Conan the Introduction

Given the weird publication time for this article, you might think it’s an early Friday article, but no, Friday’s “article” is going to be the video we didn’t do on Sunday, and this is a late Thursday review post, because I’ve had enough scheduling troubles for the past several weeks and want to get back into my regular routine ASAP, rather than putting this post off until Saturday. My next review is going to look at Conan the Barbarian. This is mostly a bunch of short stories, and I expect we’ll manage about one of those per post, but having never done any particular commentary on Conan stories before, God only knows how that will pan out.

Before we can get started with that, though, we need to answer the question: What order are we reading these in? The order of publication is the least controversial route, and is therefore suitable only to cowards. I’ve never read Conan stories in any particular order before (and never more than one or two at a time), so maybe there’s an evolution of the character, setting, or style that I’ve always missed out on, but my estimation has always been that the basic ideas behind Conan are pretty consistent throughout. Moving past Robert E. Howard’s work, obviously the character of Conan changes in the hands of other authors, and going author-by-author would be reasonable, but for whatever reason it appeals to me more to go by in-universe chronology.

This leads to the various chronological orderings, of which Wikipedia informs me there are five. The Miller/Clark/de Camp chronology sorts Robert E. Howard’s work into the basic progression from Conan the thief to Conan the brigand/mercenary to Conan the king, the rough career clearly implied by the stories themselves, but it’s got some pretty rough edges, most notably geographically. No attention was paid to the location of the stories during the ordering, which means Conan will often traipse the continent at random and at speeds so high as to imply intent (i.e. “I’ve got an appointment in the City of Thieves to climb the Tower of the Elephant, better get moving, don’t want to be late” rather than just wandering in a general direction across the world), going hundreds of miles in one direction only to turn around and cross half those hundreds of miles back for the next.

Robert Jordan created the next chronology, which incorporated a lot of post-Howard stories. The reasoning behind the placement of events was never explained. William Galen Gray attempts to synthesize Jordan’s and the Miller/Clark/de Camp chronology while also including all Tor-produced Conan stories following Howard’s death. The Gray chronology incorporates a good chunk of the non-Howard stories and is the most complete reading order for a look at the character as a whole, not just the works of the originator. Both of these do suffer the same problem of Conan traveling very far, very quickly, as though he’s got a quest log full of his adventures in numbered order and is moving very purposefully to hit each one with large stretches of unremarkable travel as he criss-crosses the countryside, rather than wandering across Hyboria and encountering danger at every turn.

Joe Marek was the first guy to look at Conan’s list of abilities and notice that “teleportation” wasn’t on there, and reordered the stories to pay a bit more attention to how Conan was getting around the continent. Dale Rippke did a similar project, working from first principles and intentionally ignoring earlier attempts at a chronology to get a more sensible order. So, fantastic, the process has been refined over time and the newest chronologies are the best, right? By the end of that sentence, you knew the answer was “no,” because the Marek and Rippke chronologies deal only with Robert E. Howard’s original work. Using these reading orders would mean either ignoring later contributions to the character or else reading them in a separate bloc from Robert E. Howard’s stories, at which point we may as well go in order of publication anyway.

On top of that, the reorderings are sometimes a bit too zealously focused on geographic plausibility, especially for Marek. I can appreciate that the Frost Giant’s Daughter makes more sense as a very early story because it takes place right next to his homeland of Cimmeria, regardless of the fact that Conan is a mercenary, not a thief, and that little sixteen-year old Conan taking on two frost giants and winning is pretty nuts. We wouldn’t be telling stories about this guy if he wasn’t awesome. Conan was a proper barbarian warrior at Venarium when he was fifteen, so why not let him be a giant-slaying badass just one year later? But then there’s the reordering of the Black Colossus, explicitly stated to be the first time Conan led a major army and which marks a turning point in Conan’s career towards kingship. Sure, the exact timeline is vague and you could, as the Marek ordering does, say that it’s actually quite early in Conan’s career and he continues to be a brigand and a mercenary for like fifteen stories before he ever commands an army again, but it seems to fit Conan’s career much better if we treat this story as the transition point between Conan the mercenary and Conan the conqueror, moving from here to Conan as captain of a queen’s guard in A Witch Shall Be Born rather than learning to be a pirate in Queen of the Black Coast.

My general plan is to mostly follow the Marek ordering while using the Gray ordering as a guide for where to put the non-Howard writings, but also that I’ll break from that pretty much whenever I feel like it as we go along. In that spirit, I will begin on Saturday with The Hyborian Age, an essay written by Robert E. Howard to help him keep his setting straight, published posthumously and often used as an introduction to various Conan collections. You can find an illustrated version of the essay here.

Now, upon hearing that I plan on reading the non-Howard Tor-produced Conan works, you might be thinking to yourself “whoa, there, Chamomile, that’s like fifty new stories, many of them full-length novels. How long are we doing this?” And the answer is “until I get bored.” I won’t break off mid-novel, but if I decide I’ve had enough of Conan after just one or two books, I’ll go and read something else instead.

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