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  • 07 Feb 2015 at 5:19 pm #6436


    Hi all,

    I would like to float an idea regarding Tobin. Several of the details below appeared in posts of mine from last summer. In that time, I’ve thought about this a lot and feel somewhat comfortable that I’m not talking total nonsense.

    First: Something really weird happens with Tobin in the final chapters. Throughout the book, he consistently seems one of the less bad guys in the gang. At the very least, he takes the kid under his wing a bit and warns him about the judge a couple of times. And at one point we are told “it pleased [Glanton] to send [the expriest] for whores and drink”. So in some sense, Glanton himself must see Tobin as not quite as bad as everyone else. And notably (see below for more), he refuses to engage the judge after the war speech. But come Chapter 20, there’s something really unsettling about him. I do not trust him one jot. For instance:

    a) Just about every time he speaks to the kid, the corresponding dialogue tag is “hissed”.

    b) He lies about knowing that Glanton is dead: When Toadvine and the kid reach the well where Tobin is waiting, he says “All the rest gone under? Glanton? The judge?” But when Tobin and the kid encounter David Brown later on, the following exchange takes place:

    “Did you see him dead? [David Brown] called. Glanton?
    I did, called the expriest. For he had so.

    c) How does Tobin make it to the wells so far ahead of Toadvine and the kid? It ain’t like they stopped for lunch on the way. They hightail it out of there. Yet when they get to the wells, Tobin’s there sitting pretty. They didn’t even see him on the way. He’s just *there*. Much, if you ask me, like the judge and his “merestone” in Tobin’s own story of “How came the learned man”.

    d) If Tobin did indeed see Glanton dead (as the narrator tells us), *how* did he see him dead? Glanton was killed in his bedroom. Sure, as Rick pointed out when I mentioned this on a different thread last year, the Yumas piled the bodies on a bonfire. Perhaps he saw Glanton then. But then this strengthens point c): If Tobin sticks around to see the weenie roast, how does he beat Toadvine and the kid to the wells?

    e) When they’re at the wells with the judge, Tobin “hisses” at the kid:

    “Do him[…] You’ll get no second chance lad. Do it. He is naked. He is unarmed. God’s blood, do you think you’ll best him any other way? Do it, lad. Do it for the love of God. Do it or I swear your life is forfeit.”

    And this comes during the section titled “How the expriest comes to advocate murder”. No small amount of moral judgment on the narrator’s part there, it seems.

    f) Even at Carrizo Creek at first, Tobin keeps “hissing” at the kid. And he disappears on the kid several times. And once, after following Tobin’s tracks, the kid spots “a small viper coiled under a flap of hide.” Is this Tobin?


    Before I go on, I should digress:

    1) By now most of the frequent readers on this site are probably familiar with my ideas regarding the ending. They are tangentially relevant here, so just in case you are not, I’ll recap: Essentially, I see the kid as a reprobate figure: I think he is born destined to be evil, but he does not want to be so. He fights these evil tendencies in whatever minor ways he can (helping David Brown with the arrow, having mercy on Shelby and Tate, carrying the Bible, attempting to help the eldress in the rocks, etc.), but ultimately he caves. I think it is the judge who has earmarked the kid as “reprobate”, and he contrives to keep the kid from ever getting off the path laid for him. (If you are interested, I go into much much more detail on this inter alia at

    (Note that although I use Calvinist terminology in “reprobate”, I don’t necessarily think that is McCarthy’s worldview. Nor is it mine. For me, anyway, it’s just convenient vocabulary to denote someone who cannot escape an evil fate set before him.)

    2) Besides the kid, the only gang members who really display any signs at all of basic human decency are Toadvine and Tobin. Toadvine strikes up a friendship (such as it is) with the kid, he disagrees with massacring the “band of peaceful Tiguas”, and most importantly, he is enraged by the judge’s murder and scalping of the Apache boy. (Tobin was discussed above.)

    Now comes speculation: Who survives the Yuma massacre? The judge and his “fool”, David Brown (who wasn’t even in Yuma), and… the kid, Toadvine, and Tobin. At the wells after the Yuma massacre, Toadvine almost immediately re-ups with the judge. David Brown, on his way back from San Diego, also rejoins the judge. (We know this is so because when the kid and Tobin leave the judge et al. at the wells, the judge is unarmed and on foot. They pass David Brown on his way east to Yuma, and he has two horses and a rifle. Next thing you know, the judge ambushes the kid and Tobin, and he has two horses and a rifle. Ergo…)

    And the next time we see Toadvine and David Brown, they’re being hanged.

