Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


© June 2010 Mukesh Williams

1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820 and the story takes place in a rural valley filled by a strange unearthly quiet. This place is near Tarry Town in the Catskill Mountains, of New York State. The short story is based on a German story but set in America. It reveals the conflict between different opposing themes—conflict between reason and superstition, city and country values, brain and physical strength, greed and love. It is also a story of greed and romance, of two young men wanting to marry the rich and beautiful village girl Katrina Van Tassel. The city man Ichabod Crane gets attracted to Katrina’s wealth and property but is chased away by Brom Bones who doubles up as the headless horseman. The story is full of humor and vivid description, the hallmark of Washington Irving’s story telling technique.

2. After four decades when the stories of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were published in the Sketch Book, the readers in the United States and England loved both. Together the two stories laid the foundation of the growth of serious and literary narrative in American literature. In 1864 The Sleepy Hollow was published as an illustrated book and since then there have been many editions of the tale. Though Irving is largely forgotten today but his characters such as Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman have become a part of the American folklore and literary imagination.


3. The story is told in the first person by a man in a tavern called DK or Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional author of Irving’s earlier book. Before Washington Irving begins his story he wants to establish its authenticity by placing it amongst actual papers left by a man who is dead now. Placing a fantastic tale within the framework of day-to-day history makes the tale both dark and real.
The narrator places the story in a strange and comfortable Dutch village—“one of the quietest places in the whole world”—in a “remote” period of American history. It is not just a remote village but a magical village under the spell of a witch—“under the sway of some witching power that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in continual reverie.” The spookiness of the place has directly entered the American tradition of terror and incorporated in the Halloween.

4. The story is part of the papers left by the deceased Knickerbocker and begins with an idyllic poem where dreams float on a summer sky. The actual story begins by describing a market town called Tarry Town and its dreaming rural community. The pace is called Tarry Town as husbands here like to while away their time in taverns on market days. This town is protected from the natural elements by a cove. Not far from this cove is the Sleepy Hollow dozing peacefully by the Hudson River, untouched by time and modernization. The narrator finds the sleepy village so quiet on Sunday that when his hunting gun goes accidently off he feels irritated.

Ichabod Crane

5. Ichabod Crane comes from Connecticut to live in this enchanted village and work as a schoolteacher and singing instructor. His family name Crane suits him quite well as he is tall and lanky. He is also sharp-featured and wears clothes which are rather small for him. His ears are too big for his face. Though Crane is a strict teacher and liked well by his students and their parents he has no real friends in the community.

6. We must remember that in those days teachers were expected to hit their students when they misbehaved or made mistakes. Crane believed in the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child.” But he did not physically punish weak students. Outside the premises of the school he was kind to his students and friendly with the old ones. He usually helped the younger students reach home safely and in the process he would often get a good dinner or meet their pretty sisters. He was more willing to “play” with the girls than with the boys. But this also shows his kind nature.

7. Though he was arrogant and pompous he treated his students fairly. He believes in the idea espoused by the Dutch school of Van Eyck that education must be imparted in strict and normative manner. He still kept his distance with his students, believing in the idea that there must be a civilized distance between the philosopher and the student. He did light chores for families and told entertaining stories and gossip to rural housewives. In return he got some food to eat and a place to stay. The simple village folks admired his intelligence and his erudition as he had “read several books.”

8. He wants to marry Katrina Van Tassel not because he loves her but because his father is wealthy. Ichabod also likes the food that is served at the Tassels. Katrina on the contrary prefers Brom Bones. Disappointed by her refusal Ichabod let’s his imagination run wild into the rural wilderness.

9. To add to his intense imagination is his interest in witches and witchcraft. His favorite book is Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft and no tale was “too gross or monstrous” to swallow. He was gullible by character and temperament.

Katrina Van Tassel

10. She is beautiful but coquettish. She knows her father is wealthy farmer and she is proud of it. She loves music and becomes a student of Ichabod. She plays with Ichabod but loves her roughneck suitor Brom Bones. She prefers physical strength and honesty to mental weakness and cunning. As she dances with Ichabod, Bones broods darkly in a corner. When the conversation turns to legends, Bones boasts of chasing the Headless Horseman a few nights but the specter always vanished in ball of fire when they approached the church bridge.

