As with “Rip Van Winkle” (see previous post), popular adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” often leave out the alternative explanations and the Postscript, which foreground the issue of fidelity in fiction.
In the typical gothic romance the forces of irrational evil threaten the protagonist, who is either killed, driven insane, or barely allowed to escape. Ichabod Crane’s fate is left ambiguous.
There were those who said that Ichabod Crane “had been carried away by the Galloping Hessian” or “spirited away by supernatural means.” But “an old farmer, who had been down to New York…brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was alive, that he had left the neighborhood, partly through fear of the goblin and…and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress.” Brom Bones, we are told, “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.”
Popular versions of the tale often present Ichabod sympathetically as the innocent victim of the headless horseman (or sometimes of Brom Bones), but in the original he is a superstitious believer in witchcraft and a fortune hunter who shows more interest in Katrina Van Tassel’s wealth than either her character or person. From the perspective of the urbane and rationalistic Irving, the story could represent the healthy (and manly?) world of Enlightenment reason (Brom Bones) overcoming the outdated world of Puritan supernaturalism (Ichabod Crane).
Irving’s “enlightened” world view does not seem to apply to gender. Not only is Brom presented as more muscular and masculine than the cadaverous Crane (note the imagery of their names), but Ichabod is comically associated with “the old country wives,” with whom he likes to share stories of ghosts, goblins, and witchcraft. And Katrina’s main function in the story is to be beautiful and rich.
As the bookish schoolmaster, Crane plays the role of nerd to Brom’s star athlete and Katrina’s prom queen.
For all the stereotyping, though, the tale raises serious questions about the nature of truth, the relationship between fact and fiction, and the function of storytelling. Is truth to be found in supernaturalism, folklore, and oral traditions of myth and legend or in observable evidence and rational thought? If there is truth to be found in the former, is it factual truth or symbolic? The gothic romance may be factually impossible, but truthful in its symbolic representation of human fear, especially of the unknown, and the psychology of terror. Irving’s version of the gothic tale seems to suggest that fear itself is the greatest enemy of the gullible.
In his Postscript Irving seems to mock even the notion of symbolic truth to be found in romance. The “story-teller” is asked what is “the moral of the story” and “what it went to prove.” He responds with a nonsensical syllogism, as if to poke fun at the notion of a story having any point other than idle entertainment. His interlocutor, who utterly misses the joke, goes on to opine “that he thought the story a little on the extravagant—there were one or two points on which he had his doubts,” as if the story was to be taken as factual. “’Faith, sir,’ replied the storyteller, ‘as to that matter, I don’t believe one half of it myself.’” Thus Irving satirizes not only the seriousness of romance, but also those who confuse fact with fiction.
As with “Rip Van Winkle,” many of Irving’s readers, like the interlocutor in the Postscript, utterly miss the joke and read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a tale of terror rather than a mock romance.
At the same time, though the “story-teller” in the Postscript seems to dismiss the notion of any seriousness to be found in an entertaining tale, Irving’s story, read a certain way, seems to mock, not only romance, but the whole supernatural world-view, in favor of enlightened, scientific rationalism.
What Irving seems to miss is the possibility of “truth” being larger than mere “fact” and the value of romance, myth, legend, and fable as embodiments of larger truths about human experience, not just pointless tales for nothing more than idle entertainment.
Just as “Rip Van Winkle,” despite Irving’s mockery, conveys a universal story of human transformation, the loss of self, and its rediscovery, so “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” imparts a sense of universal karma, as Ichabod becomes the victim of his own irrational fears. Unless you think he really was spirited away by the headless horseman, in which case the story expresses a timeless fear—our human fear of the unknown, a fear that even the sophisticated, urbane, and wholly rational Washington Irving probably experienced from time to time.