    Thus, the way I’m reading the novel, it’s starting to look like these reprobates for the most part stay alive until they have completely given in to the judge, and shortly thereafter they are killed. In fact, the only main gang members of whom this is not necessarily true are the kid and Tobin. And my reading is that the ending of the novel is precisely the kid “reenlisting”, so to speak.


    What, then, to make of Tobin? Well, right after the Yuma massacre, in the first half of Chapter 20, I wonder if he is working for/with the judge to get the kid to embrace the evil side of him. This would certainly explain all those weird, sinister things detailed above. And perhaps this is Tobin’s own way of surrendering to the judge. In particular, perhaps shooting the judge, who appears to the kid to be simply a naked unarmed man, would be sufficient to let the judge “own” him. And Tobin is willfully conspiring with the judge to bring this about. But it doesn’t work. The kid refuses multiple times to shoot the judge. And Tobin’s tack totally changes. Maybe he begins to repent? Because all of a sudden, a mere five pages after Tobin “advocate[s] murder”, we have the following exchange:

    “Where is the judge? said the kid.
    Where indeed.
    If I kill him we can take the horses.
    You’ll not kill him. Dont be a fool. Shoot the horses.”

    And shortly thereafter, there’s

    “The kid spoke to him. He aint nothin. You told me so yourself. Men are made of the dust of the earth. You said it was no pair… pair…
    No parable. That it was a naked fact and the judge was a man like all men.
    Face him down then, said the expriest. Face him down if he is so.”

    How is it possible that Tobin’s advice to the kid changes so drastically in five pages? Personally, I think the above exchanges serve two purposes on Tobin’s part: First, as a semi-explicit warning to the kid regarding the nature of the judge. It is not terribly hard to read the first exchange as Tobin saying the judge cannot be killed and the second as him saying the judge is not human. (Also, in the former, Tobin’s “Where indeed” resonates with how the location of the judge keeps mysteriously changing as the kid is hiding from him. Perhaps, as rumored of Moby Dick, the judge is ubiquitous? Perhaps the judge’s “work lies all wheres”?)

    Second, I think such warnings form a repentance of sorts for Tobin: There are precisely two points in the novel where Tobin is referred to by the narrator as “priest” as opposed to “expriest”. One comes immediately after the war speech:

    “The judge searched out the circle for disputants. But what says the priest? he said.
    Tobin looked up. The priest does not say.
    The priest does not say, said the judge. Nihil dicit.”

    That first “The priest does not say” is surely the narrator. Granted, there’s a tense change, which is weird. But it’s definitely not the judge, since his speech starts on the next line. And it makes no sense for Tobin to refer to himself as “the priest”. That’s the narrator. And even if you’re skeptical, that’s the chapter heading for this section: “The priest does not say”.

    The second time is when he and the kid are hiding from the judge. The judge starts speaking on “property rights in beasts mansuete” and “other things”. Then:

    “The expriest leaned to the kid. Dont listen, he said.
    I aint listenin.
    Stop your ears.
    Stop yours.
    The priest cupped his hands over his ears and looked at the kid.”

    Both times, the only times, the narrator calls Tobin “priest” instead of “expriest” are when he is refusing to engage the judge. How remarkably different from his “advocat[ing] murder”. I think he comes to realize what a horrible thing he’s tried to do, consciously helping the judge to corrupt the kid. And he knows it’s too late for himself. So he decides to warn the kid about who the judge is and advise him to not listen to the judge.


    Now, I should also add: A funny thing happens in the conversation between the kid and the judge in the cell in San Diego. The kid asks “Where’s Tobin?”, to which the judge replies

    “I told them that the cretin had been a respected Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College as recently as March of this year. That his wits had stood him as far west as the Aquarius Mountains. It was the ensuing country that carried them off. Together with his clothes.”

    Now, this was discussed at length over at a couple years ago. There was much debate as to to whom the judge is referring. Is it Tobin? Is it the idiot? Honestly, I suspect it’s *both*. It seems so clear the judge is conflating them: “cretin” and being naked clearly sounds like the idiot, while “Doctor of Divinity” and the fact that this is the response to the kid’s question “Where’s Tobin?” clearly makes it Tobin. I’m not really sure what’s happening here, but I’ve found that an interesting exercise is to ask myself at various times “What if the judge is telling the truth?” That is, what reasonable semantics can I attach to the judge’s syntax, and how do such meanings reverberate elsewhere in the book? Well, it seems like the judge has told the jailers in San Diego that the idiot *is* Tobin. Is it possible that this is in any sense true? After all, a *big* part of my reading of the ending hinges on doubles and reflections in the novel. Perhaps we should read Tobin and the idiot as doubles of a kind? Moreover, might this have to do with why Tobin is so insistent that the kid kill the idiot in the desert? Is the idiot “controlling” Tobin at that point? Is Tobin-in-the-desert a projection of sorts of the idiot?

