The Pulp Fiction Santa of Seabury Quinn

The January 1938 issue of Weird Tales, in addition to such fare as a poem by H. P. Lovecraft, a reprinting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand,” and a typically sensuous Margaret Brundage cover illustration, offered readers a story under the title “Roads.” The author was Seabury Quinn, better known for his Jules de Grandin occult detective stories. The three-part “Roads” at first appears to be a sword-and-sorcery tale, with an enormous, blonde-haired Viking hero who bests his foes with muscle and blade.

This “giant Norseman” (Quinn 1948, 10) would have been familiar material to readers of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories that appeared in Weird Tales during the 1930s, and to those who would, beginning in 1939 in the rival magazine Unknown, enjoy Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories with their own giant Northman hero. Here is Quinn’s:

A corselet of tanned bull-hide set with iron studs was buckled round his torso; his feet were shod with buskins of soft leather laced about his legs with rawhide thongs; from the girdle at his waist on one side hung a double-bladed axe, on the other a soft leather pouch that clinked with a metallic sound each time he moved. Between his shoulders swung a long two-handed sword with a wide well-tempered blade, pointed and double-edged. He was brawny and wide-shouldered, his hair was braided in two long fair plaits that fell on either side of his face beneath his iron skullcap. Like his hair his beard was golden as the ripening wheat. (10-11)

Rather than a sorcerous fantasy setting such as Howard’s Hyborean Age or Leiber’s Lankhmar, however, the adventures of Quinn’s barbarian take place in Judea in the time of Jesus. Our warrior is a norseman named Claus, who has earned his gold as a peerless gladiator in the arena of Herod and now plans to return to his northern home.

Margaret Brundage’s cover for the issue of Weird Tales in which Quinn’s “Roads” first appeared.

On his way from Jerusalem, however, Claus witnesses Herod’s soldiers about their business of slaying newborn infants, as per the Gospel of Matthew. He interrupts a group of soldiers about to kill the baby of a traveling couple. Claus intercedes with a Conan-worthy performance:

he struck, and struck again, and his gray-steel blade drank thirstily. . . . [He] took his adversaries in his arms as if he were some monstrous bear and beat their heads together till their helmets toppled off and their skulls cracked and they fell dead, blood rushing from their ears and noses. . . . His iron axe-blade clove through bronze and bullock-hide.

After slaying the soldiers, the couple express their gratitude. Speaking to the very young mother, Claus experiences “a sense that he stood in the presence of some being from another sphere, a sure and certain knowledge that this woman differed from all other women in the world” (30), and her child is preternaturally sweet.

If it isn’t already obvious, these are Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus. The last speaks telepathically to Claus, giving him an extraordinary boon: “because thou hast done this for me,” says the baby, “and risked thy life and freedom for a little child, I say that never shalt thou taste of death util they work for me is finished” (31). What this work is to be is at this point unclear to Claus. “Then I shall be a mighty hero?” he asks, hoping to win fame as a consecrated warrior. Jesus responds: “A hero to be held in loving memory by every man who ever was a child” (33).

In part two of “Roads,” Claus has returned years later to Jerusalem, and is employed as a trusted centurion by Pontius Pilate. We witness the Jewish priesthood under Caiaphas demand the execution of Jesus. Assigned to oversee the crucifixion, Claus resents the mockery directed by Roman soldiers at the prisoner. Out of compassion, he gives the dying Jesus sour wine to drink and, in a striking inversion of the Christian legend of the lance, stabs the crucified Jesus with a spear in order to give him “a man’s death” (60) rather than a humiliating death by having his bones broken on the cross. After the death of Jesus, Claus hears his voice telling him “Thy work is not yet started.” Meanwhile, Claus finds himself a wife, a former prostitute and follower of Jesus.

The third part of the story chronicles the years and centuries that follow. The immortal Claus is first a Roman commander, leading the invasion of Britain. Later he sees Constantine accept Christianity and observes the spread of the religion through Europe. In the middle ages he returns to Jerusalem as a Crusader, often fighting alongside his brave and equally immortal wife.

