Burial Trees, Black Mandrake and Bird Cages: A Brief Interpretive Reflection on The Tinker’s Christic Death in Outer Dark
The death of Outer Dark’s Tinker confirms his messianic relation, but its symbols are so contrary to their biblical source as to leave the soteriology of McCarthy’s mythic Appalachia indecipherable. The Tinker’s similitude to Christ is extensive; encompassing life, Passion and burial. McCarthy’s contrary Christ does not ride on a colt (Matt 21:17) but is his own colt (192). He is whipped like his archetype (John 19:1) and dogbit like his archetype (Ps. 22:16). He wanders a country despised (Mk. 6:4) and holds accounts in blood (Heb. 10:4)(193). He even dies hanging from a tree in concurrence with two criminals (95). Yet, it is shortly after—at the Tinker’s entombment (or lack thereof)—that McCarthy’s vision of saviourship is most revealed, and most contrary.
An enigmatic and sporadic figure, the Tinker meets his demise off the pages of Outer Dark. Yet, while silent during the violence of his lynching, McCarthy devotes an entire paragraph to the Tinker turning slowly in his tree (237). And it is written, “cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). In a warping of the Entombment, no one takes this Christ from his cross. McCarthy immediately christens it his “burial tree” (238), explicitly highlighting the Tinker’s lack thereof. Furthermore, in Spring—a distended easter—a new (and living) branch pierces the Tinker’s breast (238); just like a spear did his archetype (John 19:34). The “perennial” flowering of this branch conveys the terminal nature of the death. New life blooms, yet it is not resurrection life as we know it, but the inexorable revival of nature through its seasons. Similarly, “black mandrake” springs beneath the Tinker’s arboreal gallows. A magical plant—propagated by the condemned’s blood, associated with fertility, and with roots resembling the human form—the mandrake is the reincarnation of the body as…botany. This is a spurious resurrection, with McCarthy manifesting the resurrection life produced by a Christic death only in terms of natural and carnal virility. So, the Tinker is a contrary Christ—a McCarthy Christ—whose death-symbols conjure relation to the biblical accounting but are always perverted to preach a different gospel.
No close reading of this postmortem scene can ignore its avian presence, a presence which further confirms the crooked workings of McCarthy’s Christ. Birds feast on the Christ’s flesh (238). This has grossly perverse biblical precedent. In the sardonic Johannine account of the reprobate’s Kingdom supper, the guests are on the menu and birds do the feasting on the flesh of kings and “of all men” (Rev. 19:17-18). Here the-Tinker-as-Christ is lowered to the postmortem punishment of the damned at the final judgement. Furthermore, the Tinker’s ribcage becomes “a bone birdcage” (238). But John describes the City of Man— the symbol of every earthly power gathered against God—as a “prison of every unclean and hateful bird” (Rev. 18:2). What is bird-prison if not a birdcage? McCarthy then directly equates the heart of his Christ with every unclean thing the Bible can name at its terminal extremities of judgement and apocalypse.
Such a deviant Christ leaves McCarthy’s soteriology essentially indecipherable. The equation of any redemptive power the Tinker’s death yields with nature’s virility preaches a naturalistic gospel of relentless cosmic forces and tenacious life. While equating the Tinker with consummate moral uncleanness proffers (at best) a cruel soteriological agnosticism, one where “the grace of God don’t rest easy”, where people are “scarred with God’s mercy. Stricken with his love” (226). Add to this the fact that this Christ both leads his charge to evil’s campsite (229) and is unable to “account for” (229) evils presence, and he seems either impotent, evil, or both. Yet, clean answers are antithetical to McCarthy’s cosmology; they would be a betrayal of it. The uncertain nature of goodness and salvation— and the symbols they rest upon—is perhaps McCarthy’s only unyielding evangel.