The Conan and Robert E. Howard Website


Musings on the various Chronology issues
by Dale Rippke

(Originally published as
"Blurring the Lines Between the Reality and the Dream"
in REHupa #183, October 2003)


In his lifetime, Robert E. Howard never really got around to placing the stories featuring his Conan character into any definitive order. The closest that he got was giving his provisional blessing to the timeline proposed by a Conan fan, P. Schuyler Miller. This timeline was buffed and polished by Miller and Dr. John Clark and later expanded upon by the inestimable Lyon Sprague deCamp into the “Official Chronology” that remains to this day. My research has proven to me (and hopefully to you) that the “Official Chronology” is plagued by enough inconsistency and doubt as to be next to useless.

My feeling is that the Miller/Clark timeline started out with the best of intentions, but swiftly went astray once the “unpublished” Conan material became available. Both The Frost-Giant’s Daughter and The God in the Bowl were wrongly placed; presumably so that Tower of the Elephant could the first chronological story to showcase Conan in the L. Sprague deCamp edited The Coming of Conan (Gnome Press). The Vale of Lost Women was placed after Queen of the Black Coast and at the time this seemed plausible. Only later, when The Snout in the Dark was added into the Conan saga in the Lancer series did this placement become suspect. It just became one more “inconsistency” in the chronology; Howard’s fault due to poor writing, not deCamp’s error in placement. When deCamp rewrote The Black Stranger as The Trail of Tranicos, the chronology veered off into uncharted territories. It became a reflection of Sprague deCamp’s vision of the Hyborian Age.

And I’m not content to just pillory L. Sprague deCamp. Obviously, P.S. Miller and John Clark made their share of questionable placements. The Slithering Shadow is certainly placed incorrectly. Black Colossus and Shadows in the Moonlight are most likely wrong as well. The only thing that Miller/Clark have going for them is that Howard gave the thumb’s-up to their chronology. We should take a look at that event if we want to understand what went astray.

In a March 10, 1936 letter to Miller, Howard presented his comments on the Conan chronology proposed by Miller and Clark. In it Howard wrote: “Your outline follows his career as I have visualized it pretty closely. The differences are minor”. And also: “The chronological order of his adventures is about as you have worked it out, except that they covered a little more time”. This would seem to be a pretty clear cut admission that the chronology is correct, except that Howard qualifies both statements with “pretty closely”, “minor differences”, and “about as you have worked it out”. What does this actually tell us?

It means that Howard isn’t actually giving the outline his “official” blessing. He’s leaving himself some wriggle-room if he decides to change anything. What you must understand is that Howard looked at the Conan chronology differently than Miller and Clark did, because they didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. Howard started to explain why his view is different in the March 10 letter when he explains that Conan went north into Nordheim after the battle at Venarium, and that instead of traveling straight to Zamora, Conan wandered around for a little over a year. He knew that Frost-Giant’s Daughter and God in the Bowl took place before Conan’s sojourn in Zamora. He should have known that the placement of Beyond the Black River in the outline was wrong as well. So why did he provisionally sanction the Miller/Clark outline?

My understanding is that in March of 1936, Howard was under an increasing amount of stress from a variety of sources. His mother was dying, his only real romantic relationship had failed, the source of his income was drying up due to the Depression, and he was suffering from writer’s block. He gets a letter from a fan detailing Conan’s life as well as a map of his world. Now does Howard research this document to see if its findings are correct? Of course not. He knows his world and how this all fits together. Besides, Miller doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle of Conan’s life that Howard is privy to. However, it is entirely possible that Howard assumed that the research producing the Miller/Clark outline worked out Conan’s life in a more internally logical manner, since he could only realistically believe that his unpublished Conan stories would never see print. My opinion is that Howard gave Miller validation for the work that he did, not really caring whether it was absolutely accurate. It was, after all, only a private fan letter; it wasn’t like the chronology was an official essay in a professional magazine.

And, this really isn’t all that unusual an occurrence in fandom. In 1974, Fred Blosser published a history of Brak the Barbarian in Marvel’s Savage Tales magazine that at the time was given John Jake’s blessings; the publication of The Fortunes of Brak in 1980 showed that Blosser’s chronology was no longer accurate. Jakes just pretty much ignored it. Also, in 2000, fantasy author David Gemmell discovered the website of a fan named Eric Davis that contained a beautiful hand drawn map of Gemmell’s Drenai world. According to Davis, Gemmell emailed him with the news that his map was going to be the official Drenai map when his next book was published. This map had over one hundred errors on it and Gemmell either didn’t notice them or decided not to comment on them. Needless to say, when a professional Drenai world map finally appeared in 2003, it wasn’t Eric Davis’s map. It’s easy for an author to get enthusiastic about a fan’s interest in his works, since it validates his ego. This isn’t a bad thing; just human nature. I feel that the intent of Howard’s March 10 letter to P.S. Miller to be really nothing more than that.

