Why Judge Holden is One of Literature’s Greatest Villains


Judge Holden, by Betatesthighlander1, via Wikimedia

In the long list of literary villains, Judge Holden, from Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian, is among the most memorable. In this post derived from his article in our Postgraduate English journal, Ronan Hatfull explains how Judge Holden embodies the best (or worst) of antiheroes from literary and cinematic tradition.

At the start of your article, you quote a critic who suggests that ‘McCarthy’s diabolic Judge has the demerit of earning a place at the table with literature’s most mischievous malefactors’. For people not familiar with the novel, who is Judge Holden and what’s so bad about him?

Judge Holden is the principal antagonist of Blood Meridian. One of the most frightening things about him is his physical appearance: he is bald, well over six-foot and hairless.

Although few of his crimes are ever directly witnessed by characters in the novel, McCarthy heavily alludes to Holden being a paedophile and carrying out a number of sadistic murders. Perhaps the most unsettling moment is the novel’s final chapter, when Holden and the kid (McCarthy’s protagonist) reunite in a tavern. They hold a philosophical debate, before the kid leaves to go to the nearby outhouse. He discovers Holden naked in the closet and McCarthy leaves the rest to our imagination. All that is said, on the novel’s penultimate page, is that two men go to the outhouse sometime later and one remarks ‘Good God almighty’ when looking inside. Holden then reappears in the tavern, dancing naked on a table and McCarthy concludes the book by saying that Holden ‘never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says he will never die’.

So what’s the purpose of having such a strange and sadistic character?

This combination of ambiguity, physical power, perversion and conflicted accounts of how the other gang members came to meet him makes Judge Holden an elusive figure that is impossible to fully understand, even after reading Blood Meridian multiple times. Like Iago’s promise ‘from this time forth to never speak word’ at the end of Shakespeare’s Othello or the Joker’s multiple explanations of how he got his scars in The Dark Knight (2008), this denial of fixed meaning, motivation or expression makes Holden a far more terrifying villain than those who explain how and why they commit their crimes.

Coloured sketch drawing of the Joker Heath Ledger from Batman the Dark Knight

The Joker, by <a “https://www.flickr.com/photos/indieflickr/2737651689”>johnantoni. Reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

In creating him, was McCarthy inspired by his literary predecessors? Or did he just spring to life from his imagination?

McCarthy rarely comments on his literary influences and has given very few interviews throughout his literary career. However, he has commented that his four favourite novels are Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses. Other McCarthy scholars have frequently drawn comparison between Blood Meridian and Moby-Dick and, in particular, Holden and the White Whale, not least because of Holden’s pale hue and colossal physicality. It is also possible to draw comparisons between Holden’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and dominion and Captain Ahab, who peruses the Whale throughout Melville’s novel.

From a factual point-of-view, the only precedent for Holden is Samuel Chamberlain’s autobiographical account of his adventures with the Glanton gang, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue. This was McCarthy’s primary source for Blood Meridian and, while he imbues Holden with supernatural and omnipresent qualities, Holden is reported by Chamberlain to be a real Texan scalphunter in the 19th century.

A cowboy riding a horse silhouetted against a desert landscape

Is this why McCarthy chose to present his novel as a Western?

Since Holden was drawn from this factual account, placing him in a Western context makes sense from that point-of-view. Blood Meridian is also an example of the revisionist Western genre and, as such, Holden isn’t a typical Western villain: he’s eloquent, learnèd and philosophical.

Although the novel is set in a historical context, does it have resonances with more modern events?

When I first read the novel, I very much viewed it as being written through the lens of Vietnam, which was probably because I studied on an undergraduate course which focused on twentieth-century American literature. Specifically, we read Blood Meridian the week after the journalist Michael Herr’s account of Vietnam in Dispatches (1977). My seminar tutor highlighted the comparisons between Herr’s descriptions of violence and those found in McCarthy’s novel.

I also watched Oliver Stone’s anti-war film Platoon (1986) around the time and remember being struck by how frightened I was by its antagonist, Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes, played by Tom Berenger. Barnes’s single-minded attitude towards the war campaign and sadistic edge reminded me strongly of Holden and, given that McCarthy creates the impression that Holden is unconfined by time or space, it is possible to interpret him as a character who would be equally at home in a Western or Vietnam narrative.

