Born in New York in 1783, Washington Irving was the son of a wealthy British merchant who had sided with the rebels in the Revolutionary War. It was following a visit to his fatherland, during which he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, that Irving (encouraged by Scott) wrote The Sketch Book, essays and tales under the pseudonym ‘Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.’, first published in 1820. This book, which is among the earliest examples of American fiction still read today, made Irving a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. It contained sketches of English life, essays on American subjects and American adaptations of German folk tales, including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Before and after its publication, however, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which follows a tradition of folk tales and poems involving a supernatural wild chase, (including Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter and the legend of The Wild Hunt) acquired something of a life of its own.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is set at the end of the 18th century in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (based on Tarrytown, New York) and is based on a German folk tale originating in the Dutch culture of New York State in the Post-Revolutionary War era. The original tale was recorded by Karl Musäus, who wrote of a ‘headless horseman’ often seen in the area. The story goes that there was once an old man who did not believe in ghosts – that is until he met the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. They rode together over bushes, hills, and swamps until they reached a bridge, when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder. The real Sleepy Hollow is believed to be a secluded glen at the bridge over the Pocantico River in the area of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground. In 1997 the village of North Tarrytown, New York, where many events of the story supposedly took place, changed its name to Sleepy Hollow (the high school teams are named ‘The Horsemen’!). In 2006, a large statue depicting the Headless Horseman chasing Ichabod Crane was placed along Route 9 in Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown, New York. To this day the ‘real’ Sleepy Hollow remains a place that is rich in age and atmosphere, said to be the haunt of Native American curses and the uneasy souls of the restless dead.
Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky, and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham ‘Brom Bones’ Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and sole child of a wealthy farmer, Baltus Van Tassel. As Crane leaves a party he attended at the Van Tassel home on an autumn night, he is pursued by the Headless Horseman, who is supposedly the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during the American War of Independence, and who rides forth to the scene of battle every night in search of his head. The conclusion of the story is somewhat ambiguous and has been open to interpretation ever since, especially with regard to the identity of the headless horseman. Was he a ghost, a mortal in disguise or the devil himself? I won’t spoil the ending but there is also some doubt about the fate of the hero himself and for this reason, among others, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is regarded as a very American folk tale, filled with characters who occupy both sides of the moral fence and questions left unanswered at a time in American history when much was uncertain. Click to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but be warned – this is not a tale that ends with a neat little ‘happy ever after’!