Rambling Through a Classic Western

Review of Warlock by Oakley Hall

The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. (Deut. 28:23)

For a Western, Warlock is a ridiculously complicated book. In one sense, it is a novelization of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Lincoln County War. In another sense, it is the story of Marshall Clay Blaisdell in his quest to keep law and order without becoming a criminal himself, as told through the eyes of the townspeople. In yet another sense, it is the story of the bloody end of the Old West and the arrival of civilization. The list could go on. All of which to say this book is virtually impossible to summarize. But I’ll give it a go, in the form of a dialogue:

Territorial Authorities (TA): You can’t have a sheriff, a town charter, or a code of laws until your streets are no longer bloody and lawless—we can’t give government sanction to a place like that!Town of Warlock (TW): Our streets are bloody and lawless, we need a sheriff, a town charter, and an authorized code of laws to enforce.

TW: But we need the sheriff, charter, and laws in order to punish people—without them, the best we can hope to be is a bunch of vigilantes enforcing whatever enters our heads.

TA: As long as all you’ve got is vigilantes enforcing whatever enters their heads, you can’t lay claim to a sheriff and code of laws.

Repeat for 400 pages.

Except… I still haven’t really done the book justice. That summary doesn’t capture the characters and their development (which alone make this book worth picking up); it doesn’t capture the tension in virtually every chapter; it doesn’t capture the personal crisis each character goes through as the plot develops; and it doesn’t capture the light-filled setting of the American Southwest. So whatever else you get from this review, please get that this book is well written, fast-paced, and totally worth your time and attention. I don’t know if this will quite make my “if you only read a few Westerns, read these” list (at ~450 pages, it’s a bit too long for that), but it comes awfully close.

At the end of the day, Warlock is an existentialist reflection on the basic problems of civilization. (My thoughts on existentialism in general available here.) Specifically, the book is obsessed with the law. Through all of the shooting, card playing, backstabbing, cattle rustling, and other Old-Timey goings on, the basic questions being asked center on the role of the law in human existence generally, and in civilization specifically. Examples of questions engaged include:

  • If natural law says we’re all going to die anyway, what’s the point?
  • How can law and order—civilization—be established where none exists? How can we build a society from barbarism?
  • Is there even a “natural law” in the first place? Or should freedom and anarchy rule and every man fight for himself?
  • Will there be any help from God in sorting through these questions?

And, as with much existentialist literature, the answer to most of those questions is depressing. The “God” character (the Territorial governor General Peach) is insane. Every attempt to establish law and order is overthrown by those who prefer their unchecked freedom. Even claims that there should be law and order are met with the (perfectly true and even somewhat reasonable) argument that Warlock has long been without formal law and has managed a small level of prosperity. At the end of the book, one character reflects on the pointlessness of the whole attempt:

For what fire is out, and what is newly lighted, and what will burn forever and consume us all? We will fight fire with futile water or with savage fire to the end of this earth itself, and never prevail, and we will drown in our water and burn in our preventive fire. How can men live and know that in the end they will merely die? (458)

In this book, Oakley Hall has done a wonderful job of giving us the best possible picture of a world without God. It is a world in which the sky is indeed bronze and the ground iron. The answers to the problems of civilization, the law, and human nature have no set answers as long as each man is a final law unto himself with no external criteria to turn to. The attempt of some to bring order to the chaos of the world inevitably ends with their destruction by their own rules, since those rules are nothing more than ‘apply your own will to the world’. Those few who manage to escape destruction do so by compromising their principles, breaking the very rules they had made, and ending up with nothing to look forward to in life but death.

If nothing else, Warlock is a useful reminder of the meaning and delight we find in holding a Christian worldview. We understand that society comes not from within man but as a result of the common grace of God to all mankind (cf. Romans 13: 1-4). We can state with confidence that the world is comprehensible (though we do not understand it all); that the distinction between civilization and barbarism is perhaps less important than the world thinks (though we are free to have our preferences); that there is a natural law above and beyond the independent individual; and that there is meaning in life despite death—even through death, since we find our meaning in the death of Christ. As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help thinking over and over how glad I was for the differences between Warlock and the real world.

Again, lest this book seem too bleak from my comments, let me repeat that it is exceptionally well-written. The despair of its themes is easily offset by how delightful it is to read.

Highly recommended.

Dr. Coyle Neal teaches politics at Southwest Baptist University.


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