Blood Meridian was published around the same time as these Vietnam-focused books and films and the language of the novel strongly evokes the American campaign against the Vietcong.

Platoon (1986) Cast

Earlier, you alluded to Holden’s relationship with ‘the kid’. How does their relationship work? Is it like father-and-son?

I’d say that their relationship is never as simple, or as positive, as father and son. Undoubtedly, they learn much and are fascinated by each other.

Many interpret the end of the novel which I described above as Holden consuming the kid, his antithesis, literally and metaphorically. McCarthy describes the moment thus: ‘he opened the rough board door of the jakes and stepped in. The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the barlatch home behind him’. The mixture of fatherly embrace and predatory suffocation are troubling to say the least. Many believe that, given Holden is found naked, the novel’s previous reports of his paedophilic practices, the reaction of the two men to what they see inside the closet, and the disappearance of the kid, that Holden rapes and murders him.

In your journal article you suggest that Blood Meridian draws heavily on Shakespeare’s history plays and his depiction of monarchs. How did you come to spot this connection?

I had been looking at Shakespeare’s influence on McCarthy for some time prior to spotting this precise connection, given that McCarthy’s primary literary influences (Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Joyce) were all themselves influenced by the playwright. This connection arose because of reading the following sentence, which is spoken by Holen in the aforementioned final conversation between himself and the kid: ‘And some are not born yet who shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s soul, said the Judge’. This is misquotation of a line in the second scene of Henry V. Experiencing a slight against his character, King Henry confounds both the foreign powers and members of how own court who doubt his strength as a leader, by telling the French Ambassador that the Dauphin’s ‘mock of his / Hath turned his balls to gun-stones’ (1.2.250) and stating that his rebuke shall be so great that ‘some are yet ungotten and unborn / That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn’ (1.2.253). I analyse McCarthy’s use of this specific passage in detail during my article but, simply put, this provided me with tangible evidence that Blood Meridian contains the influence of Shakespeare.

Beyond that, I began to spot connections to other History plays, partly because McCarthy uses the word ‘falstaffian’ to describe a mass of people the gang passes during the novel. I also realised that a useful literary precedent for Holden and the kid’s relationship was Falstaff and Prince Hal’s through the Henry IV plays.

Peto, Bardolph and Gadshill at left; Falstaff in the centre; Hal and Poins at right in the Boar’s Head Tavern. Illustration to Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, scene 4. Unknown artist, c.1840. Via Wikimedia Commons.

If we can draw connections between literary works separated by four hundred years, this could imply that figures like Holden are somewhat universal, to be found in every time. Would you go so far as to suggest Holden from 1985 has parallels with any figures in 2017?

Around the time of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, I spoke to a student who was looking at parallels between the way in which Holden cultivates followers and generates some form of mythology around him and Trump’s success in the 2016 election. The student was looking at Trump’s speech patterns and, while Holden is infinitely more sophisticated and verbose in his language than the leader of the free world, both rely on repetition and inflated sense of their own importance in the persuasion of others to agree with their opinions.

Reading Blood Meridian in a post-Trump context is interesting from the point-of-view that, like the novel’s scalphunters, Trump promotes the ideology of isolationism. There is also an element of disorder and mayhem amongst the merry-go-round Trump administration, which reflects the increasing level of chaos that engulfs the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s novel until only Holden and the kid are left. From a physical perspective, you could also argue that as a tall, racist, overweight, pale individual who has reportedly indulged in a range of depraved sexual acts and captured the imagination of people who blindly follow his every word, Trump is a pretty good fit for a twenty-first-century Holden.

Donald Trump at a podium with supporters and US flags waving in background

Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore. Reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

Coming back to our first question, and placing Holden at a table with ‘literature’s most mischievous malefactors’, what other four literary figures would you choose to join this infamous dinner party?

Iago from Othello, Medea, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron from Jerusalem. That would be quite a party.

You can read Ronan Hatfull’s full article Judge Holden and the Spectre of Shakespeare’s Monarchs in Blood Meridian for free in Postgraduate English. Who would you add to your dinner party of literary badness? Share your thoughts below or reach us on Twitter

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