In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005), Llewelyn Moss is hunting for antelope when he sees through binoculars three trucks with no movement around them. He takes “a rough trail leading down” to the scene of a drug-related shootout and finds a briefcase containing 2.4 million dollars. Moss takes the money and this hunter, who from long range had nicked one antelope in a herd, becomes the hunted, isolated from others until machine-gunned down at close range. In the final scene of the novel, newly retired Sheriff Bell recounts his dream of riding horseback along a trail through the mountains: his father silently rode past him “carryin fire… fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”
McCarthy’s next novel is The Road (2006). It opens as No Country closes: with a dream of father and son moving through the dark with just a little bit of light. Awake, the father and son travel in the cold on desolate roads through gray landscapes, their moral as well as physical survival motivated by a sense of “carrying the fire.”
I would like to later discuss McCarthy’s The Road with regard to interests indicated in earlier posts and my website’s title. But as an introduction of sorts, I will suggest that No Country for Old Men and The Road may be read (or viewed: the movies well represent the novels) as a two-volume set: No Country as an apocalyptic prophecy, The Road as a post-apocalyptic quest.
No Country’s title is taken from the first line of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees…
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
The poem’s speaker is an “aged man … a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick… fastened to a dying animal,” as the novel’s Sheriff Bell increasingly sees himself to be. But while the poet is soothed by a history of art, Bell is troubled by a history of violence. The poet considers “monuments of magnificence”; Bell is left wondering “who Mammon was” or, later shifting the tense, “who it is.” The poet envisions “sages standing in God’s holy fire” who can consume his heart and “gather [him] into the artifice of eternity.” Bell recalls a man whom he had thought innocent bragging “I shot that son of a bitch right between the eyes and drug him back to his car by the hair of his head and set the car on fire and burned him to grease.”
One Yeats poem provides the title for the first novel, which ends with a dream of father and son. Another Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” is alluded to in the opening scene of the second novel, also a dream of father and son. In this dream, “the man” is wandering with his child in a cave, “their light playing over the wet flowstone walls.” In a “great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake,” they see a creature that “stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless.” After swinging its head, crouching, it “turned and lurched away…into the dark.” Yeats’ beast is viewed in the context of “twenty centuries of stony sleep.” Its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” the beast “mov[es] its slow thighs, while all about it reel shadows… The darkness drops again.” The rest of the novel will depict a land suggested by the opening stanza of “The Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
Another link between the two novels is a numerological one: 117. In No Country, 1:17 is the time that “the prophet of destruction,” in the process of tracking down Llewelyn’s wife to kill her, pulls up in front of her mother’s house. 117 is the number of the motel room in front of which Llewelyn is killed. In The Road “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Some take 1:17 in The Road as an allusion to chapter 1 verse 17 of the book Revelation but more in view of the general relationship of the apocalyptic works than the specific content of the verse, which contributes little to appreciating the novel. A more complex interplay between the texts is suggested if the modern one’s colon is moved: Revelation 11:7 reads “And when [the two witnesses] shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them.” Both novels have relatively innocent twosomes and a beast figure that connect and disconnect with the context of Revelation 11:7 in a variety of interesting ways. Another suggestion is that` the number refers to January 17, the beginning of a new age according to Ovid, whose writing is more clearly alluded to in another section of The Road. I have wondered about another possibility: 117 is associated in No Country with brutal destruction of the relatively innocent by a powerful weapon and in The Road with a massive number of people killed, as is the date at the beginning of the American millennium whose month equals the sum of the three digits in 117 and whose day equals the first two digits.
So the two novels are linked by dreams, by “carrying the fire” and other themes typical of apocalyptic, by the poetry of McCarthy’s literary and Irish ancestor Yeats, and by numbers. There are other aspects of No Country that contribute to reading it as an apocalyptic prophecy, understanding prophecy in its biblical sense of speaking out about a present situation in view of the past and implications for the future.
The term apocalyptic is derived from the title of the biblical book which first used the Greek term apokalupsis (apo- “from” -kalupsis “concealment”) “unveiling, disclosure, revelation” to refer to “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world” (Collins). No Country has all these elements, with twists.
Revelatory literature with a narrative framework. The bulk of No Country is a narrative with a fairly conventional plot structure. Sheriff Bell’s italicized monologues provide a revelatory—or at least speculative—perspective on the characters and events.
