Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pumpkinification X: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was first published by Washington Irving in 1820, in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.I am about to give you a spoiler alert, if one is actually needed for a story bordering on its bicentennial birthday. So, Spoiler Alert! The Headless Horseman, at least as he appears in the tale that Irving tells, is not an actual specter, but really Brom Bones playing a prank on Ichabod Crane to scare him away from Katrina Van Tassel.
In the story, the Headless Horseman is a local legend that the superstitious people of Tarry Town tell:

"The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever seen by the countryfolk, hurrying along in the gloom of the night as if on the wings of the wind. Historians of those parts allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the yard of a church at no great distance, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow is owing to his being in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak. The specter is known, at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow...
"When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about ghosts and apparitions, mourning cries and wailings, seen and heard in the neighborhood. Some mention was made of the woman in white, who haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite specter of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late near the bridge that crossed the brook in the woody dell next to the church; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

"The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over hill and swamp until they reached the church bridge. There the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.

"This story was matched by Brom Bones, who made light of the Galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey. He affirmed that, on returning one night from a neighboring village, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it, too; but just as they came to the church bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire."
Even the pumpkin head is never seen during the action, but can be inferred by the evidence afterwards: "An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon the saddle trampled in the dirt. The tracks of horses' hoofs deeply dented in the road were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin….Knots of gazers were collected in the churchyard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. They shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the Galloping Hessian." Ichabod, in his fear, sees it simply as a head. It is never even mentioned as a jack o'lantern in the story, but has appeared so in many illustrations and was certainly popularized in Disney's 1948 version The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Most modern versions of the tale have eschewed Irving's tale of a rustic love triangle between the credulous, greedy Ichabod Crane, the coquettish Katrina Van Tassel, and the dashing bully Brom Bones, and instead have focused on the supernatural horror elements of the story. In Shelley Duvall's version in a 1985 episode of Tall Tales and Legends, she follows Irving fairly closely, but ends with the triumphant Brom actually having an encounter with the real Horseman. Tim Burton includes this as an element in his 1999 film Sleepy Hollow, even going so far as to have the Hessian slice Brom Bones in two.
But pumpkins have a quieter, more lyric presence in the tale. On the way to Van Tassel's party Ichabod passes through this autumnal landscape: "Around him nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. As he jogged slowly on his way, his eye ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun." It is this harvest atmosphere, as well as the ghostly tale, that makes this American story so popular and fitting for Halloween, and occasions it's re-telling at this time of year, and probably will for years to come.

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