Since Howard’s death there have been a number of attempts to reorder the Conan tales, with varying degrees of success. The first one that I’m aware of was Kevin Miller’s Another Chronology, published in Amra magazine in February of 1973. He is the first person to postulate (to my knowledge) that Frost-Giant’s Daughter is the first Conan tale. Unfortunately, he also lobbies that God in the Bowl takes place after Rogues in the House, which is flat-out wrong. Former Rehupan Joe Marek published his Some Comments on Chronologies in Regards to the Conan Series in Rehupa mailings #148 and #149. He reorders quite a bit of the chronology, accepting Kevin Miller’s resequencing, as well as moving The Slithering Shadow and The Vale of Lost Women around. For the most part, Joe’s ideas make pretty good sense. He just didn’t take it far enough.

When I decided to take a crack at chronologically sequencing the Conan tales, I was filled with a bit of trepidation, since nearly everything I had read about them stated that it couldn’t be done. The prevailing wisdom was that the corpus of stories was riddled with inconsistencies and errors; so vague and contradictory that there was no hope of ever really untangling it in any satisfactory manner. Apparently Howard had a habit of providing linkage among the stories by providing biographical and chronological clues from previously written tales, regardless of where the story took place in the overall scheme of things. To confuse things ever further, L. Sprague deCamp had edited and rewritten some of the tales so that they fit into his preconceived idea of how Conan’s life played out. I decided that my best course of action was to access as much of the Conan material as I could find that hadn’t been altered by deCamp. I used the two volume Conan Chronicles, published in the U.K. by Millennium, as my primary source material, as well as a couple of pure-text versions of certain stories.

I read each story several times and I even took Ed Waterman’s online advice and read them in the order that Howard had written them (Thanks, Wandering Star!). The hardest thing I had to overcome was my preconceived notion as to how the series was ordered, as well as the Miller/Clark outline having a certain gravitas. My way around that was to throw out everything and start from scratch; I ignored everything but the stories themselves. I was actually pretty surprised at the outcome of my research. I figured it would mirror the Miller/Clark biography a lot closer than it did.

I was also surprised that there weren’t really all that many internal problems. I could be wrong, but I feel that quite a few of the inconsistencies were introduced into the saga mainly through the stories being incorrectly ordered, as well as deCamp’s rewriting background material to more closely tie the stories into his vision of Conan’s life. My research showed that Howard really knew his stuff. Most of his problems consist of variant spellings and minor questions of how Conan could have known about certain plot points. The Tarantia/Tamar error is certainly explainable (as per my biography). The two different ways that his career as a pirate ended aren’t even an inconsistency anymore! I simply didn’t find anything as egregious as can be found in the works of David Gemmell, for instance (In Legend, the port of Dros Purdol is located in two different locations; the prologue to Druss the Legend flatly contradicts certain events in The Legend of Deathwalker).

I also don’t really feel that Howard’s “borrowing” of certain themes from previous stories to be all that much of a problem. So what if parts of Hour of the Dragon were similar to Scarlet Citadel and Black Colossus? It doesn’t mean that the stories belong in alternate universes. It just reflects real-life in a way. Can you honestly say that parts of your day aren’t nearly the same, day after day? It’s really nothing more than the Hyborian Age version of “Been there, done that” writ large.

As for the lack of internal evidence linking the Conan stories; sure some of the stories are a bit vague. But it is possible to position them by placing the stories in context to each other. There are lots of ways to link the stories to each other, and some are fairly subtle. Travel times, clothing, occupations, Conan’s personality and goals, Howard’s themes of barbarism vs. civilization; all of this and more can be taken into account when ordering the stories. My only actual goal was to fit the saga into the ages that Howard claimed Conan to be in his March 10, 1936 letter to P.S. Miller. And I accomplished it, although it was actually more difficult than I thought it would be. So I can understand why deCamp rewrote The Black Stranger, even though I don’t agree with it.

There has been some notion bandied about that Howard only had a vague notion of Conan’s career; it began as a thief and ended as a king. Everything in between was developed as he went along. I flatly reject this notion. The stories would have a great deal more contradictions if this were the case. From what I can tell, Howard had a pretty decent idea of Conan’s career trajectory. In the book The One Who Walked Alone, author Novalyne Price Ellis wrote about Howard’s preparation for the Hyborian Age stories: “He had told me of his doing something similar to that before he began his Conan yarns. He wrote about the land where Conan lived, the age in which he lived and the people he'd known, the sorcerers he'd met”. So apparently he put some thought into it. To suggest otherwise, I find to be somewhat insulting to Howard’s ability as a writer developing a secondary world.

Any world-creator in a fantasy role-playing game setting can tell you about the hours/days/weeks spent building a working fantasy universe; immersing one’s self in minutia and fine tuning the whole thing. There comes a point when the “Created-world” takes on a kind on life inside one’s head. You are able to describe any part of it as if you had actually been there and experienced it. The whole thing transcends its origins and becomes (from a purely mental standpoint) a real place.

Every sense I get from reading Howard’s Conan stories informs me that he experienced something very similar from his creation of the Hyborian Age world. He mentally lived in this place when creating and writing his Conan stories. Perhaps it was part of his putting on a persona as many authors do. All I can tell you is that he wrote these stories like he believed it. And, as any damned fine author does, he makes you believe as well.

So how do I feel about the Darkstorm Conan Chronology? I feel it’s better than the Miller/Clark outline, because it’s more accurate and reflects Howard’s take on his Conan series a lot better. Whether it is acknowledged by fandom at large is anyone’s guess. I suppose it really doesn’t matter, since the only reason I only did it was to see if I could. So yeah, I’m happy with it…

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