11. When Ichabod leaves the party with his nag Gunpowder he is chased by the headless horseman or Bones in disguise. As Ichabod races past the church bridge the specter throws his head at Ichabod. The schoolteacher is hit on the head and knocked off his horse. The next morning Gunpowder returns without his master. No one can find Ichabod but when they reach the bridge they discover Ichabod’s hat and a shattered pumpkin. Immediately thereafter, Bones and Katrina get married. When they talk of Ichabod, Bones gives a knowing laugh. Seemingly Ichabod destroyed himself because of his gullible character.

Romantic Fiction

12. The story possesses strong elements of romantic fiction. The love angle, two suitors, the presence of ghosts and supernatural events are the very essence of romantic stories. In the early nineteenth century many individualistic themes in America and Europe dealt with nature and death. There was a belief that emotions were more powerful than logic and dreams had greater significance than logical thinking. The Romantics as they were called also has a strong love for the supernatural.

13. The story of Sleepy Hollow has all these elements. It is not only set in rural and beautiful surroundings but is also quite romantic. The place is quiet and bucolic. You can hear the murmur of a brook, the whistle of a quail and the tapping of a woodpecker. The ghost story of the headless horseman is part of the ghost legends and typical of English Romanticism.

14. Irving was a romantic writer and was deeply influenced by the struggle between enlightenment values and puritan rules. He used nature and gothic imagery to impart a comfortable sense of the beautiful. But below this quiet the headless horseman gallops every night. The conflict between emotion and reason is highlighted by the fact that a very rational schoolteacher also comes to believe in ghost stories. By doing this Irving gives credence to the idea that such events cannot be completely understood by scientific and logical reasoning. Without wanting to he emphasizes the importance of emotion over reason.

City and Country life

15. The conflict between city and country is one of the great themes of American literature and folklore. In literature there are two sets of themes that are played out. The first scenario: The city is seen as civilized, rich and safe and country as ugly, dirty and dangerous. The second scenario: the city is dirty, swindling and dangerous while the country is simple and beautiful. Irving utilizes this city-country divide quite effectively in Sleepy Hollow.

16. During the early days of American colonization, the Dutch from the Netherlands settled in New York. In 1609 an English gentleman Hendrick Hudson who worked for the Dutch East India Company sailed from New York City to Albany along the Tappan Zee which we now call the Hudson River. The Dutch always laid claim to New York because of Hudson’s explorations under the Dutch East India Company. However NYC came under British control and subsequently under American domination and the Dutch lost their claims.

17. Irving wishes us to believe that the Sleepy Hollow is more in the domain of a legend than a myth. A legend is a narrative or tradition handed down from the past. It is distinguished from a myth by possessing more historical facts and less supernatural elements. Americans wish us to believe that Sleepy Hollow is a legend and not a myth.

Legends and Myths

18. The community of Sleepy Hollow abounds in legends handed down from the past. There is one legend of a German doctor bewitching the residents of the rural community. There is another one of an old Indian chief who cast a tranquil spell on the area. And there is the legend of the Hessian trooper who was decapitated during the Revolutionary War. He is occasionally seen riding at breakneck speed at night on his black horse searching for his head. Irving places his ordinary story of love and greed in such extraordinary surrounding creating horror and mystery in its telling.

Halloween in Sleepy Hollow

19. People today love to hold parties in the yard of the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow Country. After nearly 186 years of the writing of the spooky story, modern day fright seeks go to Tarrytown to catch a glimpse of the supernatural prowls. Between October 27th and 29th the Philipsburg Manor is lit by candle lanterns and bonfires to create a congenial atmosphere where ghouls, witches and apparitions can move freely. Even the pumpkin carvings and Headless horseman encounters are recreated for the fright seekers. In the beginning the area of Sleepy Hollow was an agricultural district but gradually it character changed and it became a manufacturing center producing steam-powered automobiles, shoes and batteries. Its proximity to Manhattan attracted the attention of American millionaires like Anson Phelps, Ambrose Kingsland and John D. Rockefeller who built grand mansions which are open to public viewing.

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