A Blood Meridian Christmas

Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I argued earlier this year was the novel’s moral core).

Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–

The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.

No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.

The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.

4 thoughts on “A Blood Meridian Christmas”

  1. You bring up a very interesting subject. McCarthy (to my knowledge) has never been one to pander to the emotions of his characters–or his readers for that matter. However, that being said, I have read some passages and descriptions that have me rethinking my first reaction to this book. I think it was the scene in which Holden saves James Robert from drowning. I had a nanosecond thought that McCarthy was throwing out the bait for anyone fishing for a different understanding, a wider perspective, a place to stand and look at the judge that hadn’t been desecrated by his own foulness. But it passed. Now, I see Holden as a nineteenth century Robert Johnson; he’s standing at the crossroads, The intersection of the natural world, temporal world–that McCarthy has a great affinity for–and the corporal world of men and weapons and war and the ageless battle that he locates in the similarities between a cold heartless nature and “they”, which I believe is a very intentional pronoun, a duality in the aloofness of nature; the idea that life not only happens, it also has nothing vested in mere humans. He’s written so much into Blood Meridian that reflects a continual binary opposition, and yet the narrative is void of any judgment, or moral code, or even the slightest hint of compassion. Sometimes I think the greatest binary in the book comes when you consider the theory I’ve heard recently–that Holden and the kid are the same person. It really opens up the ending to a galaxy of thought. Peace.

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  2. Hi, Tom–thanks for such an analytical response. I know the exact moment you speak of where Holden saves the man from drowning, because it seems so strange. But then, think of the child he “saves” only to (presumably) kill later (echoes of the Kid).
    I haven’t heard the theory that the Kid and the Judge are the same person, but it fits with a “binary” reading of the book (I’ve heard a theory that McCarthy doubles every motif/image in the book in a series of inversions that correlate from earliest to latest through to the middle of the book).
    The theory that the kid and the judge are the same is interesting in light of the ending, because the imagery there has always evoked the idea of the judge literally absorbing the Kid into his self. So, if the theory is followed, we get an ironic, perhaps nihilistic reunion or communion–albeit one that preserves the judge and allows him to dance forever. Okay, I’m going to go read the end again. Cheers.

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  3. In our continuing discourse on Blood Meridian I have to respond to the hot button issue of Blood Meridian: “The Movie.” Just the thought of it makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle like a cornered cat. When it was Ridley Scott who had been put into the driver’s seat of Scott Rudin’s express train to the box office, I had my concerns; knowing full well that Scott would at least have the integrity to (1) deliver an honest attempt to convey the story in cinematic form (if that is indeed ever possible), or (2) realize that only Moses–with God’s help–could part the Red Sea, and with grace and regrets withdraw from the project. I believe Ridley took the higher road. Then, came the announcement that Todd Field would helm the super-carrier, having scant experience with a Sunfish in the Marina Del Rey channel. Now, it seems Rudin either got a hold of the best herb this side of Kingston, or James Franco is the ultimate purveyor of snake oil, and could sell shit to a cow! I have only one other thing to say: There are such things as literary works that should never be considered–much less given the greenlight–as viable cross-over vehicles (even with a driver capable of handling the horsepower-to-torque ratio) sufficient to maneuver and survive the boulevard of broken dreams.

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    1. Hey, Tom — I wrote a little bit about my feelings on Book vs Film awhile ago with this post — https://biblioklept.org/2010/02/17/book-vs-film/ — and I actually touched on Blood Meridian, suggesting that maybe Peckinpah could’ve done (a version of) it. A commentor also offered Malick as a possible director. I dunno though — it’s just such a terrible idea. It’s…there’s too much there, you know? And the tone — I’ve read the book like six times now, and each time, the tone seems to change. It’s a horror, sure, but last time I read it it made me laugh out loud repeatedly. So, I don’t know how one could do it any justice.

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