So I was wanting to post something in the spirit of the season. I thought about The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum. Way too long. Then I read a couple of passages. Waaayyyy too much saccharine.
Instead, I chose “Roads”. Back in the 1930s, when Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith were writing many of the tales that would one day make them famous, there was only one person who gave them any competition in popularity in Weird Tales. That person was Seabury Quinn. Today he’s mostly forgotten except by fans of The Unique Magazine and historians of fantasy and the weird tale. If he’s remembered at all, it’s usually for his occult detective, Jules de Grandin.
But Quinn was also a versatile writer who could pen a good tale that wasn’t part of a series. “Roads” made its appearance in the January 1938 issue of Weird Tales. It tells the story of a gladiator in the arena of Herod the Great. Known as Claudius by the Romans, Klaus (you can see right away where this is going) has finished his contract and is wanting to go home to the northern climes he calls home.
The story is divided into three sections, “The Road to Bethlem”, “The Road to Calvary”, and “The Long, Long Road”. The story opens with Klaus being attacked by bandits. In the next scene, he comes to the rescue of a family on the road. It turns out the family (father, mother, and infant) are heading to Egypt after the father had been warned in a dream to go there. The men attacking them are soldiers, who are seeking to kill the child. Herod, having met the Magi, is trying to eliminate what he sees as a threat to his power by killing all male children under two years of age.
The action is well described and the fights detailed to the point that I wondered if I was really reading a Christmas story. As a reward for his actions, Klaus hears a voice in his head telling him that his name will one day be blessed by children everywhere. Klaus asks that instead he may die in battle, and is told that is not to be his fate. So what we have here is a sword swinging, axe weilding Santa Claus. My kinda Santa.
In the next section, Klaus is back in Jerusalem a number of years later, not as a gladiator, but as a centurion. He happens to be stationed in the service of Pontius Pilate when a certain religious teacher is brought before Pilate by the Jewish religious leaders. This section I had a little problem with. Quinn seems to have done his historical research, yet he shortens the trial considerably. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial tell that He was sent back and forth between Pilate and Herod (different Herod than the one who slaughtered the infants) and that Pilate’s wife told him she had had a dream telling her that Pilate should have nothing to do with Jesus. All of this was left out, and I have to assume it was in the interest of moving the story more quickly since it is about Klaus more than Jesus. Klaus ends up at the Crucifixion, and in the earthquake that follows, he rescues a young girl who will become his wife Unna.
The third section describes the wanderings of Klaus and Unna, who are immortal due to their service to Christ. Eventually Klaus becomes Santa Klaus. Along the way, Quinn makes a number of pointed comments about how Christ’s followers, especially the religious leaders, fail to live up to His teachings. The most powerful of these is when Unna is condemned as a heretic by priests during one of the Crusades after she describes the path Jesus where carried his cross to a group of pilgrims. Seems her account differed from the “official” account of the priests.
This is a good story, and one that will appeal to readers of heroic fantasy. It’s certainly more appealing than anything on the Hallmark Channel. The action is well described. Klaus makes observations about religion and service to God and how they differ that are hard to argue with.
That’s not to say “Roads” is without its flaws. The writing is a bit formal and overdone for modern tastses, especially the dialogue, which has a lot of “thee” and “thou” in it. I suspect this might be an affectation on Quinn’s part, although I haven’t read any of his work in years, so I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t bad enough that it interferred with my enjoyment.
The thing that I found most appealing was that even though “Roads” is about Santa, the religious aspect of Christmas wasn’t dropped but was central to the story. Christmas is ultimately a religious holiday, but these days the Nazis of Political Correctness have taken so much of the religious aspect out of the public observance and replaced it with an emphasis on making the annual sales quota that Chirstmas has in many ways become my least favority holiday. I’m so sick of Frosty and Rudolph and Jingle Bells, I could scream. “Roads” combined the secular and the sacred in a respectful way, reminding me of why I loved the holiday as a child while also reminding me of what it means to me as an adult.