Conan the Barbarian was created by Robert E. Howard in a series of fantasy stories published in Weird Tales in 1932. For months, Howard had been in search of a new character to market to the burgeoning pulp outlets of the early 1930s. In October 1931, he submitted the short story "People of the Dark" to Clayton Publications' new magazine, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (June 1932). "People of the Dark" is a remembrance story of "past lives", and in its first-person narrative the protagonist describes one of his previous incarnations; Conan is a black-haired barbarian hero who swears by a deity called Crom. Some Howard scholars believe this Conan to be a forerunner of the more famous character.
In February 1932, Howard vacationed at a border town on the lower Rio Grande. During this trip, he further conceived the character of Conan and also wrote the poem "Cimmeria", much of which echoes specific passages in Plutarch's Lives. According to some scholars, Howard's conception of Conan and the Hyborian Age may have originated in Thomas Bulfinch's The Outline of Mythology (1913) which inspired Howard to "coalesce into a coherent whole his literary aspirations and the strong physical, autobiographical elements underlying the creation of Conan".
Having digested these prior influences after he returned from his trip, Howard rewrote a rejected story, "By This Axe I Rule!" (May 1929), replacing his existing character Kull of Atlantis with his new hero, and retitling it "The Phoenix on the Sword". Howard also wrote "The Frost-Giant's Daughter", inspired by the Greek myth of Daphne, and submitted both stories to Weird Tales magazine. Although "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was rejected, the magazine accepted "The Phoenix on the Sword" after it received the requested polishing.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" appeared in Weird Tales cover-dated December 1932. Editor Farnsworth Wright subsequently prompted Howard to write an 8,000-word essay for personal use detailing "the Hyborian Age", the fictional setting for Conan. Using this essay as his guideline, Howard began plotting "The Tower of the Elephant", a new Conan story that was the first to truly integrate his new conception of the Hyborian world.
The publication and success of "The Tower of the Elephant" spurred Howard to write many more Conan stories for Weird Tales. By the time of Howard's suicide in 1936, he had written 21 complete stories, 17 of which had been published, as well as a number of unfinished fragments.
Following Howard's death, the copyright of the Conan stories passed through several hands. Eventually, under the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the stories were edited, revised, and sometimes rewritten. For roughly 40 years, the original versions of Howard's Conan stories remained out of print. In 1977, the publisher Berkley Books issued three volumes using the earliest published form of the texts from Weird Tales, but these failed to displace the edited versions. In the 1980s and 1990s, the copyright holders of the Conan franchise permitted Howard's stories to go out of print entirely, while continuing to sell Conan works by other authors.
In 2000, the British publisher Gollancz Science Fiction issued a two-volume, complete edition of Howard's Conan stories as part of its Fantasy Masterworks imprint, which included several stories that had never seen print in their original form. The Gollancz edition mostly used the versions of the stories as published in Weird Tales.
The two volumes were combined and the stories resorted into chronological order as The Complete Chronicles of Conan: Centenary Edition (Gollancz Science Fiction, 2006; edited and with an Afterword by Steve Jones).
In 2003, another British publisher, Wandering Star Books, made an effort both to restore Howard's original manuscripts and to provide a more scholarly and historical view of the Conan stories. It published hardcover editions in England, which were republished in the United States by the Del Rey imprint of Ballantine Books. The first book, Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932–1933) (2003; published in the US as The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian) includes Howard's notes on his fictional setting, as well as letters and poems concerning the genesis of his ideas. This was followed by Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Two (1934) (2004; published in the US as The Bloody Crown of Conan) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935–1936) (2005; published in the US as The Conquering Sword of Conan). These three volumes combined include all of the original, unedited Conan stories.