The Conan and Robert E. Howard Website



by Edward Waterman

The "official" Conan chronology may have outlived its time. Think about the ungainly size of the official chronology. About seventy Conan novels and two movies later, the "official" chronology has swelled to a tremendous girth, implausibly squeezing a mob of adventures into the already crowded life of Conan the Cimmerian. Each and every new Conan novel and story which has been written after Howard's death has been force-fit into the chronology. Does Conan Properties, Inc. really think we'll believe that all of these adventures, over 70 novels, each containing adventures of epic proportions, really happened in the span of one man's lifetime? To make matters worse, Conan Properties, Inc. discredited and destroyed the integrity of their own chronology by adding on an "alternate" timeline which chronicled the events and character origins featured in the two Conan films. Not only is this unrealistic and implausible, but the absurdity of it damages the believability of the character and proves the intrinsic invalidity and sophistry of the entire official Conan chronology.

In addition, the official chronology tends to stifle creativity and thereby hinders the quality of new Conan stories. Because each new Conan story is required to fit within the established timeline and not conflict with the events described in any previously written Conan tale, new authors are prohibited from giving their own view on events which have been previously written about. For example, because L. Sprague de Camp wanted to write the tale of Conan usurping the crown of Aquilonia, he rejected Karl Edward Wagner's proposal to write about the same event, and prohibited any future author from trying their hand at that tale. This is truly a shame, as de Camp's tale of the pivotal point in Conan's life is poorly researched and an anti-climactic let down. Wouldn't it be nice to see another author try to write this tale -- perhaps a better, dramatic, more thoroughly researched version of Conan's rise to the Crown of Aquilonia? Furthermore, farces, satires, stories which might overlap in events, and any other literary forms and innovations are prohibited because of the necessity to fit everything within the rigid timeline.

All Conan stories, both the originals and those written by other authors, are considered to be about the one, "official" Conan by Conan Properties, Inc. Many call this version of the Conan character "Corporate Conan" ... a stripped-down, homogenized version of the character without any of the complexities or personal or artistic qualities given Conan by it's creator, Robert E. Howard. The problem with this is that it tends to prompt readers and critics to judge the original Conan stories by the characteristics and generally poor quality of the pastiches, adaptations, immitations, etc.. Moreover, it implies that there is nothing of merit in the original stories that would be worth preserving or keeping separate from the hacks which followed, which in turn implies that Robert E. Howard is not an author of worth. Putting Howard's work on equal footing with the work of second-rate immitators who could not capture the spirit in Howard's original work was perhaps the biggest mistake of the Conan franchise. The damage done to Howard's literary reputation and the reputation of his magnificent stories is beyond measure.

This aspect of the official chronology that puts pastiches on par with the original stories reflects an orientation that the character is more important than the original work. Further, it indicates that inferior, derivative immitations featuring the Conan character are just as important as Howard's original tales. The pastiches and original stories are lined up side by side, each is given an "official" stamp of approval and no future story written about the Conan character may contradict details or an event that occured in later pastiches or immitations -- let alone Howard's originals. In short, the pastiches usurp and dilute the original concepts of Conan and the inspiration from which the fan base exists. The derrivitive immitations are treated as good as, if not better than, the Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard! It is dumbfounding to think that CPI has forgotten that Howard's original Conan stories are the foundation upon which the success of all past and future stories and adaptations rest.

An alternative to CPI's obsolete and heavy-handed Conan Chronology is readily available. Presumably, the function of the Conan chronology was to allow a series of immitations to be written that could be considered "Conan-like." In other words, stories about the Conan character. Adhering as closely as possible to the original work should be the goal, and not to adhere to the immitations that follow or followed, or any theoretical character chronology. There is something to be said for adhering to the original work when considering the necessity to suspend the disbelief that the character in new stories is the same character as found in the original work. If this is to be the goal, then perhaps some restrictions based upon an analysis of the original work -- and the original work only -- might be reasonable to demand. To require conformance to derivative immitations is not only counterproductive but self-destructive.

Concerning writing stories about events that another author has already delt with -- there is nothing wrong with one author retelling the story written by another author in a different way. This is especially true considering the fact that we are all aware that new Conan stories are in fact the peculiar point of view, stemming from the personal and subjective imagnination of new writers concerning the work of Robert E. Howard. Fans are used to new things, new versions of characters and stories. Throwing out the old continuity and creating a new one (done the right way this time), especially for new Conan novels, is really the only way to
go and would be readily accepted if announced, say, in the introductions of new books, as merely another "version" of Conan. In addition, Conan and Howard fans would be happier because the new stories would be more like Howard's originals (in theory at least) and would certainly pay greater homage to the original author and work. These new versions or retellings may, in fact, turn out to be more interesting, provocative, and entertaining than previous retellings.

These last considerations only concern strict immitations. Other types of stories related to the Conan character can be beneficial to the franchise as a whole as well. The use of the term "pastiche" here has been fairly loose, more often than not referring to strict immitations. Yet, a "pastiche" is not truly a strict immitation but rather a story that, more often than not, immitates for satirical intent. It may also be a work or style produced by borrowing fragments, ingredients, or motifs from various sources -- a hodgepodge, a patchwork, a pasticcio. My point here is merely that stories that simply draw bits and pieces from Howard's original work may be quite good as literary works in and of themselves. Here I am talking not only of pastiches, but also of satires, farces, comedies, ballads, dramas, epics, gothics, mysteries, melodramas, and even science fiction. Any creative utilization of Howard's work is fair game if one wishes to promote a literary franchise in its entirety and unleash the creative flood gates.

In conclusion, the official Conan chronology has now become so cumbersome and difficult to manage that it may have already outlived its time. Whether or not Conan Properties, Inc. recognizes this is a matter of speculation, but it is unlikely.

I could argue that simply reading the stories according to a character chronology is a bad idea, but it's not. You can have a lot of fun trying to figure out a viable character chronology and then reading the stories in that order. I would recommend you also read the stories according to a publishing or writing chronology in order to get everything out of the Conan tales you could, but I certainly wouldn't press the point. Instead, I leave you with a summary of the harm done to Howard and his work by the institutionalization of a Conan character chronology that systematizes and force-fits Howard's work into an artificial framework:

  1. helps to subvert Howard's original vision of the character and stories
  2. diverts attention away from the literary and artistic worth of the work
  3. obscures Howard's message conveyed through the stories
  4. makes the career of the character unbelievable by including too many official adventures
  5. inhibits the writing of artistic and creative pastiches and lowers quality
  6. does not differentiate Howard's original work and treats it on equal footing with all imitations
  7. presents the stories in a way the author probably did not intend
  8. hinders the adoption of a good critical approach to study Howard's work
  9. dilutes and moves further away from the recongnizable image and characteristics of the original Conan character
  10. damages the literary reputation of both Robert E. Howard and his work

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