Fabled horde, legion of horribles | Blood Meridian riff

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

10 thoughts on “Fabled horde, legion of horribles | Blood Meridian riff”

  1. “Time collapsed.”

    You nailed it. Here’s a great explanation from S.C. Gwynne’s non-fiction “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which underscores the “time collapsed” concept that McCarthy is getting at:

    “What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americans, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap…The Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up….

    … Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains [in America] happened as though in a time warp – as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves.”

    – Empire of the Summer Moon, Pg. 46

    BTW, waiting anxiously for Cormac’s next book, if it’s about that women in New Orleans/ mental hospitals.

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  2. I love the dented pauldrons of the Spanish conquistador. Like you say, McCarthy’s great themes, blood and time, in one sentence. The passage also reminds me that there’s a lot of Blood Meridian in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (a criminally underrated movie). Some connections: the native Indian culture, the young plague-ridden prophetess who speaks to the men of their deaths, the heads mounted on spikes, the sacrifices, the white men (Spanish) bringing their gunpowder and their Christianity to stamp down the older culture.

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  3. Love this!

    Analysis like this is like an x-ray on literary craftsmanship. I wish cogent critical commentary like this was more accessible on the web (or maybe it is and I just don’t know where to go for it… is this the only place? <—is this an obsequious rhetorical question?).

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  4. This is great, especially the part about the armor–I’ve been looking at your various commentaries on Blood Meridian as I’ve been reading it and have found them very illuminating (love the From Hell comparison earlier in the blog’s history). (You also make me want to read Suttree–though not now, I need time to recover.) I just wrote my own riff on the novel, which may or may not interest you; I detect a bit more conventional Christian sentiment overall in the book than others have suggested, “more Pat Buchanan, less postmodernism,” as I say in the review. Anyway, thanks for a great blog and here’s my thing if you’re interested:

    https://johnpistelli.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/cormac-mccarthy-blood-meridian/

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  5. Also – Perhaps what McCarthy is getting at here is the preciousness of the section of land that we now call North America. Just as we started to examine what occurred in North America, the grid was applied, the railroad lines were snapped on, and the plow, surveyors, cavalry, settlers, etc, smothered the opportunity to process what happened here. Today we seem to know more about, say, ancient Roman art/customs and Roman ruins than the Anasazi, for example. (Dennis Johnson gets at this in “Train Dreams” too.)

    And you add in the North American extinction theory and North America becomes this place we ever really knew. As McCarthy says in BM, “The desert winds would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

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