Notes on Cormac McCarthy’s Development of the Character Judge Holden in Blood Meridian


“But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”

–M. Jagger & K. Richards


The first time I read Blood Meridian I was unable to pick up another book for a few days. The book’s villain, Judge Holden, haunted me. Years later, when asked to choose books to annotate as one of the requirements for earning an MFA, Meridian appeared first on the list. Here are some of my thoughts on the Judge, who I find to be the ultimate literary villain and evil incarnate.

Excerpt #1: Page 8 (Modern Library Edition)

  Judge, how did you come to have the goods on that no-account?

  Goods? said the judge.

  When was you in Fort Smith?

  Fort Smith?

  Where did you know him to know all that stuff on him?

  You mean the Reverend Green?

  Yessir. I reckon you was in Fort Smith fore ye come out here.

  I was never in Fort Smith in my life. Doubt that he was.

  They looked from one to the other.

  Well where was it you run up on him?

  I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him.

  He raised his glass and drank.

  There was a strange silence in the room. The men looked like mud effigies. Finally someone began to laugh. Then another. Soon they were all laughing together. Someone bought the judge a drink.


Judge Holden as Trickster

  Judge Holden first appears as a perfectly bald, seven-foot, cigar-smoking man in a rain slicker who steps into the reeking atmosphere of a revival tent. His presence is enough to stop the itinerant preacher’s sermon and draw the eyes of the congregation. He accuses the minister of certain crimes with the authority of a lawman or a lawyer, and no one thinks to question what turns out to be slander until after the hapless evangelist is ruined, perhaps murdered by the angry mob outside the collapsed gospel tent. The Judge is found seated at the bar before the commotion has settled.

  Holden appears at this point to be a sort of merry prankster or malicious anti-Christian. He is well spoken and lures Toadvine and the Kid for recruits with whiskey as they come in out of the rain. This is not the last time, despite his enormous physical size, that Holden demonstrates a talent for materializing in unexpected places at a time of his own choosing. We’re left to wonder how the Judge negotiated the angry crowd and escaped the collapsing tent to appear at the bar calm and collected, ahead of the two men who slipped out an impromptu knife cut in the canvas wall. McCarthy has presented an interesting and resourceful character, though already one to treat with caution.


Excerpt #2: Page 110

  The judge knelt with his knife and cut the strap of the tigre-skin warbag the man

carried and emptied it in the sand. It held an eyeshield made from a raven’s wing, a rosary of fruitseeds, a few gunflints, a handful of lead balls. It held also a calculus or madstone from the inward parts of some beast and this the judge examined and pocketed. The other effects he spread with the palm of his hand as if there were something to be read there. Then he ripped open the man’s drawers with his knife. Tied alongside the dark genitals was a small skin bag and this the judge cut away and also secured in the pocket of his vest. Lastly he seized the dark locks and swept them up from the sand and cut away the scalp. Then they rose and returned, leaving him to scrutinize with his drying eyes the calamitous advance of the sun.


The Mystic Judge

  This is the first sign of some supernatural inclination in the Judge; the first clue to illuminate his disconcerting nature. Taking the dead Apache’s scalp goes without saying as does divesting the man of any valuables, but when Holden gathers the victim’s spiritual effects he demonstrates a desire for more than a scalp to sell. One can speculate about Holden’s spiritual beliefs and what use he might have for medicine pouches and raven’s wing eye shields, but no answers are forthcoming. A pattern begins with this scene in which revelations of Holden’s character, rather than better acquaint the reader with his inner workings, serve only to raise more questions about him and intensify the increasing aura of wrongness about the man.


Excerpt #3: Page 164.

  On the third night they crouched in the keep of old walls of slumped mud with the fires of the enemy not a mile distant on the desert. The judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and 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. Toadvine put the muzzle of his pistol against the great dome of the judge’s head.

  Goddamn you, Holden.

  You either shoot or take that away. Do it now.

  Toadvine put the pistol in his belt.


Excerpt #4: Page 164.

  The judge sat alone in the cantina. He also watched the rain, his eyes small in his great naked face. He’d filled his pockets with little candy deathsheads and he sat by the door and offered these to children passing on the walk under the eaves but they shied away like little horses.


Holden as Child Predator and Killer for Sport

  There are several incidences of the Judge preying on children. An exceptional capacity for evil is added to this increasingly complex character when the Apache child turns up dead and scalped in the first passage above, and the second passage solidifies the reader’s suspicion so that there is no doubt what has happened to the missing little girl mentioned two paragraphs later.

Another layer of vileness accumulates when Holden purchases two puppies a few pages later only to pitch them into a river for sport. It seems implied that the Judge later attacks the child who sold the pups, though my believing so must be a measure of McCarthy’s success in conveying the vast, abhorrent menace of Judge Holden since the novel offers no evidence of it.


Excerpt #5: Page 125

  Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. Aye and there was no rock, just the one. Irving said he’d brung it with him. I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all. He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he’d give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et In Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I’ve heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady’s name. His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics.

  And there he set. No horse. Just him and his legs crossed, smilin as we rode up. Like he’d been expectin us. He’d an old canvas kitbag and an old woolen benjamin over the one shoulder. In the bag was a brace of pistols and a good assortment of specie, gold and silver. He didn’t even have a canteen. It was like… You couldn’t tell where he’d come from. Said he’d been with a wagon company and fell out to go it alone.


Holden as a Supernatural Force

This revelation about the Judge’s origin casts him in an infernal light. As Hades stalked even the pastoral fields of classical Arcadia, so the Judge appears in the uninhabited Chihuahua desert to preach his gospel of war and stride among the corpses like some mythic god at the walls of Troy, helping some and slaying others according to his own inscrutable will.

  Though Tobin relays Holden’s claim to have abandoned a wagon company in that barren place, a dark seed of doubt takes root in the reader’s mind. It is at this point that I begin to believe that Holden is at least an imp from Hell if not Satan incarnate. What began as an all-too-realistic novel of how the West was stolen seems to be transforming into an American epic in which nothing is what it seems, and it all hinges on Judge Holden.


The Takeaway:

  McCarthy’s judicious rationing and layering of information about Judge Holden serves to build the character into a mythic being and ultimate villain while casting enough doubt as to the sanity of the protagonist, the Kid, to allow multiple interpretations of the novel’s ending.

  I’d like to take away from my reading of Blood Meridian a sense of how McCarthy consistently builds tension, mystery, and awe throughout the novel surrounding the Judge such that the character and his relationship with the Kid become the core of the novel. Despite the Judge’s constant presence and influence, and the scrutiny of every other character in the novel, the reader finishes the book filled with a dread sense of wonder and is left pondering what Judge Holden is. I will be studying Blood Meridian in the future for this reason, as well as to gain insight on McCarthy’s razor-sharp and diamond-dense dialogue.