IMAGINE THE Hyborian Age. A savage, barbarous time 12,000 years in the past, when magic was potent but men were free to act and destroy. A world stocked with a sweeping variety of lands and tribes, all dominated by a single man. A man whose body was "an image of primal strength cut out of bronze," a man who liked his women full-bodied and complaisant but who spent most of his time "afire with the urge to kill, to drive his knife deep into the flesh and bone." A man named Conan.

Created half a century ago by a moody, elusive Texan named Robert E. Howard, ignored and forgotten for decades by all but a handful of stubborn loyalists, Conan is on the verge of becoming a popular culture phenomenon, setting off million-dollar shock waves in New York, Los Angeles and places in between. "With any luck at all," John Milius says slyly, "Conan toys could be voted the most dangerous toys of the year." John Milius ought to know. A strong-minded, maverick filmmaker who wrote both "Magnum Force" and "Apocalypse Now" and wrote and directed "The Wind and the Lion," Milius now has made "Conan the Barbarian," a burly epic that opens nationwide on Friday. "I'm going to give people some good pagan entertainment," Milius says with satisfaction. "I'm not holding myself back. It's 'Conan the Barbarian.' What do you expect? If people think it's too violent, they can see another movie."

Working for a year in the deserts and snow-covered forests of Spain, Milius has created in "Conan the Barbarian" a savage world of furs and stone, a time so dangerous even the dogs wore armor. Influenced in its creator's mind by elements as diverse as Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" and Friedrich Nietzsche, the film features James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, a chilling villain of hypnotic evil; Sandahl Bergman, the "Air Rotica" blond from "All That Jazz," as a sprightly bandit queen; and, most of all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Bicep himself, as Conan. One of the few actors who can and does look convincing biting off a vulture's neck while pinned to a cross, Schwarzenegger is ideal as a hero who has to do battle with both stupendous snakes and seductive sorceresses.

If Schwarzenegger succeeds in hacking a place for Conan in the hearts of audiences, he will have added a final twist to the most improbable of literary/cultural sagas. For Conan was a character that seemed doomed to extinction on a quiet day in 1936 when Robert E. Howard, told that his beloved mother was about to die, took a Colt .38 automatic from the glove compartment of his car and blew his brains out. He was 30 years old.

Robert E. Howard was a contradictory man, a conundrum even to his friends. Dotted around Cross Plains, Texas, the tiny hamlet where he lived and died, are people who knew Howard, straightforward folk who speak with fluid drawls. Yet when his name comes up, they become reluctant to talk about the wraiths of the past, unused to the attention, uncertain really why anyone wants to know.

Lindsey Tyson, Howard's closest friend, is still so upset at how it turned out that conversation on the subject is painful. "He was kinda hard to get acquainted with; you had to know him a good while before you got to know him," he says slowly, remembering. "He could read a great big book in 30 minutes and not forget a word. He had a great mind, but like anyone who was a genius, he was a little peculiar."

A sickly only child, Howard built himself up to a very solid, six-foot-tall, 200-pound teen-ager. Though most of his neighbors regarded him as a harmless eccentric, he liked to feel the world was against him, often stopping in the middle of the street to shadow box with imaginary opponents.

"He liked to play at violence," says Tyson, carefully bringing out several browning photographs that show Howard sparring with gloves on, wrestling, fighting with swords, posing bare-chested with a mock grimace on his face, a knife in one hand, a gun in the other. "That's the one that killed him," Tyson says softly, pointing to the gun. He shakes his head.

If Howard was committed to anything, it was writing. "He told me he'd write or he'd be a tramp," remembers Tyson. "He worked really day and night; he wouldn't sleep maybe for two days until he'd finished what he'd started. When he sold his first story to the legendary pulp, Weird Tales, in 1924, when he was 18 , he got down on his knees and thanked God he'd finally broken into something."

It was for Weird Tales that Howard created a veritable hoard of savage heroes. August 1928 saw the debut of Solomon Kane, Puritan avenger given to saying things like, "Men shall die for this," followed in succeeding years by King Kull, a barbarian ruler who hailed from Atlantis; Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts; and Turlogh Dubh O'Brien, a grim Highlander known for his berserk rages.

A pretty grisly bunch, all told, but they perfectly suited the philosophy Howard was developing. "To hell with the psychologists and city-bred psychoanalysts and all the other freaks spawned by our rotting civilization," is how he expressed it to a friend. Later, he had one of his characters put it this way: "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."

This ideal of strong, noble barbarism reached its culmination sometime in 1932, when Howard began the first of 21 stories he was to write about Conan, his most popular hero, whose ability to wade through life with a broadsword was at the heart of his appeal. "Conan is direct; he solves his problems the way everyone wishes he could," says Robert Weinberg, author of an annotated guide to Howard's work. "Conan doesn't take anything from anybody; he says, 'You bother me, you're going to be in trouble.' " Adds Karl Edward Wagner, fantasy author, Howard authority and psychiatrist, "He appeals to the adolescent in all of us, someone who isn't tied down by laws or rules, who does what we'd want to do and does it so well."

