drawing of the headless horseman holding a pumpkin and riding a horse through the woods

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Washington Irving

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How does "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" portray supernatural elements?

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One of the most interesting things about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the way that the lines between the supernatural and the realistic are continually blurred; in fact, the ambiguity created by the story’s events is partially responsible for the popularity of the tale long after its original publication....

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If we examine the descriptions of the supernatural in relation to how they are juxtaposed against the realistic, then we can better understand how sometimes the supernatural and natural are conflated with each other so that it becomes impossible to tell what is real.

In the story’s second paragraph we are led to believe that Sleepy Hollow has a supernatural history. It is described as having “a drowsy, dreamy influence [that] seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.” By relating the place to a dream, Irving connects the landscape -- that which is palpable and can be perceived -- to that of dreams, which are abstract and surreal. He then says, “Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there …” Irving uses the more realistic figure of a “doctor” but gives him supernatural powers to “bewitch,” and then he refers to a Native American chief, a realistic figure, as a “wizard.” By mixing the realistic with unrealistic descriptions, Irving skillfully portrays different sides of a conversation to say that no one is really certain of the history, and thus, no one really knows what is responsible for the many alleged supernatural events. One thing is for sure though: this mixture of the uncertain and the realistic creates an environment very receptive to belief in the supernatural. As Irving tells us, “The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions …”

In the next paragraph, he describes the legend of the headless horseman, a being of uncertain origins: “It is said by some …” but we are never told who. Later in the paragraph he discusses “the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this specter… ” Thus, Irving again mixes what sounds like pure superstition -- the vague discussion of “some” -- with the more credible source of “authentic historians.” At this point, the reader cannot really believe or dismiss the horseman’s existence -- regardless of their beliefs in the supernatural.

Of course, there is the story’s climax where Ichabod Crane encounters the headless horseman and “was horror-struck, on perceiving that he was headless! – but his horror was still more increased, on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle …” As Ichabod flees in terror, his horse is described as “possessed with a demon.” This seems to directly evidence the supernatural, but many would argue that these were either the imaginings of a man alone late at night or an excuse made up to explain why he truly left the village, which had to do with a failed romance and extreme embarrassment.

The end of the story is similar to the beginning. Because the truth is not actually known, it becomes mixed with conjecture and speculation that contributes to superstitious beliefs. “The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire.” By giving credence to “the old country wives” who conceivably have no real authority and by saying that it is a “favorite story [my italics]” Irving suggests that sometimes entertainment is more fascinating than truth. He goes on to say that “The school-house being deserted, soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue …” which further suggests that many superstitions may be due to a lack of education. However, since we are unclear who witnessed the haunting and since we are left with no evidence aside from this brief mention, once again the line between fact and fiction is uncertain and the supernatural may or may not be present.

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