One of the stranger quirks of literary history is the collaboration between the big morose Texan pulpster and the genteel Oxford don.
To blame is a mechanical fault that saved Howard’s life when he tried to commit suicide, propelling him into volunteering in the Spanish Civil War. The wounded Howard had been shipped to England by sympathisers. Though he was still distraught by the death of his buddy Hemmingway – famously, the two finally egged each other on into a heroic but fatal escapade within six months of the war’s close – he immediately hit it off with the academic.
Tolkien, on his part, saw in the Texan “…the very manifestation of the men of Middle Earth.” Abandoning attempts to create what would have been a cumbersome work in the Romantic tradition, Tolkien set about cheering up his new friend.
What started out as a weekend’s literary game on the banks of Lake Windermere, blossomed into a collaboration that only ended with Tolkien’s death in 1973. Who has not thrilled at Strider’s adventures in the mysterious Eastern Lands (the classic example being “Strider the Oliphant Rider”)? Or gawped at arguably the highpoint of the series where Strider carves his way into Mordor, hacks off the head of the Dark Lord, and casts it into the pit of a volcano?
An interesting literary footnote is Tolkien’s little-read solo effort “Lord of the Hyborian Age”. Howard, in mourning for his friend, revived this project and spent the years 1975 until 1990 knocking out well over five million words in the what became known as the “Conan Saga”. The child who grew up listening to the tales of old gunfighters, lived to see his vision translated to silver screen, TV, and ultimately – as a grand old man – computer games.