In the 2009 film, Robert E. Howard’s eponymous hero Solomon Kane, played moodily by James Purefoy, is described on the DVD case as ‘a brutally efficient 16th Century killing machine’. It is an epithet that also accurately describes Talus, the iron man made by the goddess Astraea in Book V of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 & 1596). Along with Jove’s sword Chrysaor (another gift from Astraea), Talus is designed to help Artegall dispense justice in a blood-soaked Faerie Land (an allegorical version of Elizabethan Ireland). Talus is further described as being
Immoueable, resistlesse, without end.
Who in his hand an yron flale did hould,
With which he thresht out falshood, and did truth vnfould. (V.i.12, lines 6-9)
Talus’ sole purpose is to uphold justice by using his ‘yron flale’. He is an unstoppable force who will apparently spend all of eternity or ‘without end’ ridding Faerie Land of ‘falshood’. In the context of Elizabethan Ireland, the ‘truth vnfould’ may refer to the New English successfully setting up plantations throughout the land; especially beyond the relatively small region they perilously inhabit called the Pale. Peace and fecundity will come naturally to an island already equipped with the required resources to enter a Saturnian Golden Age, as Irenius implies in Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland (1598 first pub. 1633):
And sure it is yet a most beautifull and sweet countrey as any is under heaven, being stored throughout with many goodly rivers, replenished with all sorts of fish most abundantly, sprinkled with many very sweet ilands and goodly lakes, like little inland seas, that will carry even shippes upon their waters, adorned with goodly woods even fit for building of houses and ships, so commodiously, as that if some Princes in the world had them, they would soone hope to be lords of all the seas, and ere long of all the world: also full of very good ports and havens opening upon England, as inviting us to come unto them, to see what excellent commodities that countrey can afford, besides the soyle it selfe most fertile, fit to yield all kinde of fruit that shall be committed thereunto. And lastly, the heavens most milde and temperate, though somewhat more moist then the parts towards the West. (Spenser View 27)
However, the uncivilised Irish make ‘all that goodly countrey [Ireland] utterly wasted’ (Spenser View 27). It is left to the New English settlers to utilise the island’s abundant resources. Talus represents the English army who will suppress, even slaughter, the indigenuous Irish and the assimilated Old English (who first settled in Ireland after Henry II’s initial conquest of the Ireland in 1169-71) under the guise of imposing ‘justice’ on the troubled land.
Under a similar motivation of supposed injustice to rival Talus’ extermination of Faerie Land’s undesirables, the Solomon Kane movie shows how the ‘killing machine’ first resists his calling and suffers narcissistically as a result. Kane painfully stands back to watch the slaughter by zombified soldiers of a puritan family he has befriended, and could have saved if he hadn’t refrained penitently from violence. The only survivors are the mother who remains with her murdered husband possibly to perish in the harsh landscape, and the family’s beautiful daughter Meredith who is taken by the zombie-like men to their leader’s, the sorcerer Malachi’s, lair. In order to rescue Meredith, the archetypal damel in distress, Kane is first crucified on a cross to be reborn or remoulded as a figure representing justice. So Purefoy’s Kane becomes like the original Kane who as his creator, Robert E. Howard, writes:
All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak and fighting oppression, he neither knew nor questioned why. That was his obsession, his driving force of life. Cruelty and tyranny to the weak sent a red blaze of fury, fierce and lasting, through his soul. (Howard 37)
Like Talus, Kane’s raison d’être is to rid the world of injustices. However, Howard infers that Kane helps ‘the weak’ in order to purge his own soul, rather than provide Samaritan aid. It is a dilemma that Kane is painfully aware of:
Kane mechanically cleansed his sword on his tattered garments. The trail ended here, and Kane was conscious of a strange feeling of futility. He always felt that, after he had killed a foe. Somehow it always seemed that no real good had been wrought: as if the foe had, after all, escaped his just vengeance. (Howard 47)
The problem is that Kane does not experience an exalted feeling of narcissistic gratification through his sense of justice. He is more like a serial killer who has to keep murdering ‘enemies’ for momentary fulfilment before moving on to his next target. The realization that his ‘trail’ has ended is an emptiness caused by Kane’s desire to continue killing. Kane’s admission ‘that no real good had been wrought’ implies that using a sword to dispense justice is not effective. The foe has escaped the punishment of admitting their guilt for their crimes, or even acknowledging that one has been committed. Justice in the sense of being a civilised objective appraisal of an alleged crime has been replaced by the instinctive need to survive.
After his recall to the Faerie Court that curtailed his plans ‘to reforme that ragged common-weale [Faerie Land aka Elizabethan Ireland]‘ (V.xii, line 26) Artegall’s compunction about his notion of justice may be echoed through his encounter with the monstrous Hag, Distraction:
Saying, that he had with vnmanly guile,
And foule abusion both his honour blent,
And that bright sword [Chrysaor], the sword of Iustice lent
Had stayned with reprochfull crueltie,
In guiltlesse blood of many an innocent: (V.xii. 40, lines 3-7)
Justice is equated with mass slaughter, which has a resonance with Lord Arthur Grey de Wilton’s military tactics as Lord Deputy in Ireland from 1580-82. Like Artegall, Lord Grey was recalled to England largely because he authorised the Smerwick massacre (1580). At Smerwick, Irish men, women and children were killed. Additionally, in order to turn them to Protestantism, the Irish were tortured by having their arms and legs smashed before being hanged. What is particularly striking is that in the Solomon Kane movie, Kane battles the sorcerer Malachi whose followers raid English villagers and crucify rebels. Malachi’s barbarous leadership is not unlike Lord Grey’s, so that Kane may represent the notorious Irish rebel leader Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone.
Justice, then, to borrow the slogan from the Solomon Kane film becomes a matter of fighting ‘Evil… With Evil’. Yet, without a sense of justice, the pertinent question becomes where does evil end and good begin?
Bassett, Michael J dir. Solomon Kane. Wandering Star Pictures/Davis Films/Cap Films, 2009.
Howard, Robert E. ‘Red Shadows’. 1928. The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. New York: Random House, 1998.
Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1633.Eds. Andrew Hadfield & Willy Maley. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
—. The Faerie Queene. 1590 & 1596. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.