First published in 1820, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remains one of the most well known pieces of early American fiction still read today. Set in a quaint, New York village in the years following the Revolutionary War, Washington Irving’s groundbreaking ghost story is at times chilling and delightfully conspiratorial in its dark humor. Ichabod Crane, a preciously fey school master competes with local tough Brom Bones for a wife only to succumb to a headless, supernatural rider … Or does he? Nothing is at it seems in this classic of American fiction.
I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) at the cinema and I’d promised myself I would eventually get round to reading the short story. The image of the headless horseman pursuing his prey through woodland at night is not one you can forget in a hurry and I was intrigued to see where it all started and how many heads would roll.
There’s no doubt Burton’s adaptation of this classic story changed many elements. In Irving’s story the main character of Ichabod Crane is a local schoolmaster, rather than a police constable, who has eyes on the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of Baltus Van Tassel. However, Ichabod has a rival for her affections in the form of Abraham Van Brunt, also known as Brom Bones. Amidst this love triangle emerges the legend of the Headless Horseman, who is said to be a Hessian warrior who appears in search of his head which was taken off in the American Revolutionary War. I’m glad I’m not the only man who’s useless at finding things when I’ve lost them!
This isn’t a long read, in fact you’ll easily clear it in a day, if not in one sitting but what’s there is worth your time and effort. Ichabod is an amusing but hapless protagonist, unwilling to give up on Katrina even when Brom trashes his school. Katrina seems divided between the two men who are very different characters. Brom’s fists do the talking while Ichabod may be weak but he is intelligent, though somewhat clueless with women. Ichabod’s pursuit of Katrina leads him to a party at the Van Tassel residence, but will he get the woman he wants or will Brom beat him to Katrina’s hand in marriage?
We have to wait until the second half of the story before Ichabod’s encounter with the Headless Horseman and Irving manages to convey the eeriness of the meeting well. Ichabod is wandering alone at night, the tensioning building with every paragraph, as unknown sounds fill the air before the Horseman appears. Ichabod is still a long way from home when the Headless Horseman bears down on him so what will become of poor Ichabod?
The story ends with a bit of ambiguity and the mystery of Sleepy Hollow remains intact beyond those final pages which seems apt for a story like this. There is a resolution to the love triangle though. What happens to Ichabod when he meets the Headless Horseman? Does he survive and win Katrina’s love? Is he cut down in the woods leaving Brom unchallenged in his pursuit of Katrina? That I can’t say. You’ll have to read this yourself.
Burton’s adaptation remains a good one for me but don’t be content with just having seen the film. Do pick up Irving’s story and read it for yourself as it is different. Written nearly two centuries ago this is still a chilling read in places.
Title: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Author: Washington Irving
Source: Purchased copy