Although Washington Irving’s ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ offers one of the most widely recognized characters in all of American literature, and was a part of the first book by an American to win international acclaim, it is in many ways not an American story at all. Irving was not shy about admitting, and scholars have since verified, that the basic elements of his plot were borrowed from German folk tales that he learned about through a life of reading and traveling.
Beneath that level of influence, however, lie deeper levels. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) theorized that behind each individual’s unconscious lies the human ‘‘collective unconscious,’’ the memories of our existence before history, or even before we became human. As we struggle to regain our memory, he argued, we form stories around a small group of images called ‘‘archetypes.’’ Because we are all human and share the same archetypal memories, each culture around the world tends to create the same stories.
One story that is repeated in many similar forms in cultures throughout the world, or one archetype, is the archetype of the hero. This story has been studied and explained by a great number of scholars, but the clearest and most thorough book on the subject is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, originally published in 1949. Campbell studied myths, epics, legends, dreams, and rituals from around the world, and synthesized them into a basic framework for the story of the hero. His framework outlines the adventures of Ulysses, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins. Another hero whose quest follows this pattern is Rip Van Winkle.
According to Campbell, the story of the hero takes place in three stages: separation, initiation and return. To put it more clearly,
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
This pattern will sound familiar to anyone who has read much or seen many movies: the hero leaves home, has adventures, and returns home a better man (and it is usually a man). But a closer reading of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ side-by-side with Campbell will demonstrate that Irving was well aware of the pattern, and that he followed it and veered from it intentionally for his own purposes.
As Campbell explains it, the hero’s story starts with a call to adventure. The hero does not necessarily want to become a hero, or to venture out on a quest that will separate him from the world he knows and change his life forever. Instead, some outside force compels him to leave home. Frodo Baggins must leave home because his Uncle Bilbo has left him the One Ring, and he must get it out of the Shire before it is found. In Rip’s case, the force that drives him away from home is his wife’s bad temper. She scolds him to such an extent that he is ‘‘at last reduced almost to despair,’’ and finally ‘‘his only alternative’’ is to take up his gun and ‘‘stroll away into the woods.’’ Campbell writes that ‘‘the dark forest’’ is ‘‘typical of the circumstances of the call,’’ and it is not until late evening, too late for him to reach home before dark, that Rip begins to leave for home and hears a voice calling his name.
The next step in the hero’s progress, says Campbell, is an encounter with one of the ‘‘ageless guardians,’’ supernatural figures who guide him through his initiation, his first tests. ‘‘Not infrequently,’’ Campbell continues, ‘‘the supernatural helper is masculine in form. In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require.’’ Rip does meet a stranger, a ‘‘short square-built old fellow’’ who may not be ageless, but the style of his clothing is almost two hundred years old. This guide does not offer advice; in fact, he never speaks at all. Rip does not speak, either, for there is ‘‘something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired awe.’’ The only version of an amulet the stranger carries is ‘‘a stout keg, that seemed full of liquor’’—hardly a magic sword or ring, but the liquor does prove to be the means of Rip’s being transported out of this world.
The stranger guides Rip along a ‘‘rugged path,’’ apparently a dry streambed, toward the sound of rolling thunder. Rip can hear but cannot see their destination. He follows his guide until they come to what Campbell...
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The story of Rip Van Winkle is known to almost everybody. Even more than Washington Irving’s other American fable, ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is one of the few literary creations to have achieved truly mythic status. Natty Bumpo, Ichabod Crane, and even Tom Sawyer are well on the way to the glass museum case, there to rest alongside Peregrine Pickle, Uncle Remus, and the Five Chinese Brothers. But even a casual Nexis search reveals ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ alive and well, still being used in the most casual conversations on non-literary topics. Rip went to sleep for twenty years, and when he woke up, the world had changed; aside from being easy to remember, the myth has stood well in a country whose greatest constant has been traumatic, continual change.
Rip Van Winkle is immortal, in other words, not because of the story’s literary brilliance, or because the main character is so deathlessly individuated. Van Winkle is no Sherlock Holmes; there really is not that much to know about his character, other than a few very important characteristics. But those characteristics are so essential to America, and are presented by Irving in such a powerfully allegorical way, that every American, however illiterate, grows up knowing the myth of Rip Van Winkle.
What does this myth consist of? Obviously, the part that captures the imagination is Rip’s long nap. The other parts of the story—Rip’s shrewish wife, the supernatural game of ninepins, and the heady elixir drunk there, for instance—tend to be less well-remembered. But in fact, it is the background to the nap that gives the story all its lasting power. ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ might be shorthand for time travel, the colonial counterpart to the myth of the Einsteinian space-traveler who comes home after a short trip to find all his friends old and gray. But ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ only survived long enough to become a time-travel trope because of the specifics of Irving’s story.
The most overlooked of these is Mrs. Van Winkle. Van Winkle clearly has no problems in his life other than his hen-pecking wife. Though ‘‘his patrimonial estate had dwindled away under his management, acre by acre,’’ and his children ‘‘are as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody,’’ there are no ill-effects from this neglect, other than the ill-will emanating from Dame Van Winkle. Rip’s life in the idyllic Catskill village is a slow and happy one, a pastoral idyll of fishing, squirrelhunting, odd jobs, and ‘‘country frolics.’’ Rip’s attitude toward his wife is one of saintly suffering. He shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, and casts up his eyes—the classic posture of the martyr.
Mrs. Van Winkle, we can assume, wants Rip to ‘‘improve himself,’’ to make a profit from his farm, to raise her and the children’s standard of living, as we might call it today. We might profitably ask why. Rip is happy; his children are happy as far as we can tell. ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ Irving tells us, ‘‘was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, welloiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound. If left to himself, he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment; but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family.’’ But we know that his family is not being ruined; they just lack the material finery and status of a more ambitious man’s family. That they look as if they ‘‘belong to nobody’’ suggests a kind of rough-hewn independence. Mrs. Van Winkle is caught up in the cash nexus, where a comfortable life is no longer an end in itself; she is the first of a long line of menacing ‘‘civilizers’’ in American literature, the most famous of whom is of course Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally. To escape her, Rip has to return to nature, to go up to the mountain and stay there for twenty years.
The conflict between nature and the ‘‘civilized’’ world of the...
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The work of Washington Irving reflects signifi- cantly the quality of this tension between imaginative endeavor and cultural tendency. In Bracebridge Hall (1822), Irving tells us that he had experienced England with ‘‘the delightful freshness of a child,’’ but that he was ‘‘a grown-up child.’’ He admits in The Sketch-Book (1819–1820) that the scenic splendor of America has failed to stimulate him imaginatively; in Europe are ‘‘all the charms of storied and poetical association.’’ America is filled with youthful promise, but Europe is rich ‘‘in the accumulated treasure of age.’’ He longs for a meditative antiquity, for the ‘‘shadowy grandeurs of the past,’’ in place of the...
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Nearly a century and a half have elapsed, and the name of Rip Van Winkle, one of the oldest in our fiction, is as alive as ever. The subject of innumerable representations—among them some of the country’s finest paintings—America’s archetypal sleeper is almost equally well known abroad. Nor is his fame simply popular, or commercial. The most complex of poets, as well as the least sophisticated of children, are attracted to him.
But there is something ironic here, for at its center Rip’s story is every bit as enigmatic as it is renowned, and the usual understanding of Rip himself, spread so wide, is shallow. Very few of the millions of people who have enjoyed his tale would be comfortable for...
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