Thoughts about Washington Irving’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW


“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures — provided we will but take a joke as we find it: That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it. Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high perferment in the state.”

So just what happens at the end of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?

After watching the TV show Sleepy Hollow that debuted on Fox this week, my curiosity was stoked about the Irving original. It’s a very slim story, as it was just one of several in a collection that was serialized over the years. This and Rip Van Winkle were the most famous installments.

When I reached the end of the story, I thought the conclusion was pretty cut and dry. Basically, Ichabod, after being rejected by a woman he was courting, takes a ride home. He then disappears after an encounter with the infamous town boogeyman: a wandering spectral being knwon as The Headless Horseman.

Though vague, it is inferred that Ichabod Crane’s romantic rival, Brom Bones, was really the Headless Horseman in disguise. He was an excellent horseman. The pumpkin found at Ichabod’s disappearance suggest that that, not a fireball from hell, was cast at the poor schoolteacher to spook him. Brom Bones, and established prankster, laughs a knowing laugh when he’s asked about to incident, and a traveling farmer relays a story story that Mr. Crane has reappeared in another town as a politician newspaper writer, and a “justice of the Ten Pound Court.”

Case closed, right?

Then why does every adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow want to make the Headless Horseman out as something that was actually real? When Disney came out with an animated version — which is a very, very faithful adaptation of the story — the animate the Horseman as if he really was a malevolent spirit. Both the recent movie and the TV show focus on the Galloping Hessian as the real deal.

I suppose that Headless Horseman is inherently the more interesting explanation, and thus everyone, deep down, wants the Headless Horseman to be real. This is why the old wives at Sleepy Hollow frame the story as a true haunting. It also explains why the audience that the storyteller relates it to find it amusing: they’ve already assumed it’s fake and have made up their mind that the “rational” explanation is the true explanation.

But … is even that true? Here’s the thing: while the story that Crane ends up becoming a successful politician makes more sense, there is also no evidence that this happened. In fact, it’s just as implausible. A few things to shoot a hole in the “official” story.

  1. Just like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow itself, knowledge of Crane’s spectacular career arc is also told second hand by a traveling farmer.
  2. Despite his rejection by the woman he was courting, Ichabod was still was generally well liked by the townsfolk and had a pretty good career as a school teacher. So why did he leave without saying goodbye to anyone?
  3. Not to mention that it is kind of a leap that a schoolteacher with a strong taste for haunted house stories would all of the sudden have a career in politics. It’s not impossible… it’s just a little too fairy tale to make sense.
  4. It’s often used as evidence of Brom Bone’s duplicity when it’s mentioned that he “always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of a pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.” Hence… the idea that he threw a fake fireball. However… it is also possible the Brom was remembering of his own, potentially genuine encounter with the Headless Horseman, and his laugh may have been a relieved one in that it verified his own experiences. Like… perhaps Ichabod had been turned into a pumpkin, which made Brom realize that this was an aversion of his own fate.
  5. Finally, there is that one skeptic at the party that the farmer is telling the story to.

    At length, he observed that all this was very well, but he still thought the story a little on the extravagant — there were one or two points on which he had his doubts.

    Now, skeptical of what? The supernatural nature of the story? I don’t think so. After all, his colleagues are laughing the whole thing off. They’re already set to imagine that this is a story of superstitious country rubes and the ghost stories they make up. No… I think his skepticism comes from the fact that the “rational” version doesn’t make much sense, either.

So when the story-teller concludes, “I don’t believe one-half of it myself,” it’s not a give that the half he doesn’t believe in is the supernatural version. There are generally two acceptable theories as to what happened:

  1. Brom Bones did it.
  2. An actual Headless Horseman did it.

Deciding which one is the actual ending actually says a lot about the reader. Pop culture wants us to believe in the Headless Horseman, because that version of events is infinitely more mysterious and a lot cooler. (Even more cooler? Putting an assault rifle in the hands of the Headless Horseman.) The rational side of us, though, wants to reject the idea of ghosts and thus we accept the Scooby Doo version of events.

The thing the reader has to realize, though, is that both conclusions are supported by the evidence and both are also flawed.


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