The World of Robert E. Howard: Barbarians, Brawn and Pseudo-History

Robert E. Howard - Under the Influence

In Signature's Under the Influence series, we examine the literary influences of famous writers, rooted in their upbringing with friends and family, or exposure to other famous writers' works. 

Pulp fiction-era writer Robert E. Howard is the celebrated father of fantasy character Conan the Cimmerian, a barbarian hero who's known for besting demons, wizards and warriors armed with nothing but guile and a strong sword arm.

The brooding warrior with piercing blue eyes and a mane of thick, black hair became Howard’s trademark character. While he created many other heroes (Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane to name just two), none of them have reached the same permanence of pop culture as Conan the Barbarian. Howard found it relatively easy to write about the character, nothing to friends that he sometimes felt like Conan was standing behind him and telling him his stories as he wrote.

Conan is a fantasy character, but it is likely that Howard drew at least some of his inspiration from Texas's frontier history. He was a keen student of the past, and it’s not hard to see similarities between the fiercely independent, physically capable roughneckers of Texas history and that of Conan the Cimmerian. His personal library contained many works of history and historical fiction, most notably several volumes by Texas folklorist and historian J. Frank Dobie. His A Vaquero of the Brush County depicted conflict between the independent lifestyle of the cowboy and the rise of ranch communities. Another, Coronado’s Children, was a collection of stories about adventurers who left lives of relative safety to become gold prospectors. Striking out from civilization to make one’s own destiny is the kind of plan that Conan would definitely approve.

Howard’s rugged prose style owes a debt to American adventure novelists Jack London and Harold Lamb. Howard was a huge fan of London’s prose and poetry alike, and his first novel, a pseudo-biographical work titled Post Oaks & Sand Roughs, was directly inspired by London’s Martin Eden. Both London and Howard explored issues like death, destiny and free will, and featured strong, individualistic characters in their fiction. Harold Lamb isn’t as well-known as London, but he too exerted an enormous influence over Howard. Lamb was an historian as well as a fiction writer, and much of what he wrote was firmly rooted in historical fact. Howard was captivated by Lamb’s adventurous tales of the Crusades (he owned Pyle’s The Crusades and Tamerlane) and counted him as one of his favorite writers.

Robert E. Howard, Age Five in 1911

Howard love history, but he had an eye for the fantastic, too. Dark gods and forgotten evils lurk in the shadows of his Conan stories, and much of this can be attributed to the influence of other horror and dark fantasy authors he knew, the biggest of which was H.P. Lovecraft, author of The Call of Cthulhu and many other short stories now known collectively as The Cthulhu Mythos. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded regularly, but never met in person. Howard, like the rest of Lovecraft’s small circle of writer friends, contributed bits and pieces to the Mythos through his own stories, most notably 1932’s Worms of the Earth.

Conan is an undeniably fascinating character, made all the more so by the setting of his stories in The Hyborian Age, an ancient version of Earth described as existing before the Great Flood. Conan’s world was one very familiar to our own, with nations like "Aquilonia" standing in for Rome, and "Gunderland" for Germany. In Howard’s mythology, these nations were the prehistorical precursors to their real-world counterparts, and their people the "root races" of modern humanity. It was a stroke of genius for a history buff like Howard: By setting Conan’s adventures in a fictitious past, the author was free to draw inspiration from history without having to worry too much about accuracy.

Howard’s historical readings were very influential in the creation of the Hyborian Age, but credit must also be given to works of mysticism and pseudo-history, like Lewis Spence’s and Ignatius Donnelly’s works on Atlantis, (The Problem of Atlantis and Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, respectively) and Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. These books, like many others, proposed the existence of ancient yet highly advanced, prehistoric societies that sank beneath the seas. The Hyborian Age holds much in common with all of these long lost worlds.

Howard wrote his last Conan adventure, Red Nails, in 1936. Tragically, he committed suicide later that year. Although Howard is gone, Conan has proven to be nearly immortal, having risen from his obscure pulp fiction roots to become an iconic figure in pop culture. Even if they've never heard the name Robert E. Howard, millions of fantasy fans now know his character Conan through video games, comic books, movies and stories.