• GOD IS WAR: Redemption, Narrative and the Wild, Wild West - an examination of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

    Redemption, Narrative and the Wild, Wild West - an examination of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian


    Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy was first published in 1985 by Random House Publishing. His fifth novel, it is considered to be his magnum-opus. Blood Meridian challenges America’s romanticised pre-civil war history, shattering the typical conventions of the Western genre. It brings down the often idealized era of gunslingers, stetsons, wagon trains and the birth of the American Dream, with a bloody efficiency. It reveals what can only be described as the brutal reality of the country's imperialist ambitions of uniting a continent under a single Anglo-Christian banner. Beginning in the wild foothills of south-eastern Tennessee and shifting to the barren western Texan deserts, the story follows “the Kid” and his dealings with the Glanton Gang, a group of Texas Rangers who slaughtered and scalped their way along the Mexican border, between 1849 and 1850. The antagonist of the story becomes Judge Holden, a mysterious, god-like figure who is equally responsible for numerous acts of brutality, destruction and moral depravity. In the following examination, I shall explore the signs of destruction, decay, physical and moral corruption throughout Blood Meridian. In doing so, I shall attempt to answer the question: is narrative in any way redemptive of the sort of problems it represents or do we simply love to read stories of destruction? I shall also explore the notion of redemption, asking whether such vindication can be found in Blood Meridian as I discuss the novel as an anti-Western and explore the violence within.

    Blood Meridian’s central antagonist, Judge Holden, lies at the heart of the brutal truths of the Old American West that the novel seeks to extol. The character obliterates the romantic novelties of the Western Classic i.e. the “the heroic, self reliant cowboy [...] untouched by the forces of [...] modernisation” (Eaton, p.156). The genre is totally buried beneath the bloodthirsty veracity of Holden’s total evil, his obsession with war, conflict and godhood driven by a deep bloodlust and quasi-faith. Considered by Edwin B. Crusher to be “the most haunting character in all of American literature” and the epitome of humanity's evil, Holden is responsible “for a litany of wicked deeds” (Crusher, p.223.) He is at the heart of a book that is alluringly vicious, Steven Fyre describing Blood Meridian as an “incomparable beauty derived from the raw matter of incomparable horror” (Fyre, p.107.) It is for all intents and purposes, as Mark A. Eaton identifies, an “anti-Western” (Eaton, p.156) drowning America’s romanticised past in a river of blood, exposing “the genocidal foundation of the nation” (Eaton, p. 156).

    Blood Meridian challenges the very idyllic, Edenic dream that drove early Anglo-America’s insatiable desire to conquer the continent. The New World is their destiny “rich in potential and mystery, liberating and full of opportunity” (Slotkin, 1993, p. 351) where the Old World can be redeemed “by high example [...] generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven” (Merk 1963, p. 3). This glorified conquest of America, this heroic “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined, according to historian Julius W. Pratt, in the wake of the US-Mexican War (1842-46) (Pratt, 1927 pp. 795–98) is depicted by McCarthy as little more than a period of uncompromising, unadulterated brutality. It diverges from the “traditional mythology of (the) American westward movement” (Jasinski, 2011, p. 1) recognising the savagery humanity and most of all Westerners are capable of. It explores the narrative of one of mankind's ‘greatest nations’ whilst revealing the brutality it was willing to commit towards all those that stood in its way. This is clearly seen in the following passage, where not even children can escape the confronting realities of America's past.

    “These small victims, seven or eight of them, had holes punched in their under jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stubs of mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being.” (McCarthy, 1985, c. V).

    The world that McCarthy conjures is a place bereft of humanity. Where faith and destruction are two sides of the same coin. In this world where “war is the ultimate game [...] forcing [...] the unity of existence” where “war is god” (McCarthy, 1985, c. XVII), America’s true history is forged. Amidst this bloody slaughter we approach the notion of redemption.

