The Real “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

As I discussed here yesterday, Washington Irving’s tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of those true rarities in American literature — a tale nearly all of us can summarize, even if we’ve never read the original story.

Or can we?

Most of us recall Irving’s tale mainly through a series of strong visual images: Ichabod Crane on horseback, looking like a scarecrow on a hobby horse. Ichabod Crane dancing gawkily with Katrina Van Tassel. Crane spurring his horse Gunpowder through darkened woods, with the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. And, perhaps the sharpest picture — thanks largely to Walt Disney — a pumpkin hurled straight at Ichabod Crane’s own head.

Irving — who called his tale merely a band connecting a series of “descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc.” — would likely be delighted that so many of his mere “descriptions” have been burnt into our brains. But what we’ve buried among those strong visuals is the tale itself, which unfolds in a slightly different manner than we may remember, and ends with a bit of a twist and a flourish.

Let’s revisit Irving’s “Legend” — or maybe you’ll be visiting it for the first time — and experience his tale as Irving really wrote it. I think you’ll find it’s just as good, if not better, than the way we think we remember it.

Much of “Sleepy Hollow” is actually set-up for the climactic chase, and Irving devotes pages to descriptions of his characters — especially Ichabod Crane — and their motivations. Here’s Irving describing the physical traits of his gawky school teacher — and you can see why this was a no-brainer for a Disney animator:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Next, Irving makes certain we understand that Crane is easily spooked and has a whiff of nervous-nelly about him, information we need for later:

…as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination . . . and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch’s token….

…How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!

Now enters the love interest of the tale, Katrina Van Tassel, “a blooming lass of fresh eighteen,” Irving says, “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations.” Not quite a “huge tracts of land” joke, but close. Anyway, Irving then establishes that Ichabod Crane’s interests toward Katrina aren’t based purely on the power of her looks or personality:

…as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness.

Vying for Katrina’s hand — and making up the third point in the tale’s love triangle — is the brash Brom Bones. While we likely remember Brom as either the bullying blowhard from the Disney cartoon, or the sulky Captain of the Football Team from the Tim Burton film, in Irving’s original tale, Brom is actually a rather likeable rogue:

He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom . . . The neighbors 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.

Irving has neatly set up the two rivals competing for the hand of the love interest — now it’s time to bring them together. In “Sleepy Hollow,” Irving brings Ichabod and Brom to the Van Tassel home for an evening dinner and dance — and where Ichabod listens to some of Sleepy Hollow’s “sager folks” telling ghost stories. Here’s Irving setting up the appearance of the Headless Horseman, as well as the rules of the coming chase. And you might want to check the doors and windows before you read it:

The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

We’re approaching the climax. With the party over, Ichabod Crane — who we’ve already seen is a nervous wreck about the dark — rides away on his horse, Gunpowder. Here’s how Irving describes the night, so effectively that you can practically feel the chill and hear the sounds. If this isn’t a Halloween night, I don’t know what is:

It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farmhouse away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed.

[. . .]

He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air . . . As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan — his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.

As a famous television ghost hunter might say: Zoinks! And now, Irving unveils his ghost, giving him a casual entrance that may leave readers feeling as if they’ve just swallowed a whole snow cone:

In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

. . . Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame.

… On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless! —- but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!

And away we go, in the mad dash through the woods, as Ichabod sprints for the church bridge — which, you remember, it was established the Horseman cannot cross! — and nearly falls off his horse in the process:

His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer…

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand . . . “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath . . .

Ichabod and Gunpowder finally make the church bridge . . . only to discover that the Horseman isn’t about to play by the rules — and provides poor Ichabod, and readers, with one of the most memorable departing gifts in literature:

Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

End of story? Not quite — and here’s the part most of us don’t remember. Irving actually gives us three denouements to choose from — the first of which is the creepier, Hammer horror film ending:

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate…In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered . . .

Don’t like that one? Here’s the second:

It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and … that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.

Did Ichabod Crane really survive his midnight ride through Sleepy Hollow, then? If so, was there really a Headless Horseman? And what became of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel? Irving answers our questions in the story’s true payoff:

Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

Despite the punchline, Irving can’t resist wrapping up his story with a creepy flourish, swirling his cloak about him as he ends his tale and disappears into the fog:

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; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

You can read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in its entirety by clicking here. And please do.

Have a happy Halloween.

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8 responses to “The Real “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

  1. I always loved this story and after you mentioned it yesterday, I remembered mostly the English teacher who taught it to our classroom of 15, and the two days we spent arguing and wondering the fate of Ichabod. And then yes, I dug through my paperback classics and re-read it! Irving has such a gift for description that it was a delight to read it again. I’m also a fan of Wordsworth and Poe, and can’t find many authors today who can equal them.

    It’s fascinating to me, how the literary characters who stay in print for centuries manage to evolve.

  2. Josephine Damian

    BJJ: At the bookstore today, I picked up “The Gate House” by Nelson DeMille and saw it starts with a quote from “The Alhambra.”

    I thought, WI! How cool! I’ll keep reading! Then NdM took over from Wash and it was all down hill from there. I put the book down and moved onto my next WHY I STOPPED READING (this) BOOK victim.

    As a kid growing up in Westchester and having read about Icabod early on, whenever me and my friends were out after dark we always kept an eye out for that headless horseman. We totally believed in the legend – Halloween or not.

  3. My kids have this on a “books on tape.” They like to turn out the lights and listen to it huddled under a blanket.

  4. Brian Jay Jones

    Susan: Yes, indeed, Irving has an unappreciated gift for “word painting,” I think I’ve heard it called. I didn’t run an excerpt where he does so, but Irving describes food and drink like nobody else!

    JD: The first time my wife and I went to Sleepy Hollow, we came up Route 9 in a driving rain storm — and it’s easy to imagine the horseman galloping down that winding, dark road. We looked for a place to turn around, and finally pulled into a narrow driveway — only to have our headlights illuminate the words SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY. We did a peel out in our little Saturn that was heard across the state.

    Wendy: Cool! Who reads it??

  5. I don’t know who reads it, but you can find it here: http://www.jiggerbug.com/product_info.php?products_id=2560

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