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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Text by: David Lumb

Summer is the season for long days spent outdoors, but the sun must eventually set — and when it does, cold autumn follows the sunny revelry with a return to routine: school for some, work post-vacation for others. For the most part, this seasonal shift is arbitrary. Few of us need the summer to harvest crops and the fall to prepare for bleak winter. Instead, autumn is filled with moments paying homage to time itself. Veteran's Day, of past lives given for country; Thanksgiving, remembering a time of scarcity and re-honoring the bonds of family; and All Hallows Eve, the night when all mortal bets are off. Each revisits the past, but only Halloween captures the imagination, blending history with myth, myth with legend. We feel the uncomfortable rush of things newly possible — of a day out of time.

Washington Irving's most famous story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is all about progressive ideas creeping into remote holdfasts of Old Ways and clashing masculinity in the eternal game of love, along with a few pages of ghost vs. hero horseback drag racing for the bored kids in the audience.

What? All the excitement gets crammed into a few pages at the end? What could keep me entertained for the rest of the story? A valid question, loyal reader, but like the groggy morning reality of November 1st, there's a lot more Irving has to say about love, rivalry, the land, and - yes - time.

© Zen Goddess Photography

Consider: the stage is set in a quiet valley where "population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved." There's no mention of 'when' this story occurs, only that we must ignore the industrious frontier and to situate the story in a quiet, conservative valley. Like Tolkien's Shire, this place is tranquil and untouched - almost unnervingly so. Then Sleepy Hollow itself is described: "a drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang about the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say-" and then the narrator rattles off a few fireside theories. The very land is a story! So Irving starts us off on strange footing to establish his Big Theme: without certainty of where and when we are, the constants of civilization seem insolvent, leaving room for the doubts and fears of the Old World to come pouring in.

Chief among these constants is the story's primary tension: the rivalry between our hero, Ichabod Crane, and the dashing Abraham "Brom Bones" Von Brunt. Ichabod's learned and effeminate nature is pitted against the brash, masculine Brom for the hand of one Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy Dutch landowner. While she is described as beautiful, Ichabod fantasizes about her ample, bounteous tracts of land. We never learn whether Brom harbors similar terrestrial ambitions, but Ichabod's motivations are arguably Protestant: work the land, get capital, raise a family, and expand westward. He is the American pioneer, if overly literate, but he isn't in frontier America; he's in Sleepy Hollow, where strange things happen. Harmless he may be, but Ichabod's progressive character traits - studious, materially (not romantically) focused, with all the good looks of a beanpole - are not those of the classic hero. He is quartered by a different family every week who suffer him graciously, but the town's real affection is for good ol' Brom, and they "looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and when any madcap prank, or rustic brawl, occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it."

© Zen Goddess Photography

Which is why, despite Ichabod's services to the community, his sudden disappearance is chalked up to supernatural doom and the searching townsfolk call it a day. Furthermore, after consigning Ichabod's scribbled poetry and books on fortune telling to the flames, Hans Van Ripper "determined to send his children no more to school; observing, that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing." Though another teacher comes to instruct the children, the reaction to Ichabod's strange habits is clearly a call against change - and in this preserved Old World, the rugged Brom wins the lady's hand, a fairy tale prince for the princess. This is the way the community chooses to have it, even after a farmer comes back from civilization to tell the anticlimactic tale of Ichabod's existence as a barrister and politician in the city; "the old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means." So Irving's story comes to a close — as it should, a preferentially remembered tale of witchery that promises to carry away children who disobey their parents.

But that isn't the end. A curious postscript identifies this story as having been recounted in an alehouse, written down for posterity by the narrator. The tale's legitimacy is further muddled when a dry, old gentleman calls the raconteur out on one or two doubtful points. With a wry smile, Irving wraps up his little epic of provincial romantic warfare with a shrug from the storyteller, already bored with the topic and ready to let the past lie obscured without proof:

'"Faith, sir," replied the story-teller, "as to that matter, I don't believe one half of it myself."'