What role does myth play in "Rip Van Winkle"?

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Depending upon source and context, the word "myth" can have a number of different yet related meanings. According to the primary and secondary definitions in various dictionaries, "myth" can mean a traditional story that explains a belief or world view of a people, a popular tradition or belief that has...

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Depending upon source and context, the word "myth" can have a number of different yet related meanings. According to the primary and secondary definitions in various dictionaries, "myth" can mean a traditional story that explains a belief or world view of a people, a popular tradition or belief that has grown up around someone or something, an imaginary or unverifiable person or thing, or an idea that is commonly believed but untrue.

The famous short story "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving is set in the eighteenth century. It tells of a villager in New York who is incessantly nagged by his wife. To find some peace, he wanders up into the Catskill Mountains. In a remote hollow, he finds a group of strangely-dressed bearded men, joins them in a game of ninepins, drinks their liquor, and falls asleep. When he wakes up twenty years later, he has become old, and America has become an independent country and is no longer under the rule of England.

Myth plays several roles in this classic story. First of all, there is the imaginary presence of strange people living high in the mountains who possess liquor that can put a man to sleep for decades. There is also the impossible plot point that Rip Van Winkle survives his decades-long sleep with no ill-effects other than natural aging. When the old man descends the mountains and returns to the village, a historian verifies his identity and tells a story that accounts for the strange men and the noise of the ninepins game:

He assured the company that it was a fact, handed down from his ancestor the historian, that the Catskill Mountains had always been haunted by strange beings. That it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years, with his crew of the Half-Moon, being permitted in this way to revisit the scenes of his enterprise, and keep a guardian eye upon the river, and the great city called by his name. That his father had once seen them in their old Dutch dresses playing at ninepins in a hollow of the mountain; and that he himself had heard, one summer afternoon, the sound of their balls, like long peals of thunder.

This is a local myth about ghostly historical personages that explains who Rip Van Winkle met and what he went through. At the end of the story, Rip Van Winkle himself is added to the myth.

Even to this day they never hear a thunderstorm of a summer afternoon, about the Catskills, but they say Hendrick Hudson and his crew are at their game of ninepins; and it is a common wish of all hen-pecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting drought out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon.

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Myth is found throughout "Rip van Winkle." Irving wrote at a time when many Romantic writers were beginning to look back to the past to discover the myths, fables, and stories that they attached to a national identity. In Europe, for example, the brothers Grimm published their collection of fairy tales a few years before Irving published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819. Irving frames his work as a similar collection of American myths that date back many years. Like many myths, "Rip van Winkle" is full of supernatural events. The liquor that Rip drinks is offered to him by odd little men dressed in traditional Dutch clothing that live in the countryside, where the title character finds them playing ninepins. The deep sleep he enters is of course supernatural and is in fact a common trope in European myths and fables. Even the work itself was supposedly written by a fictional gentleman, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who allegedly derived it from an old "German superstition." Above all, like other myths, "Rip van Winkle" is intended to help explain real-world events. The protagonist witnesses firsthand the startling and rapid changes to the American Revolution, even if he manages to sleep through the event itself. So, myth plays a very prominent role in "Rip van Winkle," which Irving frames as an American myth.

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"Rip Van Winkle" is a myth within a myth. A myth can be loosely described as a story with an element of the supernatural. Diedrich Knickerbocker is a fictional man who gathers stories from the locals in the Catskill Mountains. According to the fictional story, Knickerbocker is the man who recorded the myth of Rip Van Winkle. In his history, the spirits that Rip meets are claimed to be real. The myth of Rip Van Winkle involves the title character coming across ghosts of ancient explorers in the mountains.

According to the myth, Rip Van Winkle goes into the mountains on an autumn day.  He comes across a lone man and follows him. This man is carrying a heavy keg:

His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion—a cloth jerkin strapped around the waist—several pair of breeches, the outer one of ample volume, decorated with rows of buttons down the sides, and bunches at the knees. He bore on his shoulders a stout keg, that seemed full of liquor, and made signs for Rip to approach and assist him with the load ("Rip Van Winkle").

Rip follows the man and helps him. He soon discovers more strangely dressed men. They are drinking and playing ninepins. Rip falls asleep and wakes up after twenty years. He eventually discovers that the men had been the spirits of Hendrick (Henry) Hudson and his crew. According to the legend, they appear every twenty years to play ninepins and drink.

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