbarian said...

Great Article. I've read enough of Robert E Howard's fiction, especially the big four (Conan, Kane, Kull, Bran) and planning to read some scholarly works on the man himself. Looking forward to your book.

Todd B. Vick said...

Buntybarbarian. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the article. The scholarly realm of REH (and pulp) studies has had a small but steady growth, especially over the last decade, which is nice. Hope you enjoy my book. Cheers!