    Obviously these last few ideas are wayyyy out in the realm of speculation. Surely the parsimonious reading is “The judge is lying”. But there’s something that seems so “off” about Tobin in the final chapters: All of a sudden he becomes super sneaky and starts lying and hissing and “advocat[ing] murder”. Then all of a sudden he starts telling the kid the judge can’t be killed and is not a man, and he starts advising the kid to not listen to the judge. But he continues telling the kid to shoot the idiot. Then Tobin straight up disappears. And in San Diego, the judge is talking as if Tobin and the idiot are one and the same. I’m not sure that parsimony is going to cut through this for us.

    Anyway.. Maybe someone has some idea of what’s going on?

    07 Feb 2015 at 7:31 pm #6437


    efscerbo: “The judge searched out the circle for disputants. But what says the priest? he said.
    Tobin looked up. The priest does not say.
    The priest does not say, said the judge. Nihil dicit.”

    I think Tobin is simply responding using the judge’s own words here. As for the rest – well, I’ll not match words with ye. But it’s fascinating stuff.

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by  Mackenna.
    07 Feb 2015 at 8:48 pm #6439

    These are fascinating points you make. Tobin’s presence after the Yuma massacre has rankled me for years. How *did* he escape? How *did* he beat Toadvine and the kid to the Alamo Mucho wells? (This one can be explained as the kid/Toadvine were moving slower due to the kid’s wound.) Was he lying about seeing Glanton’s death, or did he actually see it?

    I will be very keen to see what others say here.

    07 Feb 2015 at 10:32 pm #6440


    So much of it seems ungraspable. There was a time when I thought looking at Tobin and some of the others in BM (and Ely and the boy in TR) through the lens of Agamben’s Hierarchy of Angels and the eternal “theater of torture” but I never got around to putting my ideas down in writing. Maybe there’s no there there. At any rate, I second Stephen on Ed making some fascinating points and I agree with Stephen about the kid’s injury slowing his way to the well, explaining Tobin getting there sooner.

    It also occurred to me that McCarthy didn’t think through the logistics of the arrivals at the well and may have made a rare mistake. Doubtful. What Mackenna says above on that judge bit makes a lot of sense. I love reading about the mysterious Tobin so it’s fun to see folks offering some interesting ideas.

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by  Glass.
    07 Feb 2015 at 11:37 pm #6442


    As a writing exercise, I’ve been working on a screenplay adaptation of “Blood Meridian” just for the hell of it the last few weeks (mainly after having read Monahan’s draft which, while being well-written from a screen perspective, is very pulpy and feels like a dumbed-down version of BM), and upon adapting the scene where Toadvine and the kid escape the Yumas, it was even more apparent that Tobin’s presence at the wells is weird. Is Tobin a skilled enough person to know where to find these wells? Certainly, Glanton wouldn’t have been making too many forays to them, considering the river was right there at the ferry. The idea that Tobin himself might have some mystical presence (he is, unless we count the idiot and potentially Chambers, the only member of the gang who goes unaccounted for in some way) intrigues me for sure, and Ed’s idea of him transmogrified into a snake is a fascinating one.

    08 Feb 2015 at 1:23 am #6444



    Fair enough. I’ve had this debate with other people before. Most people I’ve talked to about this think the first “The priest does not say” is Tobin. Personally, I disagree. We never hear Tobin refer to himself as “the priest” (or even in the third person) anywhere else in the novel. In fact, immediately after this he distances himself from that, saying “in truth I was never a priest but only a novitiate to the order.” Really hard for me to imagine Tobin calling himself “the priest” if he’s going to say a line like that immediately afterwards.

    I will say, though, in my opinion the strongest point *for* that line being spoken by Tobin is the shift in tense from past to present. If it’s not Tobin, then we have to assume the narrator changes tense for a single sentence. That would be weird, I agree.

    Regardless, the corresponding chapter heading is “The priest does not say”. Now, to my knowledge, with the sole possible exception of “Sie mussen schlafen aber Ich muss tanzen” (which might be excused as a (mis)quotation), chapter headings are never written from the point of view of the character in question. So I would say at the very least, in the chapter heading it is the narrator saying “The priest does not say”. Which is still significant to me.



    That’s also a fair point. The kid being injured would definitely have slowed them down. I did not consider that, so thanks. Although, I would ask in return (rhetorically) a) wouldn’t Toadvine and the kid have seen Tobin out ahead of them, at least at first? It’s weird that Tobin could have gotten *such* a headstart that they wouldn’t see him at all until they got to the wells. And b) if he did get such a headstart, how could he have seen Glanton dead? Was he in Glanton’s chambers?

