Monday, April 16, 2012

Ape-Beasts & Tex-Mex

Look at all the video games with fantasy settings made in the last few decades. Why is there a Yeti in almost every single one of them? You can't even swing a sword or cast a fireball without hitting one.

I think it's because a certain Robert E. Howard in the early 1930's loved ape-beasts and tex-mex food.

I'll explain.

It's established fact that Texas and its signature cuisine inspired him to write the Conan the Cimmerian stories. Wikipedia entry on Howard:

"Early 1932 saw Howard taking one of his frequent trips around Texas. He traveled through the southern part of the state with his main occupation being, in his own words, "the wholesale consumption of tortillas, enchiladas and cheap Spanish wine." In Fredericksburg, while overlooking sullen hills through a misty rain, he conceived of the fantasy land of Cimmeria, a bitter hard northern region home to fearsome barbarians. In February, while in Mission, he wrote the poem Cimmeria... It was also during this trip that Howard first conceived of the character of Conan [the Barbarian]."
Middle bit by Cary Nord

And it was these Conan stories that started the whole sword-and-sorcery sub-genre.

Ape-beasts were all over them from the very beginning - Shadows in the Moonlight (1934) and Jewels of Gwahlur (1935) being two prime examples. Howard's love for monstrous simians was obvious.

He once said: "Break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed."

Here are some illustrations of ape-beasts from Conan stories:

It was in "Three-Bladed Doom" (1934), an unpublished El Borak story - not a Conan one, that Howard seems to be directly referring to the Yeti:
"It was like the embodied spirit of this nightmare country, a ghoulish incarnation of a terrible legend, clad in flesh and bone and blood. The creature was a giant ape, as tall on its gnarled legs as a gorilla. But the shaggy hair which covered it was of a strange ashy grey, longer and thicker than the hair on a gorilla. Its feet and hands were more man-like, the great toes and thumbs more like those of the human than of the anthropoid. It was no arboreal creature, but a beast bred on great plains and barren mountains... Gordon knew it for what it was: the monster whose existence even he had refused to credit, the beast named in myth and legend of the north - the Snow-Ape, the Desert-Man of forbidden Mongolia. He had heard rumors of its existence many times, in wild tales drifting down from a lost, bleak plateau-country of the Gobi never explored by white men. Tribesman had sworn to the stories of a man-like beast which had dwelt there since time immemorial, adapted to the famine and bitter chill of the northern uplands. But Gordon had never seen a man who could prove he had seen one of the brutes."
Illustration by Jim and Ruth Keegan for "Three-Bladed Doom"

In 1955, author L. Sprague de Camp reconfigured the "Three-Bladed Doom" to be a Conan story in the novella, "The Flame Knife".

This time, the Snow-Ape was even more obviously a Yeti:
"It was like a ghoulish incarnation of a terrible legend, clad in flesh and bone; a giant ape, as tall on its gnarled legs as a gorilla. It was like the monstrous man-apes that hunted the mountains around the Vilayet Sea...but it was even larger; its hair was longer and shaggier, as of an arctic beast, and paler, as ashen grey that was almost white."
Sounds like Yeti to me. And this would have been written in the middle of mid-1950's Yeti fever: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's Everest expedition, giant footprint sightings, the Pangboche scalp, etc.

Here are some illustrations of the Yeti from "The Flame Knife":



Conan and the Snow Ape (Oil on canvas, 18 X 24, 2001) by Don Marquez

So it was partly because of Howard's Yeti love in those bygone days that a certain Gary Gygax, fan of Howard's sword-and-sorcery stories, decided it was a natural fit to include the Yeti in the bestiary of his pen-and-paper role-playing game back in the 1970's.

(I have no doubt Gygax was eating enchiladas at the time. Ambrosia of the gods, I tell you.)

And D&D became the inspiration and blueprint for all the countless video games with fantasy settings that have been developed.

And the Yeti, hitched there long ago by a certain Tex-Mex-munchin' Robert E. Howard, went along for the ride.

It's a staple.

All this week: YETIS & SWORD & SORCERY!

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