This is the 125th in my series of Forgotten Books.
I was out the other day visiting, preparing for a Christmas party and enjoying the season. It was in the mid 70’s which is how I like December, having seen the opposite sign in front of the temp on several occasions including -72o F on Christmas Day 1961 in Fairbanks. That weather aint fit for man nor beast.
So, since I was out wandering around and shopping I went to a used bookstore in beautiful San Marcos which I had never shopped in before. I did not even know it existed until I saw a billboard (!) advertising it on the freeway. Anyway, I went wandering through there and in the Old Books section I found a very unexpected item – a copy of Seabury Quinn’s ROADS in the Arkham edition sans dustjacket. I had a copy of the book but for a buck I just could not pass it up. Not that it was a great copy. Someone had pasted in a newsprint copy of “The Night Before Christmas” on the back flaps. It had been there a while and had acidified a stain onto the end papers. Also, throughout the book were random words underlined in red, an occasional pencil doodle and one or two notes. Not to mention a typed note from a couple celebrating the second Christmas of their grandchild. But I took finding it as a piece of serendipity since I was thinking of what book I would be discussing this week. Somehow ROADS seemed an appropriate piece so here we go.
This is a Christian and a Christmas story if you are not familiar with it. Our hero is a Nordic sword for hire who has just been retired from King Herod’s gladiatorial circus with a sword and a wallet full of money. He is wandering with the intent of returning home when he encounters soldiers acting more as jackals killing innocent children because Herod has heard of a new “king”. Claudius (or Claus, as he known at home) stops them from taking and killing a young child. As the child and its parents head back toward Egypt, he hears a voice in his head telling him that he has done a great deed and he will be rewarded.
Fast forward a little more than 30 years and Claudius finds himself working for Pontius Pilate back in Jerusalem during the troubles. It seems a young prophet is causing problems. Claudius finds himself embroiled in the mess and when things are ending on the cross, he takes out his sword to prevent the unnecessary suffering. Again he hears the voice tell him that he will travel many roads and that the prophet will guide him. Leaving the hill he finds a young woman Unna, a slave and prostitute, who has injured herself. She has been affected by the prophet and Claudius finds himself strongly attracted to her to the point that they marry.
For the next several centuries, they wander around, never spending time apart. Unna frequently travels as a man when Claudius has to go to war for Rome. Eventually they find themselves drifting from Rome and settle in some Germanic towns. They make the trip to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades and see the inhumanity done in the prophet’s name. They witness other persecutions.
During one time of hardship when people are starving, Claus (no longer using the Claudius name) whittles a sleigh. Unna has the idea to make many of these and fill them with treats to leave for the town’s children so that they will have something other than gruel for a Christmas feast. The town elders and religious leaders do not like this idea as it shames them for not taking care of the poor. A voice tells Claus to leave and they end up in Lapland where they run into a valley inhabited by the Aelfs, a small people with singular skills in making things but they are feared and persecuted.
Together they all leave and travel to the North Pole where the Aelfs build things and Claus delivers them in a magic sleigh with magic reindeer.
It’s a good tale. Quinn was an excellent writer. It gets a little preachy but in the end I enjoyed it.
I know that for some years people bought the book and used it as a Christmas card. It was an expensive card but it was a good sentiment. Copies are around on the net. Many feature the shorter version originally published in Weird Tales (January 1938) essentially 75 years ago. It runs around 28 pages or so. The Arkham is 110 pages and has some truly wonderful Virgil Finlay illustrations. It is worth the extra.
Hope you all have a Merry Christmas. I am not sure if there will be a Forgotten Book next week. I hope so but we will see what kind of time I have as well as the other Missions Unknown folks who bring it to you.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.