Equally appealing is that Conan, big galoot though he is, has a definite philosophy of life and one that has no small lure today. "I seek not beyond death," Howard has him say at one point. "Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when blue blades flame crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: If life is 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 am content."

Which brings up the final reason for Conan's popularity, the writing style of Robert E. Howard. It is not a style for purists or classicists, but it gets the job done. If Howard makes one wince when he has Conan saying, "I'll split your head like a ripe melon," he can also chill the blood with lines like, "Sanity went out of his face like a flame blown out in the wind," and "We kept life in him until he screamed for death as for a bride." He is a natural storyteller whose imaginary world was much more real than the one he lived in, a magnificent primitive, like his hero.

For a man who embraced death and destruction with such avidity on the printed page, Howard had always been unnaturally close to his mother. "He was one of the home boys; he was never with his father, never," says Annie Newton Davis, a sprightly 88-year-old who knew Howard when he was a boy. "He was so close to his mother, there was nobody in the world but them two."

So when Howard's mother became gravely ill in June 1936, the outcome was painfully predictable. Three times during the previous year he had prepared to take his life when her death appeared imminent, but she had always rallied. This time, when an attending nurse told him that his mother would never recognize him again, he acted. He died eight hours after putting the pistol to his right temple; his mother died the next day without regaining consciousness. Jack Scott, editor of the Cross Plains Review, rushed over to the Howard place as soon as he heard the news. "The old justice of the peace saw me and motioned me inside," Scott remembers. "He led me to a typewriter and said, 'What does this mean?' " On the typewriter were the last words Robert E. Howard ever wrote:

All fled--all done, so lift me on the pyre;

The feast is over and the lamps expire.

"I'm tempted to call it almost existential despair, a crumbling of the universe," says psychiatrist Wagner. "Howard wrote a story I liked very much called 'The Valley of the Lost' about a cowboy who loses his way in a cave and stumbles on a secret world full of monstrous creatures. He manages to escape, but the experience is so shattering, the realization that what seemed a solid world is honeycombed with hidden horrors is so devastating, that he puts his six-gun to his head and kills himself. In a sense this is what happened to Howard as well. With the death of his mother, his shelter collapsed, he realized this was not a steady, firm universe, and his despair was profound."

Howard's heir was his father, Dr. I.M. Howard, who on his own death in 1944 bequeathed the rights to his son's work to a fellow physician who had befriended him, Dr. P.M. Kuykendall of Ranger, Tex. "At the time it was absolutely unimportant financially," remembers Alla Ray Morris, Dr. Kuykendall's daughter. "Every once in a while Daddy would get a check for $12, but that was it."

The Conan revival began very timidly in 1946 when Arkham House, a small fantasy publisher, printed 3,000 copies of a collection of Howard stories called "Skull-Face and Others" with an introduction noting that any further Conan tales "would almost have to be printed on blood-colored paper." Nothing more happened until 1950, when another small house, Gnome Press, published "Conan the Conqueror," Howard's only novel-length work, and followed it with five more Conan titles. The biggest break came in 1966 when Lancer Books Inc. brought out the first of what was to be nine hugely popular Conan paperbacks graced with original art by the then-unknown Frank Frazetta. The wave was starting to build.

Today three major paperback houses--Bantam, Berkley and Ace--have in print or preparation some 65 books either written by Howard or using his characters. Ace's original Conan titles lead the pack with sales approaching 400,000 apiece. The total investment of the three publishers: in excess of $2 million.

For people who don't read books, there is Marvel's series of Howard-related comics and magazines. The flagship was "Conan the Barbarian," begun in 1970 and, with a yearly circulation of more than 4 million, one of Marvel's top sellers and godfather to a daily strip that appears in close to 100 newspapers. Coming on strong are a racy, magazine-format "Savage Sword of Conan," plus "Kull the Destroyer" as well as the irrepressible "Red Sonja, She-Devil With a Sword."

No one was more astonished by this eruption of popularity than Alla Ray Morris of Ranger, who became co-heir along with her mother when Dr. Kuykendall died in 1959. "It was just like finding money," she says now, still sounding stunned. "We couldn't believe it, it was so totally unexpected; we were absolutely and totally amazed. And it was all through an act of kindness, really. Whatever it is you cast upon the waters, we must have done it, because we got back pearls."

The Conan resurgence came about almost entirely because of the efforts of two individuals, Glenn Lord and L. Sprague de Camp, who have each devoted more than 25 years of their lives to the Howard cause and who today, now that their most extravagant dreams have become a plush reality, barely speak to each other. They get along, says a source close to the situation, "kind of like Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat."

Two men more disparate than de Camp and Lord would be difficult to imagine. The former is as erudite and loftily patrician as his name, the author of between 80 and 90 books and the winner of the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula Award for lifetime achievement. The latter is a modest, down-home resident of Pasadena, Tex., who works as a warehouse operator for Champion Papers.