    Within Christian scripture, redemption forms part of the faith’s overarching meta-narrative, specifically in relation to the sacrifice of Christ, the recognition and repentance for one's sins and thus the resulting vindication of humanity’s transgressions (Morris, 1962, pp. 1078–1079). Within Islam, redemption is found by practicing the tenets with which the Koran extols i.e. a sincerity of faith and virtuous character (Hava, 1981. p. 48). In Judaism, the concept is far more complex, giving specific focus on the exile of the Jews from their homeland and redemption from their extradition through God (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh HaShanah, 11b). It is also a legal and transactional concept, based on the sacrifice of blood (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin, 35b), family (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan, 12a), business (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Temurah, 31a) and specific personal items at the Temple of Jerusalem (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arachin, 30b). Redemption in all these cases is certainly steeped in a deep sense of faith, spirituality, pain and suffering. McCarthy evokes such sentiments through his use of especially biblical, grandiose syntax and direct allusions to scenes from the Bible. For example, in the opening paragraph, as McCarthy discusses the Kid’s parentage, he states “His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster” (McCarthy, 1985, c. I). The author makes direct references to Book of Joshua 9:23 and the Deception of the Gibeonites. “You are now under a curse: You will never be released from service as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." (The Holy Bible, King James edn, Book of Joshua 9:23). Yet it is here that any such religious sentiments end. With this in mind we must ask, does McCarthy provide the reader with any opportunity of peace within his narrative? Amidst the gratuitous blood and gore can we find redemption for the clear problems that Blood Meridian seeks to represent?

    McCarthy actively challenges these aforementioned soteriological theologies, even despite the religious and especially Biblical language and scenes he evokes. The reader is plunged into a world that is, in the words of Charles McGrath “prehistoric or post-apocalyptic: a barren, hostile place in which civilization--and any recognizable notion of morality--is scarcely discernible” (quoted in Brinkmeyer 39-40). The salvation narrative of the New World is lost, there is no redeemer of souls, nor holy texts that might provide enlightenment, nor sacrifice or journey that must be made. Blood Meridian is not, in the words of Steven Shaviro “a salvation narrative” no one can be rescued “by faith, by works, nor by grace” (Shaviro, p.148.) The characters within Blood Meridian even seem to bask within the darkness of the evils they commit, “the characters [...] existing in a state of absolute disinterest [..] of redemption or reconciliation with God or their fellow creatures” (Cooper, 2011, p. 47). McCarthy is intent on dispelling even the slightest chance or “possibility of grace and redemption even in the darkest of (his) tales” (Arnold, Luce, p. 46). He even seems to celebrate the brutality as we see in the following scene:

    “Hundreds of onlookers pressed about as the dried scalps were counted out upon the stones [...] There were one hundred and twenty-eight scalps and eight heads and the governor’s lieutenant and his retinue came down [...] They were promised full payment in gold at the dinner to be held in their honor that evening [...] and with this the Americans sent up a cheer and mounted their horses again. Old women in black rebozos ran forth to kiss the hems of their reeking shirts and hold up their dark little hands in blessing and the riders” (McCarthy, 1985, c. XIII).

    McCarthy clearly has a keen focus on the war-like nature of humanity, Judge Holden being the epitome of our base, animalistic tendencies and apparent insatiable desire for blood and murder. He is, as critic Harold Bloom states “[...] violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.” (quoted in Pierce, 2009). This is no less evident than in the following passage:

    “The judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire [...] some of the men played with it and made it laugh and they gave it jerky and it sat chewing and watching gravely the figures that passed above it. They covered it with a blanket and in the morning the judge was dandling it on one knee while the men saddled their horses. Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it.” (McCarthy, 1985 c. XII).

    Blood Meridian and its characters, especially Judge Holden, are clearly beyond any redemption. As is the period of history that McCarthy is exploring, even despite its glorification. This however does not mean that narrative itself is irredeemable, nor does it mean that Blood Meridian is simply an expression of humanity's curiosity and enjoyment of violence.The novel however mustn't be simply looked over for its violence. There is far more to Blood Meridian than meets the eye.