Throughout their adventures, they repeatedly witness the intolerance of religious authorities. In 1553 in Geneva they see the theologian Michael Servetus burned at the stake, having been denounced by John Calvin. Claus makes the connection with the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple:

‘Twas Caiaphas and Annas and their ilk who hanged the Master on the cross because they said He blasphemed the truth; today the men who call themselves His ministers and servants roast their fellows at the stake for the same reason! It matters not at whose altar he serves, the priest is still a priest and changeth not. (93)

Such authorities are not only given to persecution, they are also power-hungry and callous toward the poor. One Christmas, Claus and his wife, then residing “in a small city by the Rhine” (93), decide to deliver food to the poor and wood-carved toys for their children. The local mayor and churchmen respond by accusing Claus of “witchcraft and treason” (101) since anyone who helps the poor disturbs the social order and “thwarts Heaven’s will” (100). Disgusted, Claus and his wife travel north, still determined to find a way to bring Christmas gifts to the needy.

Finally they arrive in arctic lands, having (at Jesus’s command) befriended the exiled “aelfmen,” an elven people of wondrous smiths. The aelfmen make Claus a magic sleigh harnessed to magic reindeer, and fashion toys for the children of the world, delivered each Christmas Eve by Claus, who travels “across the bridge Bifrost where in the olden days men said the gods had crossed to Asgard. . . . for he is neither Claudius the gladiator nor Claus the mighty man of war, but Santa Claus” (109-110).

The cover of a limited edition 1938 reprint of the story, which would later be published by Arkham House with Virgil Finlay illustrations (including this post’s featured image).

As other readers have noted, Quinn’s pulp fiction origin story for Santa Claus is a surprising twist on the Wandering Jew legend. Quinn offers a nordic, rather than Jewish immortal, who is blessed rather than cursed with immortality because he aided Jesus, rather than insulting him as did the Wandering Jew.

Given the time of its publication, with Nazi Germany having stripped its Jews of citizenship and put in place a state apparatus built around persecutory antisemitism, I am struck by the racial tones in the story. There is, first of all, Quinn’s decision to turn a Teutonic pagan into Santa Claus. On the one hand, this may suggest a hope that Germany might recover a Christian compassion and act in defense of the weak and powerless.

On the other hand, Quinn’s story employs a clearly Aryan racial hierarchy, with the heroic and virtuous characters all having blonde hair and blue eyes, many of the worst villains swarthy and Semitic in appearance. When Claus attacks the soldiers who have waylaid the Holy Family, Quinn writes that “by their hook-nosed faces he knew [the soldiers] for Syrians, Jewish renegades, perhaps, possibly Arabs or Armenians” (21). By contrast, Mary, in addition to pale skin, “a faultless nose, full sweetly-curving lips that had the indescribably lovely red of doves’ feet,” and “eyes as blue as the ocean of Claus’s homeland,” also has “golden hair which in the style permitted Jewish brides fell unconfined beneath her veil” (28). Joseph dresses in Oriental style with turban and earlocks, and he has black hair, but his description is relatively positive.

Quinn’s Jesus is blond-haired and blue-eyed like his mother. Indeed, in part two of the story, Quinn emphasizes that Jesus is of superior racial stock to his fellow Jews. He has grown up into “a tall young man in white, bearded in the Jewish fashion, but so light of skin and fair of hair he seemed to bear no racial kinship to the swarthy men surrounding him” (46).

Jesus is “so light of skin and fair of hair he seemed to bear no racial kinship to the swarthy men surrounding him.”

The story clearly blames the Jewish priesthood and their supporters for the death of Jesus, though by the end of the story this is folded into a generalized critique of power-hungry politicians and hypocritical religious authorities. Early in the story, we also get Claus’s ambivalence regarding the hook-nosed and greedy Jews:

“By Thor!” mused Claus, “they are a nation of strange men, these Jews. Always disputing, ever arguing, never faltering in their lust for gold; yet withal they have a spirit in them like no other people has.” (19-20)

Quinn’s story, with its Germanic soldier become defender of Jesus, both reminds one of and stands in stark contrast to another reimagination of Jesus at the time: Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene, which would appear in English translation the following year, to international acclaim and no little controversy.

