Was Tolkien a Robert E. Howard Fan?

Although it is possible to trace many of [Tolkien’s] story themes and plot devices to their origins in northern mythology and literature, he certainly does not intend to hint that his readers should superimpose a map of ancient Europe and the Near East over his imaginary chart of Middle-earth, as one is supposed to do, for example, with the world of the Hyborian Age wherein the fantasy writer Robert E. Howard laid the scene for his swashbuckling stories of Conan of Cimmeria… which, by the way, Tolkien has read and said he rather enjoys…
— Lin Carter, Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings

When Lin Carter casually remarked that Tolkien “rather enjoyed” the Conan stories, I doubt he expected that decades later Howard fans and Tolkien fans alike would still be curious about the specifics. Which Conan stories did Tolkien read? How did he get them? Were copies of Weird Tales with lurid Margaret Brundage covers available in England in the ‘30s? If they were, would a respectable Oxford professor have bothered to pick them up? Or did he read The Hour of the Dragon, published in England in 1954 under the title Conan the Conqueror? Does this mean that Howard’s Hyborian Age was somehow an influence on Middle-earth?

Carter’s source for that statement was L. Sprague de Camp, who met Tolkien in person in February 1967. De Camp briefly discussed his visit with the professor in his book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (1976):

[Tolkien] said he found [the anthology] interesting but did not much like the stories in it [...] We sat in the garage for a couple of hours, smoking pipes, drinking beer, and talking about a variety of things. Practically anything in English literature, from Beowulf down, Tolkien had read and could talk intelligently about. He indicated that he ‘rather liked’ Howard’s Conan stories.
Swords & Sorcery.jpg

The anthology is question was Swords & Sorcery, which contains classic stories by many DMR favorites, including Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, C.L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith. De Camp, the anthology’s editor, had sent Tolkien a copy in July 1964. “Shadows in the Moonlight” by Howard is included in Swords & Sorcery, so we know for a fact that Tolkien had at least one Conan story in his possession. But did he like it? For that matter, did he even read it?

In 2011, Tolkien’s personal copy of the book was offered for sale, along with a handwritten critique of some of the stories. Unfortunately for us Tolkien did not offer his thoughts on “Shadows in the Moonlight;” however, of the stories he did comment on, his opinions were far from complimentary. Tolkien declared “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweler” was “Dunsany at his worst” and disparaged the ending as “lamentable” and “ghastly.” He turned up his nose at the “very bad” nomenclature in Anderson’s “The Valor of Cappen Varra” and found the monster in Smith’s “The Testament of Athammaus” “wholly unbelievable” and “disgusting.” Moore’s “Hellsgarde” was the only tale that contained any elements Tolkien felt worthy of praise, stating that the atmosphere was “eerie and credible,” yet he dismissed Jirel’s struggle with the undead as “quite unconvincing.”

Considering how distasteful he found these classic sword and sorcery stories, it’s difficult to imagine he would have enjoyed “Shadows in the Moonlight,” which is solid, but hardly considered one of Howard’s best. Perhaps he preferred other Conan tales? Let us return to where the rumor sprang from, L. Sprague de Camp. In a 1983 letter to John Rateliff, he clarified what he wrote in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers:

During our conversation, I said something casual to Tolkien about my involvement with Howard’s Conan stories, and he said he “rather liked them”. That was all: we went on to other subjects. I know he had read Swords and Sorcery because I had sent him a copy. I don’t know if he had read any other Conan besides “Shadows in the Moonlight”, but I rather doubt it.

So our only source that Tolkien might possibly have been a Conan fan believes that Tolkien probably read one Conan story at most. That’s not much to go on. Still, we don’t have ironclad evidence one way or the other. What we do have is an interview with The Telegraph which was conducted one year after his meeting with de Camp. Tolkien was asked about his reading preferences:

In any case, I don’t read much now, not even fairy-stories. And then I’m always looking for something I can’t find.” We asked what that was. He replied, “Something like what I wrote myself.

It appears that at this point in his life, the only writer Tolkien was a fan of was Tolkien.