Monday, February 11, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Savage Sword of Conan

(or "Why, Yes, I Am About To Compare 'Conan' To 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'")


'Savage Sword of Conan, Volume One' represents Dark Horse's entry into the "oversized digest reprints game" (something I heartily encourage, if for no other reason than it means I might someday get a big black-and-white 'Groo the Wanderer' collection); it mostly features Roy Thomas' classic Conan adventures of the 1970s. (A few other writers are represented, and many of the stories are adaptations of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories, but the predominant authorial voice is that of Thomas.) Anyone who follows the career of Roy Thomas shouldn't be surprised to find his name on these issues; Thomas' main love and primary source of inspiration was the classic pulp stories of the 1930s, and I imagine that the chance to work on an iconic character from that era like Conan was a pure joy for him.

As you read the book, it's sometimes startling to realize that Thomas isn't just making up random barbarian stories; specific stories follow each other, or precede each other, or come from specific eras of Conan's life. Each story stands alone so well that you almost stop thinking of them as needing to link together; when a supporting character from a previous story shows up again, or when a small caption mentions that this story takes place during Conan's reign as King of Aquilonia, it's almost jarring to realize that someone's thinking about this stuff. (Although it shouldn't be--respect for continuity and chronology is another hallmark of Roy Thomas.)

A casual glance at Wikipedia shows that thinking about Conan's timeline is a major occupation for a lot of people, though. The life of Conan, as he turns from young wanderer to thief, to nomad, to mercenary, and finally to king, is something that a lot of people feel should be kept consistent. But it's interesting to note that Howard, Conan's creator, never put that kind of effort into delineating Conan's life himself. He wrote an 8000 word essay on Conan's setting, for his own personal use, and he did endorse one of the timelines, but he never seemed to feel the need to set down a chronology of Conan's adventures.

It might be, of course, that he knew the timeline of Conan's life intimately enough that he never felt that he had to set down an order of "this story happened before this story"; however, I think it's telling that he was more concerned with creating a realistic setting for sword-and-sorcery adventures than with making an iron-clad biography for his central character. Because any "Conan Chronology" is, in essence, part of the storytelling engine for Conan, not the story. They're specifying eras of Conan's life that you can set stories in. "If you want to write a story about Conan as a pirate of the high seas, it goes here." "If you want to write a story about Conan as a mercenary soldier, it goes here." The supporting cast of 'Conan' is fluid enough, and the stories accessible enough, that new readers don't really need a whole lot of exposition as to where the story "fits" in Conan's timeline.

In that sense, it's a lot like another long-running series, 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'. (I warned you I was going to do this.) There is a chronology for that series, essentially based in production order; following that chronology will explain why Dr. Erhardt is replaced by TV's Frank, or what happened to Joel, or why the robots get new voices...but the audience understands that these things are just surface details, not nearly as important as the central concept. Conan's timeline only "matters" if you want it to; because the character is so timeless and classic, the audience quickly adjusts to whatever details might be relevant to this story (Conan's a thief now? And his traveling companions are this guy, this girl, and this other guy? OK, got it, now on with the show.) Which isn't to say that people should stop composing "Conan Chronologies"; it's an interesting pastime. It's just to say that Conan's life isn't a story, it's an engine for telling Conan stories. There's a key difference.

4 comments:

Pat Powers said...

Yeah, after Conan dicovered his 10th or 12th demon-haunted ruin, I kinda got the idea that there was no real attempt to portray an actual biography here.

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