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The Chronology Controversy

By Edward A. Waterman

The timeline of events outlining the life of Robert E. Howard's immortal barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian, has been a matter of interest to fans for over sixty-three years, and a matter of debate for over twenty-six. The generally accepted name for this timeline is the "Conan Chronology," and of primary importance is the sequence of the individual Conan stories therein.

For Conan fans who admire the giant Cimmerian, the chronology offers an opportunity to feel closer to the character, to see an overall career of the character, and to read a kind of fictional biography. For marketers of the Conan property, the Conan chronology focuses attention on the character rather than the author, stories, or literary achievements, which in turn eases the introduction of an ongoing series of new character-based stories and merchandise which is organized around the character rather than the original literature or author. And lastly, organizing and linking the short stories together in a cohesive chronology can simulate a form of literature comparable to that of modern novels, which might make the literature easier to sell to publishers. All these are reasons why the Conan chronology is a matter of interest among various parties. However, none of these reasons address the validity of the chronology itself nor its usefulness from a literary perspective.


A Brief History:

The first Conan chronology, entitled "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career," was written in 1936 by two Howard fans, P. S. Miller and John D. Clark. Their essay ordered the seventeen originally published Conan stories in a sequence of events which the authors felt accurately depicted the Conan character's saga and life. Miller sent a rough draft of the essay to Robert E. Howard shortly before his death. Howard, flattered that someone would be "so interested in Conan as to work out an outline of his career," then reviewed it, made some small corrections in a letter to Miller dated March 10, 1936, and gave "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career" and its authors praise, stating that Miller's timeline was "surprisingly accurate" and that it followed Howard's visualization of Conan's career "pretty closely." Miller and Clark made the corrections indicated by Howard, added an additional Conan tale, and published the timeline in The Hyborian Age two years later in 1938.

L. Sprague de Camp updated the timeline in the 1950's by including all the posthumously published Conan stories, finished story fragments, and pastiches. De Camp's updated timeline was later adopted by the copyright holders, Conan Properties, Inc. (CPI), as the "official," one and only Conan character chronology. Every new Conan story is required by CPI to fit within this official timeline and not conflict with any previously written story regarding times and events in Conan's official life.


The Validity of the "Official" Chronology:

Kevin Miller was the first to publicly question the "official" Conan chronology in his article, "Another Chronology" (published in Amra, Vol. 2, No. 59, February 1973) . In the article he asserts that "The Frost Giant's Daughter" should be placed as the first story in the series and that "The God in the Bowl" should be listed directly after "Rogues in the House." Both of these criticisms deal with stories published years after Howard's death. The placement of all the posthumously published Conan stories is less credible and much more open to debate because Howard never reviewed or commented upon their place in the timeline.

The primary problem with the official chronology, aside from the fact that it's based on the Miller/Clark chronology (discussed below), regards the arbitrary placement of the Conan story fragments (stories which REH did not finish and set aside). Many, if not all, of these fragments contain so little chronological or biographical evidence that it is nearly impossible to determine their placement in respect to the published stories or their sequence in the chronology. For example, "The Hand of Nergal" (The Last Celt, D.M. Grant Publishers, 1976, pg. 355) consists of eleven paragraphs of text. There is not one shred of information within this fragment which would allow anyone to place it in a geographical zone of Howard's Hyborian Age, let alone a timeline! In other fragments it's possible to determine where the story took place, but not when. The lack of internal evidence in most of the story fragments makes their placement in a chronology impossible, and ultimately arbitrary. They could fit anywhere.

The Validity of "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career":

Miller and Clark's timeline, "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career," has in the past been considered the only "authentic" chronology because it was reviewed and corrected by Robert E. Howard. A superficial reading of Howard's letter to P.S. Miller dated March 10, 1936 seems to convey that Howard reviewed the Miler/Clark timeline, found only a few errors which he then corrected, and gave the chronology a stamp of approval. However, a careful reading of the letter shows that Howard may not have fully approved of the timeline or considered it to depict the true career of his Conan character. Howard never says that Miller got the timeline correct, nor does he tell us that the few errors he corrected were the only errors in the timeline. Phrases such as "surprisingly accurate," "pretty closely," and "about as you have worked out" are the words Howard chose to describe the timeline. His comments are never direct and always qualified, which leaves room for different interpretations and the possibility that the timeline is not entirely accurate. Also, it should be noted that, whereas Howard authorized Miller to publish the outline of his fictional world, "The Hyborian Age," he never authorized the publication of Miller's "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career."

Another possibility occurs when you consider that Miller sent Howard the timeline only months before his death. At that time, Howard was caring for his seriously ill mother whose health was failing quickly, and he had stopped writing almost entirely. Howard simply may not have had the time or the inclination to do a comprehensive review of Miller's timeline.

