Many adaptations of the headless horseman story have been created over the years.
Irving's characters drive the story and are most memorable because of his detail in describing each. He says of Ichabod Crane (the main character), '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.'
According to Irving, Ichabod looks like a goofy, old scarecrow who has escaped the cornfield. He is a schoolteacher, and like many teachers today, he doesn't make too much money. As a result, the ladies of the town take care to feed him in the evenings, during which he is happy to listen to their tales about supernatural events in the settlement. Ichabod is said to have carried a copy of Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft, which he firmly believes. And so, it's no surprise that he is superstitious and believes all of the stories the ladies tell. In addition to teaching, Ichabod is also the town's singing-master. It is through this occupation that he meets Katrina Van Tassel and falls in love. Or, at least he does once he sees her father's farm.
Katrina is eighteen, beautiful and has a rich farmer for a father. She is called a coquette, which means she's a flirt. Most of the men in the village are taken with Katrina but are afraid to pursue her thanks to Brom Bones.
Abraham Van Brunt, known better as Brom Bones, is 'a burly, roaring, roistering blade' with a 'Herculean frame'. Basically, he is physically intimidating. He is doing his best to court Katrina by scaring off any other suitors. Ichabod, knowing he cannot physically challenge Brom, uses his advantages as Katrina's singing-master to thwart Brom's attempts to keep him away from her.
Now, while the Headless Horseman isn't exactly a character in the story, his presence is necessary, so we need to know who he is (or was). According to the legend, he is a Hessian soldier whose head was blown off by a cannonball during the American Revolution. He now haunts the old, Dutch cemetery by the bridge, and it is this legend that terrifies Ichabod the most.
So, Irving's legend takes place around 1790 (which isn't long after the Revolutionary war) in Tarrytown, New York in the small village of Sleepy Hollow, which is a Dutch settlement. The story begins with an extremely flamboyant description of the countryside and Ichabod himself. It's here we learn that Ichabod is new to the area, a bit superstitious and actively pursuing Katrina. We also learn that he's not the only one; Brom Bones is also after her hand and is doing his best pranks to keep Ichabod away.
The story comes to its climax after a party at the Van Tassel's where Ichabod gets his panties all in a wad listening to a bunch of different ghost stories - including that of the headless horseman. On his way home that night, he is followed by a stranger. Irving describes the scene by saying, '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.'
Ichabod Crane encountered a headless figure on his way home.
The following morning, all that can be found of Ichabod is his hat and a broken pumpkin. The ending is left to interpretation, but Irving gives us just enough insight to let us see that it was Brom who frightened away the schoolmaster in order to solidify his chances with Katrina.
Analysis: Romantic Characteristics
The first of the Romantic characteristics we see is imagination. Ichabod has a wild imagination - to say the least - if he believes he was hunted down by the headless horseman. Actually, Ichabod is good about letting his imagination run wild, and if it weren't for that, we'd have no story to be told.
The element of the supernatural is also apparent throughout the story. Wild chases are traditional in folk tales, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is no different. Of course, we have the ghost stories, but the most prominent comes to life just at the climax of the story. And while Irving does give us the chance to see that the supernatural was only Ichabod's imagination running wild, he does leave us with a little bit of a wink that the legend could be true.
Stylistically, Washington Irving uses wisdom from the past by basing his story off of German folktales, but his characters fall in line with the characteristics as well. The citizens of Sleepy Hollow are eager to hear the bewitching stories from the past in hopes of seeing them manifested in their own time. Even Ichabod's habit of carrying Cotton Mather's writing is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the wisdom we can gain from the past.
So to recap, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is pretty darn famous and has been redone about a bajillion times since it was written in 1820. It's the story of the superstitious Ichabod Crane's attempts to win over the fair Katrina only to be thwarted by the buff prankster, Brom Bones, who dresses up like the Headless Horseman to scare away the poor schoolmaster. It's through the use of imagination and the supernatural that Washington Irving both reflects the writing characteristic of the Romantic period and brings to life the quiet countryside of a new country.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the plot, characters and Romantic elements of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
- Recognize the many adaptations of the story