De Camp's interest in the Howard stories was that of a writer who saw an opportunity to do some interesting work. Though he began by editing rediscovered Howard material, de Camp is best known for his pastiches, the nearly 20 stories, novelettes and novels he wrote, sometimes alone, sometimes with collaborators, using Howard's characters and milieu to flesh out the bare outline left by the original stories. "I had a suspicion that if I continued to push and promote this body of work long enough, it might take hold and become a popular success," de Camp says. According to Darrell Schweitzer, author of "Conan's World and Robert E. Howard," "It is the strength of Howard's writing and de Camp's marketing which has made possible virtually every sword and sorcery novel published in the last 10 years."

Glenn Lord describes himself as "just a reader" who enjoyed the stories as they came out in those Gnome Press editions. "It kinda intrigued me, I was fascinated with this author nobody knew anything about, and one thing led to another," he says in his low-key way. Lord got so intrigued that he put together a collection of Howard's poetry called "Always Comes Evening" and paid Arkham House $836 to publish it in 1957. In 1961, he started a specialty magazine called The Howard Collector and in 1965 it was L. Sprague de Camp who suggested Lord for the job as literary agent for the Howard heirs.

Lord's function from that day on has been as keeper of the flame. He has painstakingly and tirelessly tracked down everything Robert E. Howard ever wrote, publishing the results in a "bio-bibliography" called "The Last Celt" and getting his wife "a little disgusted at times" with the extent of his mania.

A clash between these two men seemed inevitable, and while de Camp partisans feel Lord isn't a worldly enough agent and Lord partisans say de Camp is overly avaricious, the key to the conflict is those de Camp pastiches. De Camp feels that they--and he--made Conan what he is today by keeping him in the public eye, but Lord says flatly that "no one can write like somebody else; one bad pastiche does more harm than good in the long run by turning people off." Most experts in the small world of Conan seem to agree, but that bothers de Camp not at all. "Howard's admirers tend to look on his work as a kind of holy writ," he says. "They feel about pastiche writing the way devoutly orthodox Christians feel about the Book of Mormon." Currently working on a biography of Howard, he doesn't want to go into his personal differences with anyone: "I'm a man of fairly advanced years doing very interesting work and I don't have time to waste on feuds and grudges."

Besides, de Camp points out, he and Lord are partners. In 1977, Conan Properties Inc.--which one observer calls "an unlikely alliance of people who really don't like each other"--was formed at the insistence of a nervous man who wears rose-tinted glasses and rarely speaks above a whisper. His name is Ed Pressman, and it is with his entrance that Conan's finest hour begins.

The heir to a toy company and producer of such eclectic films as Terry Malick's "Badlands" and Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise," Pressman was a late-comer to the world of Conan, but once introduced, via the barbarian-inspired art of Frank Frazetta, he became a tireless believer. "I thought, 'My God, I've been missing all this.' The whole phenomenon intrigued me, the idea that here was a whole gestalt that was obviously exciting to many people. And it was so naturally cinematic."

Pressman's immediate choice for the lead role was Schwarzenegger. Five times Mr. Universe, six times Mr. Olympia, he seems as rock solid a human being as ever walked the earth, a man born for the role of Conan. Yet at the time he was approached by Ed Pressman, not only had he never heard of the barbarian, he also had never heard of Ed Pressman.

"He saw me at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard and came over to say hello," Schwarzenegger says. "It's one of the typical things that happens to me every day. Someone comes over and says, 'Hi, I'm a producer, I want to make a movie and I want you to be the star.' I never, of course, pay any attention to this, but Pressman talked in such a low-key fashion that I took him seriously. He is a man who has kind of a weak appearance but has a very great inner strength."

Strength is something Schwarzenegger knows a lot about, and when he talks about that quality in Conan, he is clearly impressed. "I see him as an animal," he says when asked for a character analysis. "He has learned to defend himself in every situation. What separates him from other people is that he doesn't think, he just acts. In his world, if you take time to think, it will be too late. No one else gives him a break; he has to do everything himself. I find him very inspirational."

Equally inspired was director John Milius, whose attachment to the Howard stories is close to religious. "I believe in the barbarian ethic," he says. "I have a distrust of those civilizing influences that are in all of us. I favor a kind of simpler, more action-based view of things, and I'm going to give the movie a real sense of pagan morality."

He reaches for one of Ron Cobb's production sketches of Conan's primitive world and his eyes dance. "You must have this in your life; you must have adventure," he says. "That's why men go off to war. It's not that they want to die; they want the sensation of throwing it all on the line."

Milius relaxes in his chair and remembers the time when someone asked him what he wanted to accomplish in film: Did he want to make great statements or what? "I told him I came to this business because I wanted to make B westerns, that that was the highest dream I aspired to," he says, completely serious. "I see Conan pretty much the same way. I'm comfortable with the material and the atmosphere. It's easy for me to live with. I'd be happy, I'd be honored, to make Conan movies for the rest of my life."