Lastly, we know that the version of "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career" which Howard saw was not the version that was eventually published. First, the last Conan tale, "Red Nails," hadn't been published at the time Miller wrote the timeline and sent it to Howard. Second, Miller's final, published version includes the changes Howard suggested. Although it is unlikely that Miller would have changed the order of the stories after Howard's death, it is never-the-less a possibility.

Up to this point all this has been supposition, however when you start looking at each story and placing them according to clues in their text, you find that not only can many stories be placed in multiple locations in the timeline, but that the text of the stories actually contradicts the Miller/Clark chronology.

The most compelling evidence to avoid taking the Miller/Clark chronology as cannon is the internal evidence found within the stories which contradicts the timeline. Joe Marek, a member of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHupa), was the first to question the placement of the originally published Conan stories in the Miller/Clark timeline. In his REHupa fanzine for Mailing 63 (March 1983), Joe Marek addressed the following to L. Sprague de Camp (who was also a member of the group at the time):

"In CONAN THE ADVENTURER, in the story "Xuthal of the Dusk," which Wright retitled "The Slithering Shadow", Conan encounters the city of Xuthal. In "The Devil in Iron", events remind him of Xuthal -- how can this be? "The Devil in Iron" is supposed to occur before "The Slithering Shadow." How can the people of Xapur remind him of other people he HASN'T EVEN MET YET!! WHAT DOES THIS DO TO THE CHRONOLOGY???? PLEASE COMMENT."

De Camp replied in the next mailing, in a letter dated 10 March 1983:

"Congratulations to eagle-eyed Joe Marek, for having caught an inconsistency that had escaped Clark, Miller, and me. This is the allusion in THE DEVIL IN IRON to "the black lotus of Xuthal" (CONAN THE WANDERER, p. 104) before Conan had visited Xuthal. It also escaped Howard himself, since Clark and Miller submitted their sketch of Conan's career to him, putting THE DEVIL IN IRON before THE SLITHERING SHADOW, and REH approved the scheme."

In 1997, Joe Marek went to work on a revised Conan character chronology. The result, an article titled "Some Comments on Chronologies in Regards to the Conan Series," was published in two parts in REHupa (mailings #148 - December 1997 and #149 - February 1998).

In light of this error found in the Miller/Clark chronology, what conclusion can we draw other than that the Miller/Clark chronology isn't accurate? And if it is not accurate in one detail, how many other errors are there? And where do we place "Xuthal of the Dusk" in the timeline anyway; and will one placement of the story in the timeline be any more reliable than any other placement?

The difficulty in placing any of the Conan stories in a character chronology is that there is very little internal evidence within the stories. Howard scholars have disproved the Miller/Clark outline, but have not been able to devise a substitute outline that can, with certainty, depict Conan's career (at least not yet).


The Validity of Any Conan Chronology:

There is some question about the validity of any Conan chronology, regardless of the sequence in which the stories are arranged. The issue arises out of the method and order in which Howard wrote the Conan tales, and logical incompatibilities between the stories themselves.

Robert E. Howard wrote and published the Conan stories in a seemingly random order. The first Conan story Howard wrote featured his character as King of Aquilonia near the end of the character's career ("The Phoenix on the Sword"), and the second story jumped to the beginning of Conan's career as a young barbarian ("The Frost Giant's Daughter"). After that, Howard wrote the stories somewhat haphazardly from a character perspective; from a young Conan, to old, to middle-aged as the mood hit him.

Unlike most of today's sequel writers, Howard wrote each of his stories to stand alone as separate adventures, on their own merit and not dependent on any previous story-line. Howard was writing individual adventures, not a saga; the plot of one Conan story never carried over into the plot of a second Conan tale. It is very possible that Howard never intended the Conan stories to be fit within a timeline or chronology at all! About the Conan stories Howard writes:

"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."

-Howard to P.S. Miller, March 10, 1936

Current theories of Howard's writing method, particularly Rusty Burke's concept of "persona", seem to indicate that Howard wrote on impulse, when the inspiration or mood hit him. A rigid timeline could have restricted Howard's creativity and spontaneity by preventing him from writing a story which conflicts with a timeline. Therefore, it is very possible that Howard never had any such timeline in mind while writing the stories—at least not a rigid outline of Conan's life in detail.

However, we do know that Howard had at least a VERY VAGUE outline of Conan's career, consisting of Conan as a young barbarian and Conan as King of Aquilonia. This is deduced from the fact that the first two Conan stories written by REH were "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Frost Giant's Daughter." So he had to have at least that much in mind. Beyond this vague timeline, the chronology question is more muddied. It's entirely possible that Howard didn't have any greater sense of a chronology or series of events whatsoever.