    And I definitely *do* think Tobin saw Glanton dead and concealed it from Toadvine and the kid. That “For he had so” has to be there for that purpose. What else is that line for but to contradict what Tobin said earlier?



    Thanks as always for the vote of confidence. And I will say, if nothing else, I have absolute trust in McCarthy’s plotting. You know a couple things of what I think is going on in The Counselor. In my opinion, whenever one of us says “That makes no sense” regarding McCarthy’s plots, the fault is ours and not his. And especially with all that other stuff (the hissing, the lying about Glanton, and how he reverses himself, from “Do it” to “You’ll not kill him”, in a matter of pages), I really think we’re supposed to be suspicious of Tobin here, and the logistics of the arrivals is (to me) just one more bell sounding that alarm.

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by  efscerbo.
    08 Feb 2015 at 1:55 am #6445


    Oh, and Stephen,

    You bring up a good point. How does Tobin find the wells? How does he even know they’re there? The Alamo Mucho wells were 40-50 miles west of Yuma. And there were other wells in that area. In addition to Alamo Mucho, there were Cook’s wells, which were about halfway between Yuma and Alamo Mucho. How does Tobin show up precisely where Toadvine and the kid are heading?

    By the way: You mentioned Chambers (aka the veteran aka Grannyrat). I’ve been under the impression the judge orders him killed and has the Delawares do it. In Chapter 8, right after the gang leave Janos, the judge asks Toadvine and the kid “What’s become of Chambers”. And the judge seems pissed that he left, saying to Toadvine “It was my understanding that you spoke for your group.” And immediately after this exchange we are told “In the morning two of the Delawares were gone.”

    Now fastforward to Chapter 9: “That afternoon the two Delawares that had left them a day out of Janos caught them up where they nooned at a mineral well. They had with them the veteran’s horse, still saddled.”

    So Chambers peaces out, the judge asks about it, seeming none too pleased, immediately afterwards two Delawares go missing, and then they come back with his horse and all his belongings (including his blankets, his saddle, his wallet, his “other accoutrements”, and his rifle). I totally interpret that as the judge having him taken out.

    Just thought I’d mention it.


    08 Feb 2015 at 2:15 am #6446


    Not only that, but David Brown (who has no notion of what transpired at the crossing) converges on them in that wide expanse of desert pretty conveniently. Is it the judge’s will that directs them all on this “calamitous path”?

    As for Chambers, we are obviously led to assume the Delawares murdered him, but I’ve seen it posited by others here and elsewhere that “Chambers” is a sobriquet of “Chamberlain,” as in Sam Chamberlain, writer of “My Confession.” I interpreted it as McCarthy acknowledging that Grannyrat was Chamberlain, and that his “Recollections of a Rogue” are largely romanticized hogwash, and that Chamberlain only rode with the gang for the briefest while, not even taking part in their atrocities or witnessing them in their final days at the crossing. Then again, I’ve heard it said that Billy Carr (the boy send with Toadvine and the kid to cut willow poles) was an alias of Chamberlain as well. It’s interesting that Crying Tom Hitchcock didn’t make an appearance in the novel.

    08 Feb 2015 at 3:29 am #6448


    Hi Stephen,

    Regarding Chambers: So you’re saying, if he is indeed supposed to be Chamberlain, then we should assume the Delawares did *not* kill him? That is, he runs off from the gang, maybe abandons his horse and saddle and rifle and other belongings, the Delawares find them and take them, and he goes off to write his hogwash Recollections? Hmm, that’s really interesting. I like the other idea better, if for no other reason than the judge seems pissed, and I’d bet that when the judge is pissed, you don’t get off scotfree. But that’s still a really neat idea.

    As for “Is it the judge’s will that directs them all on this “calamitous path”?”: That’s my whole reading of the book in a nutshell. Still a really interesting note on David Brown running into them. Seriously, what are the odds? Can’t be accidental, I suppose. (Although, I don’t know what the road situation was like then and there. Was there only one road between San Diego and Yuma? That might be part of it.) Never thought of that before, either.

    Thanks once again,

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by  efscerbo.
    03 Apr 2015 at 2:33 am #6846


    In addition to Tobin repeatedly “hissing” at the kid and the kid seeing the small viper, shortly after those parts there’s also this part:
    He found the expriests tracks still wet where he’d left the creek and the way of his progress marked with blood. He followed through the sand until he came to that place where the expriest had circled upon himself and lay hissing at him from his place of cover.
    Now if “circled upon himself and lay hissing at him from his place of cover” doesn’t sound like a snake I don’t know what does.

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