The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

This month, I’m tackling the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.  Okay, so it’s is probably an obvious choice given that a) It’s Halloween, b) I ran out of time to read this month and this book is short, and c) In the middle of having no time, I somehow managed to fit in a marathon of the show by the same name via Hulu.  Don’t judge me.

Our story begins with a description of a small market town on the Hudson River in New York, sometimes called Greensburgh but generally known as Tarry Town, where husbands tend to congregate at the tavern for long periods of time.  Our story is not about this town, but about a town called Sleepy Hollow in a valley two miles over.  Well… okay then.

Sleepy Hollow is described as pretty snoozeworthy, except for the fact that the locals keep seeing visions and meteors and have become incredibly superstitious.  In fact, the entire town is haunted by a Hessian on horseback – though how we know he’s a Hessian is difficult, given the fact that he lacks a head with which to inform us.  One assumes he has a uniform.  Or a nametag.  Every night, legend says, he rides out of the churchyard in search of his head.  The locals, as well as the passers-by, have named him the Headless Horseman of Sleep Hollow.  I, on the other hand, am partial to the nickname of Hessie.

Enter our unfortunate protagonist, Ichabod Crane.  His name is appropriate, as etymology informs me that “Ichabod” means “no glory,” and he is as lanky as a crane (or, in the words of Irving, “the cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.”  Do you see the kinds of things I have to put up with?).  Ichabod is a school teacher who, like every good teacher, beats his students with a birch rod when they’re naughty.  He also follows students home to find out if they have attractive family members and good food.  Apparently he isn’t paid very well, so he rotates between the houses of his students every week.  In exchange for room and board, he occasionally helps out around the farms, gives music lessons, and endears himself to the local mothers by petting their children.  (Am I the only person who is a little weirded out by this situation?)

His other pasttimes include flirting with the locals, lying around in fields, and frightening himself with scary stories.  Ichabod would have probably continued to have a pleasant life if “his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.”

Dun dun duuuun. *cue thunder, lightning, and various females rolling their eyes in unison*

This particular dastardly creature goes by the name of Katrina Van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of a rich Dutch farmer.  While visiting one day, Ichabod notices that the farm is full of potentially delicious animals and fancy warm rooms with comfortable furniture.  He decides he must immediately own all of this wealth convince Katrina to marry him because he loves her so dearly.

Unfortunately, he is only the latest in a long line of suitors, and certainly no match for one Brom Van Brunt, the local Gaston of the village who is skilled at everything from horsemanship to cock fighting. (And here I thought this book was family-friendly.)  Nicknamed Brom Bones, this guy and his posse enjoy pranks and brawls and other frat-boy entertainments, but he is, surprisingly, high on Katrina’s list of suitors, and has no problem scaring away most of her other potentials.  (Whether she keeps him around specifically for this purpose is unclear.)

Ichabod, however, is especially sneaky.  In a plot snagged right out of Shakespeare, he gains access to Katrina via unchaperoned music lessons, and she seems to go for it.  But Ichabod soon learns why you don’t upset the school quarterback when the whole football team (I’m using metaphors here – I assume they’re actually farmers or unemployed layabouts) starts pranking him by breaking into his schoolhouse and tossing things around.  Naturally, Ichabod assumes that witches are to blame.

During one school lesson, a black servant (I won’t get into the unpleasant racist descriptions, which just anger me) is sent to invite Ichabod to a quilting frolic at Katrina’s house that evening.   While the term “quilting frolic” sounds hilarious, I gather that it’s really just a party.  The students are elated at going home early, and Ichabod rushes home to powder his nose.  He borrows a majestic steed (which actually happens to be a small, stubborn old plow-horse named Gunpowder) and rides to the party, which is already full of people when he arrives.

Instead of conversing with the buxom lasses (Irving’s words, not mine), Ichabod, of course, goes straight for the buffet, which is described in enough detail to make anyone hungry (and I don’t even like fruit pies).  The dancing begins, and after stuffing himself silly, Ichabod dances with Katrina to the delight of the bystanders and to the dismay of Brom Bones, who broods by himself in a corner.