An obvious question arises here: If Howard didn't have a strict chronology in mind, then why did he include chronological and biographical clues in the stories? If you read the pure text of the Conan tales in the order in which Howard wrote or published them, you begin to see how Howard used details from previous stories to flesh out a new story he was writing and provide some continuity, some linkage, from story to story for the reader. This is completely understandable and a common practice among writers. Writers often use places, people, events, and other details from previous stories to establish that it is the same character and to embellish yarns they are currently writing. Why would REH be any different? With each written story, there existed more and more background information from which to embellish on his new stories. It is very possible that this is the reason we see references to places and times from story to story, not because of a predetermined character chronology.

To be fair, however, it is possible that Howard developed a character chronology for Conan as he went along, rather than a predetermined, systematic timeline. With each new tale, Howard could have steadily, if haphazardly, developed the character's life ... or perhaps the chronology developed by itself inadvertently as he wrote each new story. By the time Howard received Miller and Clark's outline of Conan's career, all of the Conan stories had been written and what we know of Conan's lifetime would have already been put on paper and developed. It is possible that Howard could have had a well conceived idea of Conan's lifetime by the time Miller wrote Howard. On the other hand, there is currently no hard evidence that Howard even considered organizing and ordering the stories in a chronological sequence before he reviewed Miller's letter.

There are also internal literary aspects of the Conan stories which thwart considering all the stories together as one consistent and logical timeline. Howard often "borrowed" themes and plots from previously written stories to write later stories. As a result, we sometimes see two similar versions of the same story. For example, the plot of "The Scarlet Citadel" is strikingly similar to THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. And how could we explain away the story elements apparently lifted from "Black Colossus" and plugged into "Drums of Tombalku" in a way that makes sense? Sure, "Drums of Tombalku" is a story fragment and was probably not intended by Howard to be considered a true Conan tale, but the point is that they don't quite "mesh" if taken together. It's as if the stories are set in two alternate universes, one with similar but slightly different events from the other.

Finally, it bears repeating that because there is so little internal evidence within the stories, ordering all of the Conan tales according to a character chronology seems almost impossible. Some stories are generally known to take place before other stories (thought it is not known how far before), while other stories cannot be placed with any certainty at all. We can try to group stories by geographical location, by travel time, by Conan's occupation, by certain themes or events, or just with a "sense" of where the stories should be placed, but none of these are any more factual or more true than the other. Still, fans continue to study the issue, and a breakthrough which no one has seen before may come … however unlikely that may seem.


The Usefulness of a Chronology:

There is some question regarding the usefulness of any Conan chronology, and whether or not it actually does more harm than good?

From the perspective of a Conan fan, a character chronology gives the reader a continuity and context for following the stories, but it is not the only possible continuity or context in which to read the stories, nor is it necessarily the continuity or context through which the author intended his readers to view the Conan tales. In fact, Howard didn't write the stories according to a systematic or logical history of Conan's career, so why would we assume the stories can be fitted into a logical or chronological scheme? And does force-fitting the tales into a systematic timeline damage or somehow obscure important aspects of the literature?

Perhaps the most grievous harm the character chronology perpetrates upon the work of Robert E. Howard is that it diverts attention away from the literary and artistic worth of the work. A character chronology focuses the reader on the character instead of the literature or the author, which tends to blind the reader to the deeper literary qualities of the stories such as metaphor, allusion, poetic turns of phrases, underlying themes, philosophies, morals, and psychological truths. Alternately, if one reads the Conan tales in the order in which Howard published them (the publishing chronology) or in the order Howard wrote the stories (the writing chronology), the reader is given a much more in-depth view of the stories themselves, the character development of Conan, and the development of the author as a writer. One can actually see the fictional character and world develop and grow, just as Howard's conception of the stories developed and grew over time.

Unfortunately all of this is generally overlooked because readers, following CPI's lead, have focused on the character rather than the body of work. As a result, it is not surprising that Howard's tremendous influence and contribution in the field of literature remains largely unacknowledged.

In what order should the Conan stories be published? If a reader wants to be exposed to everything Robert E. Howard put in the stories, if they want to see the real development and growth of the Conan character, if they want to experience the entire Conan saga the way it was meant to be read, then the stories should be published in the order Howard wrote them, or at the very least the order in which they were originally published in Weird Tales magazine. With the writing order, we are privy to seeing Howard's evolution as a writer, and therefore the evolution of his work. Putting the emphasis on the creation and not on the creator has contributed in a very large measure to preventing people from having a good critical approach to Robert E. Howard and his body of work. Presenting the stories in the order they were written or published enables readers to appreciate the genius of the Conan stories and to appropriately view them as artistic masterpieces.

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