Don't look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds?... What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man's jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward? Look at me.
--Judge Holden in Blood Meridian
Judge Holden 'makes' Blood Meridian. Without him it would be a beautifully written western with a violent, Peckinpah-ish lyricism; with him, it's a great and fascinating novel that deserves shelf-space among the best works of Melville and Hawthorne. Judge Holden ('Judge' is possibly his first name, significantly mistaken for his title by the novel's other characters [cf, bizarrely enough, Judge Reinhold]), this seven-foot, 332-pound, dancing, declaiming, murdering masterpiece of malevolence, this ice-blooded preacher of the gospel of war, this terrifying and terrifyingly familiar embodiment of American nihilism, is by far the most impressive character in Blood Meridian and probably the greatest in McCarthy's entire oeuvre. Don't trust Holden when he claims not to speak in mysteries, for how else can he speak when he is himself the greatest mystery, appearing first to the Glanton gang as their satanic deliverer sitting calmly on a rock in the wilderness and proceeding to instruct them in the improvised manufacture of gunpowder from its natural plutonic elements? This story in chapter 10, which Chaucer might have titled 'The Ex-Priest's Tale,' is in my opinion the point at which the book blasts out of its 'revisionist western' subgenre and achieves true greatness. And the judge provides the powder for that blast. He seems bigger than the book, in the same way that Shakespeare's greatest characters are so much larger than the borrowed plots that struggle to contain them. And like Hamlet and Lear he is constantly performing, irrepressibly theatrical--even at one point declaiming naked upon a battlement in a raging thunderstorm a poem that could only be the storm scene from Lear. (McCarthy is artist enough to describe this performance only vaguely and indirectly, letting the reader connect the literary dots. The Lear connection becomes more obvious later when we see the Judge wandering with his 'fool.') Also like those Shakespearean creations in their respective plays, Holden is the only character in Blood Meridian whose consciousness seems uncannily to contain the book in which he appears. When he tells his fellow killers that "Books lie," only he seems to appreciate the delicious irony, only he seems to realize that he is a character in a book. What else could be the meaning of his mysterious smile as he speaks these words? Even more interestingly, it might be argued that Judge Holden is the 'narrator' of Blood Meridian, that the book is 'spoken' in the voice of his polymathic, polylingual consciousness. He is, after all, the only man still alive at the end, still dancing, still talking, and still insisting that he will never be stilled.
(This hypothesis might clear up one of the book's concluding mysteries: Why does the scene-synopsis at the head of the last chapter describe the last scene in German? Obviously, this is another example of the multilingual Holden showing off. The fact that the line's 'Ich' refers to Judge Holden seems to confirm the hypothesis. This is McCarthy's way of identifying the narratorial consciousness at novel's end.)