Revelation to a human recipient. “I saw” occurs far more frequently in Revelation than in any other biblical book: the primary function of the apocalyptic prophet is to bear witness to visions of “what is past, or passing, or to come,” to use the concluding line of Yeats’ “no country for old men” poem. Similarly, Bell’s primary role is not to act but to report what he sees. His opening monologue of less than two pages is filled with visionary expressions: “my testimony,” “I’ve never seen,” “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” “I don’t know what them eyes was the windows to,” “another view and other eyes to see,” “those eyes” and, especially pertinent to the genre, “I have seen his work,” echoing the biblical apocalypist’s “I am the one hearing and seeing these things.”
Biblical prophets were often reluctant to be the recipients of revelation and troubled by what they saw. What Bell says later in the novel about watching the execution of criminals would of course be all the more true of innocents being killed: “It aint something I would like to have to see again. To witness.” As in the Book of Revelation, more attention is given to visions of destruction than to visions of peace, but his final vision gives a glimpse of a little bit of light “in all that dark.”
A transcendent reality involving a supernatural world. Bell begins the opening monologue by referring to a nineteen-year old who murdered a fourteen-year old and “Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again.” Bell finds it hard to think of such a person in natural terms: “maybe he was some new kind.” About to go to the gaschamber, the kid “Said he knew he was goin to hell” and Bell believes it. But, like the apocalyptic woe that was past with more to come, this kid “wasnt nothing compared to what was comin down the pike.” Bell refers to “a prophet of destruction” whose actions and nature are central to the narrative. Later he will say that “He’s a ghost. But he’s out there.” At the end of the novel, this being who had earlier escaped from handcuffs and recovered from a bullet wound is known to have escaped from a car accident which was fatal to the others involved. Bell reaffirms his conclusion that “He's pretty much a ghost… he's out there. I wish he wasnt. But he is”—like the beast of Revelation who “was and is not and is to come” (many think this refers to Nero who was rumored to have come back to life after committing suicide).
Revelation mediated by an otherworldly being. Throughout the novel, Bell attempts to make sense of what he sees but readily admits the limits of his understanding. The voice of the divine offering a vision of goodness in the midst of “all that darkness” is that of his wife Loretta, “a spiritual person” whom God “has spoke to.” Extending grace to doers of “pretty bad things,” she “knew what she was doin. She always did.” Like the prisoners to whom she gave home-cooked food, Bell was undeservedly blessed by his relationship with her, a sign that the “Good Lord…smile[d] on me.” Just before the final vision of riding with his father on a trail, the allusions to biblical apocalyptic throughout the novel are made explicit when Bell refers to Loretta’s role as interpreter and encourager:
At supper this evenin she told me she'd been readin St John. The Revelations. Any time I get to talkin about how things are she'll find somethin in the bible so I asked her if Revelations had anything to say about the shape things was takin and she said she'd let me know… Then she come around behind my chair and put her arms around my neck and bit me on the ear. She's a very young woman in a lot of ways. If I didnt have her I dont know what I would have. Well, yes I do. You wouldn’t need a box to put it in, neither.
A transcendent reality envisaging eschatological salvation. Eschatology (adjective: eschatological) concerns beliefs about the end of time as we know it, the end of an era. In biblical apocalyptic, it is the end of domination by greed, oppression, war, brutality and darkness and the establishment of a realm of harmony, justice, peace, beauty and light. The audiences of the apocalyptic texts are well aware of present-day evils; the producers of the texts wish to assure that these will come to an end and divine order will be reestablished. Echoing the words and sentiments of the apocalyptic prophets, Bell refers to “signs and wonders” of the present, devoluted age and says “I know as certain as death that there aint nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.” Biblical apocalyptic was intended to encourage believers to stand firm, with warnings about misplaced belief and “being led astray.” Bell experiences and observes similar struggles: “I’m bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did” and he has “seen any number of believers fall away.”
Bell believes “the end is pretty much in sight” but shares the uncertainty of Llewelyn’s wife about its nature:
How do you think this is goin to end? he said.
I dont know. I dont know how nothing is going to end. Do you?
I know how it aint.
Like livin happily ever after?
Somethin like that.
The prophet of destruction, in contrast, claims omniscience: “I could have told you how all this would end” and ironically talks of “a final glimpse of hope… before the shroud drops.”
Bell’s uncle offers a different perspective on the end times—of individual lives if not an era: “I think by the time you’re grown you’re as happy as you’re goin to be. You’ll have good times and bad times, but in the end you’ll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy.”
Bell’s final vision gives another view of the end: confidence that his father had “in all that dark and all that cold” made a fire and that “whenever I got there he would be there.” The post-apocalyptic The Road will develop in harmony with this vision.
Trails we follow,