Ichabod then makes the mistake of wandering over to the old people’s table, where they are telling ghost stories about deceased locals and the Headless Horseman. Even Brom Bones swears he challenged Hessie to a race over a bowl of punch.  (Hessie, of course, totally cheated.)

When the party breaks up, Ichabod stays behind for a serious conversation with Katrina.  We don’t know what happens, but one assumes Katrina turns down his offer of marriage, despite his great skills in singing, dancing, and refreshment raiding.   In the dead of night, Ichabod rides home.

It is, of course, dark and eerie.  Getting a little skittish, he starts to whistle to keep the heebie jeebies away, but it doesn’t work as well as he hopes.  When he tries to cross a haunted bridge, his horse turns and runs into the fence.  Ichabod overcorrects his steering and Gunpowder runs into a bramble thicket on the other side.  (I am reminded of my attempts to steer Epona in every Zelda game ever, and suddenly I feel a strong affinity for this man.)   Gunpowder tosses Ichabod for his complete incompetence.

Then, they see a shape in the gloom.  Ichabod tries to engage the shape in conversation, but to no avail.  As it emerges, the figure appears to be that of a large man on a black horse.  Then, in a completely anticlimactic moment, the figure ignores Ichabod and rides on the opposite of the road.

Ichabod decides to walk his horse home.  The figure follows.  In the darkness, Ichabod catches a glimpse of the figure’s silhouette and realizes that he has nothing on his shoulders.  Even more shocking, the horseman is carrying his own head!

Wait a second.  If the horseman already has his head, why is he still haunting the place?  I thought his head was the thing he was looking for?

Ichabod doesn’t think about this.  Instead, he freaks and kicks Gunpowder into a canter.  Hessie follows.  Instead of turning down the road that leads to Sleepy Hollow, Gunpowder heads into the opposite direction toward the church.  Smart horse – never lead potentially evil spirits into populated areas.

Ichabod is not as intelligent as Gunpowder and has some difficulty staying in the saddle, which is slipping off.  (You really ought to make sure those things are fastened tightly.  That’s one of the first things you learn at horse-riding camp, guys.)  He clings to Gunpowder’s neck as the whole thing falls off, and has a bumpy (and presumably painful) ride, with Hessie hot on his tail.

Ichabod has almost reached the bridge that leads to the church when he sees that Hessie is ready to play dodgeball.   Hessie is quite skilled at the game, and as his head collides with Ichabod’s, Ichabod falls into the dust and passes out.

The next morning, Gunpowder is found chewing the grass in front of his own house.  Ichabod’s hat is found by the church next to a shattered pumpkin.  Ichabod himself is found nowhere at all.

Ichabod’s belongings (ordinary things like clothes, combs, and books on witchcraft) are either donated to the community or burned for heresy.  A few of the locals decide never to send their children to school again because no good ever comes of reading and writing.  (Thanks, Ichabod.)

At church the next Sunday, the locals wonder what could have happened to Ichabod and conclude that he was probably carried off by the Headless Horseman.  Out of sight and out of mind, they forget about him, move the school, and hire someone else instead.  Brom marries Katrina, and they live happily ever after with very large refreshment tables (one assumes).

Some old farmer says that Ichabod left the area, still alive but broken-hearted, and became a politician.  Some old country wives say that Ichabod was spirited away and now haunts the old abandoned schoolhouse, singing various psalm tunes (because it wasn’t enough for the man to lose his dignity once).

The notion that Brom and his jockish pranksters could have been lobbing pumpkins at people and throwing their unconscious bodies in the river apparently does not spring to mind among the townspeople, but it is heavily implied to us.  What’s the moral of this story supposed to be, anyway?  Don’t try to rise above your station in life?  Don’t go to parties without a buddy?  Don’t read ghost stories like the one you just read?

Well, it’s a little late for that, dear readers, so I will just leave you with these parting words:  Watch out for the skeleton under your skin and have a happy Halloween!

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