My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After hearing a discussion of Washington Irving's classic on the Diane Rehm Show earlier this week, I decided to re-read it in honor of Halloween. After all, it is relatively short and wouldn't require a commitment of an excessive amount of time, so it was something I could easily accomplish before the spooks and goblins descended on Halloween night.
It had been many long years since I first became acquainted with the story of Ichabod Crane and his encounter with the Headless Horseman. It was in elementary school, which, I suppose, is where many people meet him. (I don't know - do they still teach Irving in elementary school? For that matter, do they still teach literature in elementary school?) I remember being fascinated by the story then, especially by the wonderful language of Irving. On re-reading it, I found that it holds up quite well. It is still a great tale.
The story itself has now been retold so often and in so many ways - through movies, television, plays, music, even opera - that it is thoroughly ingrained in the cultural memory. Even those who have never read the story know it.
Irving wrote of Ichabod Crane, the lanky and lean and excessively superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut who had come to the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town in New York to teach. Specifically, he lived and taught in the secluded glen which had earned the name Sleepy Hollow because of the "listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants...A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere."
Dreamy the place may have been but it was also renowned for its ghosts and the many superstitions of hauntings that pervaded the imagination of the residents. And it was to this hotbed of belief in supernatural beings and events that the very jittery Ichabod had come.
Ichabod became obsessed with the idea of wooing and winning the hand of Katrina, the 18-year-old daughter of a local wealthy farmer. But he had a rival for Katrina's affections in Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, a local hero and merry prankster.
One night Ichabod attends a party at Katrina's family's home and, as he leaves, he engages Katrina in conversation but she rejects him. Morose and dejected, he sets out on the trail to the home where he is presently being quartered, but, on the way, he encounters many terrors and, finally, the ultimate terror - the Headless Horseman himself.
Ichabod presses the broken down plow horse on which he is riding into a reckless ride for his life but the Headless Horseman keeps pace with him until they finally come to a bridge next to the Old Dutch Burying Ground where the Horseman supposedly would vanish according to the tales that were told. But to Ichabod's horror, the ghostly apparition clambers up the bridge and rears his horse and hurls his severed head at the terrified pedagogue.
The next morning, Ichabod has disappeared. His horse is found near his owner's gate. The saddle is found trampled. And near the bridge where Ichabod and the ghost were last seen lies a shattered pumpkin.
Brom Bones, who "looks exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related," later married Katrina and, in a post note, we learn that Ichabod has turned up in another community where he studed law and become a lawyer.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of the earliest American tales to gain enduring popularity. It follows a tradition of folk tales involving supernatural wild chases, a tradition which includes such well-known classics as Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter. Irving's tale is a worthy member of that club.
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