Roads by Seabury Quinn

(2005-12-12)

This review refers to the reprinted Hardcover version by Red Jacket Press 2005.

As mentioned in my review of Children of the Atom, Red Jacket Press specializes in reprinting long out-of-print science fiction and fantasy books. First published in a 1938 issue of Weird Tales and subsequently published in hardcover by Arkham House in 1948, Roads by Seabury Quinn (1889-1969) is a novella drawing upon biblical history to create a new biography of Santa Claus.

Like Children of the Atom, Roads is a facsimile edition of the original 1948 hardcover, featuring illustrations by Virgil Finlay (1914-1971) and complete with a listing of other Arkham House titles on the back (e.g., a first edition of Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival (1947) cost $3.00 back then). The book is packaged in a black and gold gift box and includes a card containing biographies of both Quinn and Finlay. This is a beautifully packaged book that would make a great Christmas gift.

Quinn's biography Santa Claus in Roads departs significantly from his historical origins. Santa Claus as we know him is an amalgam of various European holiday personages finding their origins in both Christian and pagan tradition. In Roads, Claus is a brave and honorable Norse gladiator in Judea whose life changes dramatically when his path crosses with that of a carpenter, his wife, and her infant child.

Roads is a story about the paths we take and how our choices determine our destinations. Claus's intended path, to return to his home in the North, is superseded when his act of charity is rewarded by a divine calling that will take centuries to come to fruition. In the interim, Claus will experience the passion of Christ and the ensuing millennia in which Christianity spreads throughout Europe and departs from Claus's first-hand perception of Jesus's teachings. These events culminate in the realization of Claus's destiny as he becomes the modern conception of Santa Claus, a figure both drawn from and set apart from Christian tradition, a combination of both the Christian and the pagan.

That being said, this is a Christian story, with Jesus' divinity (or at the very least, supernaturalness) made clear. However, although Roads comments on Christian dogma, for instance by singling out Calvinism as contrary to the generosity Santa Claus embodies, it does not advocate any particular Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, the work also suffers from outdated Eurocentrisms (Quinn goes out of his way to describe both Jesus and Mary as European in appearance) and resorts to the occasional ethnic stereotype.

Roads is an inspired novella showing a potential not fully realized in part due to these flaws as well as its own brevity. Although the birth and death of Jesus are the central events in Roads, one could imagine innumerable ways in which Quinn could have incorporated the history of Europe and its transition from various pagan faiths to Christianity into Claus's story. As it is, Quinn creates an enjoyable biography that uses history and tradition as raw material to create a complex, heroic character that would make the average mall Santa quake in his boots.

Arthur Bangs

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