    In the words of Shawn M. Jasinski, McCarthy’s novel is a “presentation of American history and the violent manipulation of historical records” (Jasinski, 2011, p. 1). it is displaying the brutal conquest of a nation, shattering the glorified nature of “Manifest Destiny” and revealing “the brutality of American expansionism sweeping across the landscape as swiftly as the shadows of the Glanton Gang.” (Jasinski, 2011, p. 1) It is here that we might find some redemption in the novel and indeed within narrative itself. Blood Meridian, while fictitious, tells a truth not often seen within the Western genre. It lays bare the violence of humanity, exposing our transgressions and forcing us to come to terms with and repent for the actions, our sins, that our species has committed. As famous Hollywood director Brian de Palma once said, “People don’t see the world before their eyes until it's put in a narrative mode” (Abbott, 2008, p. 6). In this way, narrative allows us to see the world for what it really is. Blood Meridian is certainly lacking in specific and indeed tangible redeeming qualities.However, it identifies a blood lust within humanity that we appear to be obsessed with, it lays bare a truth and in part redeems the reader of the violence that they both revile and enjoy.

    Blood Meridian is a novel of sheer and uncompromising brutality. Because of this, it is considered the antithesis of the genre it is defined by. It displays the reality of America’s pre-civil war history, drenching the Western classic in blood and gore. Character’s such as Judge Holden, represent a facet of humanity that is and was no doubt responsible for the horrors committed along the Western Frontier of America. Holden specifically is violence incarnate, identifying with an element of the human narrative that is without a doubt exceptionally and even obsessively violent. At first Blood Meridian seems almost impossible to be redeemed in the face of such horrors. However it is the veracity, the honesty with which it displays such unadulterated brutality that in the end provides the reader with the vindication they might seek, revealing corruption of history and the burying of humanities violent past amidst the glory and grandeur and America’s Manifest Destiny and the Old West.


    • McCarthy, Cormac, (1985). Blood Meridian - the Evening Redness in the West. Random House Publishing. Ebook edn (2010)
    Babylonian Talmud. trans, Rodkinson, Michell L. (1918) URL:
    The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, (2000). URL:
    • Abbott, H. Porter. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press
    • Arnold, Edwin T. Luce, Dianne C. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Mississippi University Press, Jackson, Mississippi (2012)
    • Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Remapping Southern Literature: Contemporary Southern Writers and the West. University of Georgia Press, Athens (2000)
    • Cusher, Brent Edwin. “Cormac McCarthy’s Definition of Evil: Blood Meridian and the Case of Judge Holden.” Perspectives on Political Science 43.4 (2014)
    • Cooper, Lydia R. No More Heroes: “Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy” Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (2011)
    • Eaton, Mark A. “Dis(re)membered Bodies: Cormac McCarthy’s Border Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 49.1 (2003)
    • Frye, Steven. “Blood Meridian and the Poetics of Violence.” The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy. Ed. Steven Frye. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2015)
    • Hava, Lazarus-Yafeh. Some Religious Aspects of Islam: A Collection of Articles. Brill Archive. (1981).
    • Jasinski, Shawn M, Judge Holden and the Violence of Erasure: Blood Meridian’s Historical Skepticism. In “On Violence,” Modern Horizon Journal, Canada (2011) URL:
    • Morris, Leon, Redeemer, Redemption, 'The New Bible Dictionary'. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1962)
    • Merk, Frederick . Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1963)
    • Pratt, Julius. "The Origin Of 'Manifest Destiny'", American Historical Review (1927)
    • Pierce, Leonard. Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian (2009) URL:
    • Slotkin, Richard . Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century. Harper Perennial, New York (1993)
    • Shaviro, Steven. A Reading of Blood Meridian: “The Very Life of Darkness” URL:
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Morticia Iunia Bruti's Avatar
      Morticia Iunia Bruti -
      Strong and interesting article.
    1. isa0005's Avatar
      isa0005 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morticia Iunia Bruti View Post
      Strong and interesting article.
      Thanks! Glad you like it
    1. isa0005's Avatar
      isa0005 -
      I wrote much of this article sometime ago and a good portion of it is based on a paper I wrote for the last year of my undergraduate degree. Going over it, I found much of its content to be quite pertinent to what is happening in the US today. The ramifications of the notion of manifest destiny and the resulting brutality and racism has really shaped the US. It is now some 100-200 years later, all coming to ahead I think. Which side of history the American people and its politicians choose to side with will be just as impactful I think!