Embraced to this day by many Christian readers for its warm depiction of a Jewish Jesus and normative Christian theology, the novel alienated much of Asch’s Jewish readership for the same reason, and particularly given its timing. Asch may have felt that the portrayal of Jesus as a genuine messiah and divine figure could bring Judaism and Christianity into a much-needed relationship of mutual sympathy, given the dire position of the Jews in 1939. Yet accepting most of the doctrinal premises of Christianity seemed to many Jewish readers a steep, even self-destructive price to pay for the thin hope of Gentile acceptance, and in fact the Christian reception of the novel at times went hand in hand with ongoing anti-Jewish animus on the part of its readers.

A 1956 edition of The Nazarene.

Like Quinn’s story, Asch’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus also includes a Germanic soldier, but Asch is more clearly commenting on the present-day savagery directed by Nazis against Jews. Asch informs us that the Roman authorities in Judea made use of German auxiliaries who “were most feared and hated by Jews” (656). The most brutal of these troops was their commander Hermanus, “a man with an evil face and cold, murderous eyes.” This “terror of the Jews” is the one who, “face inflamed with fury and drenched in sweat” (676), scourges and torments Jesus on the way to the cross, and enthusiastically nails him to it. With his Hitlerian face and name in common with Hermann Goering, Asch’s Hermanus is the very image of Nazi sadism, in contrast to the suffering of Asch’s very Jewish Jesus, given earlocks, the title of rabbi, and the Hebrew name Yeshua.

“Roads” is not the only story by Quinn to display the sort of racial stereotypes and hierarchies found in a good deal of interwar pulp fiction, but I am not aware that he elsewhere dealt in particularly negative Jewish imagery, or much with Jews at all. (Not that I have read a great deal of this exceptionally prolific author.) The only exceptions that I have seen involve beautiful Jewish women.

In one of the first de Grandin stories, “The Isle of Missing Ships” (1926), for instance, the French detective faces off against a veritable James Bond villain, complete with elaborate undersea lair and a giant octopus to whom he feeds his prisoners. The extreme sadism of the villain, running to mass murder and cannibalism and directed maniacally against all white people he comes in contact with, is presented as stemming both from his mixed racial background and as a vengeful response to the racism he experienced from whites because of his background.

Andrew Brosnatch illustration for “The Isle of Missing Ships.”

De Grandin is able to escape thanks in part to the assistance of a fellow prisoner, a beautiful teen named Miriam, forced to dance for the villain’s pleasure:

She was beautiful with the rich, ripe beauty of the women who inspired Solomon of old to indite his Song of Songs. None but the Jewish race, or perhaps the Arabian, could have produced a woman with the passionate, alluring beauty of Miriam, the dancer in the house beneath the sea. (Quinn 2017, 65)

Miriam first asks de Grandin to kill her so that she may be delivered from her enslavement. When de Grandin asks her why she has not committed suicide, she explains to him that doing so is against Jewish law, to which the detective responds admiringly: “You children of Jacob shame us so-called Christians in the way you keep your precepts” (73). At the story’s end, after de Grandin kills the villain and he and Miriam escape, we learn that Miriam goes to Paris and makes a “big sensation” (77) dancing at the Folies Bérgères. No virgin Mary here.

Works Cited

Asch, Sholem. The Nazarene. Trans. Maurice Samuel. Foreword Herbert Lockyer. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996.

Quinn, Seabury. Roads. Illus. Virgil Finlay. Orig. publ. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1948. Reproduction by Red Jacket Press.

–. The Horror on the Links: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, Volume One. Ed. George A. Vanderburgh. New York: Nightshade Books, 2017.

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