“Cinematic Universes” and “Expanded Universes” rule popular culture. The titans of entertainment want to offer fans and casual consumers alike the experience of worlds weaving together like sprawling tapestries. And if the strands of those worlds don’t weave together cleanly, online communities will do all they can to make their own tapestries.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Only its scope and empery over popular entertainment is. We only have to look at Conan, Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero, who’s been the focus of more than eight decades of readers trying to create a Conan Saga where the Cimmerian’s many adventures can be laid out in a timeline. Welcome to the deep well of the Conan Chronologies. We’ll just dip our toes into it, since there’s no bottom to the story of an impossible task.
Howard’s Conan stories follow the Cimmerian over roughly forty years. In his letters, REH noted Conan was about seventeen in “The Tower of the Elephant” and in his mid-forties in The Hour of the Dragon. Howard wrote the stories as ideas came to him, so the earliest tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” takes place when Conan is the king of Aquilonia; while the stories that immediately followed, such as “The Tower of the Elephant,” feature a youthful Conan.
The first attempt to create a Conan chronology was done during Howard’s lifetime. In 1936, two science-fiction writers, Dr. John Clark and P. Schuyler Miller, created “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career,” which they sent to Howard for input. Howard was flattered at the attention and wrote back with a few tweaks. The revised essay was published in a fanzine in 1938.
Because of Howard’s input, it would seem this is the definitive chronology. But not according to Howard! In his letter to Clark and Miller, he calls their outline “surprisingly accurate, considering the vagueness of the data you had to work with.” But Howard’s language in the letter is often equivocal: “There are many things concerning Conan’s life of which I am not certain myself.”
The reason for this uncertainty was that Howard treated the Conan stories as an existing chronicle to which he had only partial access: “In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”
Although Howard showed nothing but gratitude to Miller and Clark for their efforts and even made suggestions, he didn’t give their chronology his creative stamp of approval—because he couldn’t. Putting Conan’s life into a concrete order was impossible because the stories came from an unreliable narrator: Conan himself.
The Clark/Miller outline became the raw material for further chronologies over the next decades, when Conan began to reappear in print. L. Sprague de Camp made many of the changes, first incorporating stories unpublished in Howard’s lifetime, then adding new stories by himself and other writers as they grafted on further Conan episodes.
By 1987, now with changes made by Robert Jordan to incorporate the Tor novel series, the chronology was becoming bloated and filled with questionable choices. The space between “Rogues in the House” and “The Queen of the Black Coast” on the first outline was now crammed with over a dozen stories. In 1997, William Galen Gray made changes to the outline and added the remaining Tor novels.
There have since been online challenges to the “Clark/Miller Et Al.” outlines seeking to reassess Conan’s career with a fresh perspective that removed non-REH material. An outline by Joe Marek in the REH United Press Association (REHupa) used only Howard’s stories and made a few significant changes, such as putting “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” first chronologically, displacing “The Tower of the Elephant.” Marek also moved “Xuthal of the Dusk” (i.e. “The Slithering Shadow”) to a new position because of a reference to it in another story, something which Clark, Miller, and Howard all apparently missed.
Marek’s revision lead to 2003’s “Darkstorm Conan Chronology” by Dale Rippke, a substantial rethinking. Rippke’s annotated outline is the most convincing of all the chronologies, with a natural flow appealing enough for Dark Horse Comics to enshrine it as the spine for their Conan series.
If your head is buzzing after even thinking about these outlines (let alone reading them) and you wonder how to make sense piecing together the Conan saga, don’t worry. You can disregard all this if you wish. The Conan chronologies have a place in fandom and Howard studies, and they had an impact on the marketing of the character as his popularity grew in the 1970s. But no outline of Conan’s life could ever be completely accurate, since Robert E. Howard isn’t around to settle the debate. He probably wouldn’t choose to settle it if he were.
The Conan stories function in any order because they’re “fireside tales” from a storyteller jumping around in his career. They don’t need to be in order or even consistent with each other. Each stands on its own. I’ve already suggested The Hour of the Dragon as an excellent starting place for a newcomer, and that takes place when Conan is already middle-aged. The current Conan print editions put the stories in the order Howard wrote them, which is as natural a chronology as exists and provides insights into Howard’s evolving sense of the character, his different fascinations, and his fortunes with Weird Tales.
But if you want to read Conan in the order According to Clark & Miller, Gray, or Rippke … well, Conan himself might have told the stories to you in that order (depending on the day you caught him at the fireside), so jump on in. “The Tower of the Elephant” is great whether you read it first, second, third, or twenty-second.