The captain watched through the glass.
I suppose they’ve seen us, he said.
They’ve seen us.
How many riders do you make it?
A dozen maybe.
The captain tapped the instrument in his gloved hand.
They dont seem concerned, do they?
No sir. They dont.
The captain smiled grimly. We may see a little sport here before the day is out.
The first of the herd began to swing past them in a pall of yellow dust, rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle and no two alike and small thin mules coalblack that shouldered one another and reared their malletshaped heads above the backs of the others and then more cattle and finally the first of the herders riding up the outer side and keeping the stock between themselves and the mounted company. Behind them came a herd of several hundred ponies. The sergeant looked for Candelario. He kept backing along the ranks but he could not find him. He nudged his horse through the column and moved up the far side. The lattermost of the drovers were now coming through the dust and the captain was gesturing and shouting. The ponies had begun to veer off from the herd and the drovers were beating their way toward this armed hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim tone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant.
- The legion of horribles passage comes near the end of Ch. IV of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and is probably the passage I see cited most often from the book—which makes sense: It comes early enough in the novel and doesn’t really need much context—other than its own language—to mean. And of course its language—well, that’s the occasion, yes? The passage condenses the book’s violence into a baroque and surreal fevered dream (to steal a phrase from the passage). We have here an ornate parcel, a prefiguration of ecstatic violence.
- I remember the first time I read this passage. It was 2008, very late at night, and it just sort of short circuited whatever brains I had left. I had to go back and start the novel again, hit reset. I’m revisiting Blood Meridian (I’ve reread it at least once every year since I first read it, a common practice of many of its fans I’ve realized over the years) after having just revisited Suttree. Blood Meridian always seems funnier and darker, and somehow—how?!—more violent.
- The legion of horribles passage is not acutely violent in and of itself; rather it stages the violence that explodes in the next few paragraphs, a dizzying, overwhelming violence. Scenes of rape and murder.
- I claimed in my first paragraph that the passage doesn’t require context, but here’s some anyway: We have there at the beginning Captain White and his sergeant. White—appropriately named—plans to lead his unauthorized band of irregulars into Mexico to loot and spoil and steal. He’s recruited the kid, the would-be protagonist of Blood Meridian. With its vile nativism, xenophobia, and racism, Captain White’s recruitment monologue (which doesn’t really persuade the kid as much as the simple promise of a horse, rifle, and saddle) wouldn’t be out of place in American politics today. White’s racism makes his initial impression of the fabled horde that will kill all but a handful of his men—and, spoiler, behead him—all the more ironic/moronic: “We may see a little sport here before the day is out,” he grimly jests. This seems to me almost the set-up to a punchline, with a long excursion into a description of the advancing “horde from hell” as the meat of the joke (Joke!?), with the final punchline/payoff in the sergeant’s dry horrified realization: “Oh my god.”
- In Suttree, McCarthy synthesizes American literature; in Blood Meridian, he’s condensing something more primal. Myth and history, time and space, whorled into blood and violence.
- We can see this condensation of myth and history in the very language of the legion of horribles passage. McCarthy offers a nightmare vision of time collapsed into a single violent, overwhelming space—and as I go now to pull an example, I find that there are too many, that the passage is all example, all detail, all image.
- Or, okay, hell, just one image then—the “armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust”—there, that’s it, that’s all of it, history, myth, violence.
- Or just the words themselves, the diverse diction, culled from so many roots and tongues (attic, biblical)—and the compounding of words (bloodstained, weddingveil, headgear, cranefeathers, rawhide, pigeontailed, etc.), the compression and synthesis of words, the force of the words. The onomatopoeia. The barbaric yawps.
- What happens next? Okay, I’d say, Read the book—but I’ve already told you—the horde eviscerates White’s men. The kid survives, somehow, and the first section of Blood Meridian seems to end—as if this fabled horde, this legion of horribles were merely a preamble to the darker violence to come—a preview of the Glanton Gang and their sinister commandant Judge Holden.