Texan Robert Ervin Howard was in Fredericksburg in 1932 when he got the idea to write a fantasy adventure. Allegedly, the surrounding landscape, as he saw it on a misty morning back then, inspired him to write his poem, “Cimmeria,” which he eventually wrote while in Mission.
South and Central Texas inspired Howard to create Conan and tales of his feats during the fictional Hyborean Age. Howard is considered the “father of the sword and sorcery subgenre,” only rivaled in preeminence by J.R.R. Tolkien in fantasy literature. So if you enjoy that brand of story such as that written by Michael Moorcock and Steven Erikson, and the art that goes with it such as that of artist Frank Frazetta, who created the Death Dealer painting and sculpture that III Corps uses as its symbol, you have a son of the Lone Star State to thank.
If you’re wondering about Stan Lee and the Stan Lee Media, Inc. comic book connection to Conan, I can’t tell you as much about that except that the character is, from what I have researched, based on the Howard character.
And I have not yet seen the film starring Jason Momoa. I’m not sure I’m ready to see a Conan that isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger. I remember seeing the 1982 film in the theater and, to me, that’s who Conan will always be. Besides that, how do you top a cast that includes James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow? And Sandahl Bergman’s “Valeria” puts any other female lead to shame. She remains one of my top ten memorable female film characters nearly thirty years later.
Why yes, I am a big, ol’ sword and sorcery film nerd. Why do you ask?
I have my fellow Texan, Robert Howard, to blame for my love of this stuff. He gave us Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror. I got to meet Kevin Sorbo who played Kull at a premiere of the film back in 1997. The film was a flop, but Sorbo rocked the premiere. It was there that I learned Sorbo worked briefly in Dallas as club security in a popular nightclub back during my college years. We joked about having possibly passed each other at the club without even knowing it. So, there’s another Texas connection to sword and sorcery pop culture.
When folks start to hem and haw about how weird Texas and Texans are, listing among our foibles our “redneckedness,” our twang and our penchant for pickup trucks, I have to chuckle silently to myself because they never mention Conan the Barbarian. When non-Texans start making fun of our obsession with guns, I refrain from saying, “Yeah, but you ought to see our collection of broadswords.”
Howard was born in Peaster on January 22, 1906. His mother ignited his love of poetry and writing, and, considering the Texan penchant for tall tales, it was only a matter of time before he put pen to paper and created something epic. He loved boxing and bodybuilding, too, making him something of an intellectual athlete, so you can kind of see how Conan came to be.
Howard traveled Texas, visiting cowtowns and boomtowns, talking to Civil War veterans, cowboys and not a few unsavory types for character inspiration. In my research of Howard, I learned that in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in October 1930, Howard wrote, “I've seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”
That’s a poetic turn of phrase if ever I read one. And it precisely summed up Texas in the late 1920s and early 1930s too. If you know your Hyborean Age and Cimmeria, then you can clearly see some parallels. Add to that Howard’s love of Greco-Roman and Celtic mythology (the fictional god Crom is based on the Celtic god, Crom Cruach of pre-Christian Ireland), and you’ve got one big whopper of a good yarn.
He found an outlet for his Conan and Kull the Conqueror stories in the aptly-named 1930s pulp magazine, Weird Tales. The content of the publication was strange and macabre, which made it one of the classic, best-remembered pulps, mostly because of the influence of Howard and his two contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft (y’all are probably familiar with Cthulu) and Clark Ashton Smith.
Sadly, Howard died before he could truly enjoy the fruits of his creation. I speculate that if he had lived, he would have gone on to greater success and Texas might have been known for something other than oil wells and cowboys.
Texas definitely inspires the imagination. The next time you travel through Central and South Texas, take a look around and picture Conan the Cimmerian while you recite this from Howard’s work, Queen of the Black Coast written in 1934: “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”
As for me, I choose to look around the Lone Star State and remember Howard as his neighbor in Cross Plains, Elsie Burns, remembered him when she first met him and his dog back in 1915 when he was about nine years old. He said, “I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for a morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play make-believe. Someday I am going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. Would you like to read them?”
I think to myself, “Yes, Robert. Yes I very much would. And I very much have enjoyed reading them, because when I was a child in Texas, I, too, was inspired by rocks and caves, and I dreamed of pirates and barbarians and cannibals…and definitely writing all about them.”