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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What tone does the phrase "worthy wight" suggest about Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

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Wight is an archaic word, and in paragraph 8 of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving uses it to both underscore that his story is from "the old days" and as a way of gently producing a mocking tone as he makes fun of Icabod and the alleged folktale in which he appears.

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When the narrator refers to Ichabod Crane as a "worthy wight," the tone is undoubtedly mocking and ironic, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the use of the term wight is meant to evoke a sense of the archaic. From the vantage point of 1820, the narrator refers to 1790 as a "remote period of American history." On one hand, it is silly to think of thirty years as being so long an amount of time in a historical sense, especially because the events of that time would have still been well within living memory.

However, the narrator is poking fun at how young America is as a nation. Unlike Europe, which has centuries of history and folklore, the United States is not yet fifty years old at the time of the publication of Irving's story. Therefore, the term wight adds to the satirical sense of 1790 being a distant epoch from the perspective of the early nineteenth century.

Secondly, the word wight has two meanings, and both fit the character of Ichabod. The word can be used to describe ghosts or spirits, but its older meaning simply refers to a living creature, particularly an unfortunate one. Since "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a gothic story dealing with the supernatural, the word wight conjures up such associations early on to help set the tone. Even when using wight in its older meaning, the narrator is on point, since Crane is indeed unfortunate regarding his proposal to Katrina and in his encounter with the Headless Horseman.

Thirdly and most obviously, calling Ichabod a "worthy wight" is amusing in that Ichabod is hardly anyone's definition of worthy. He beats his students, pursues a woman for her money alone, and harbors superstitious beliefs. He is a weak person overly influenced by the "old world" of Europe from which Washington Irving seems to believe the young United States must break in order to achieve its own identity. Even the term "worthy wight" evokes the phrase "worthy knight," suggesting old European tales of chivalry and romance. Once again, this is Irving gently suggesting that Americans must have their own national folklore and literature, such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" itself.

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Wight is an archaic word that means "creature." In modern usage, wight refers to some sort of supernatural or inhuman being; one thinks of the barrow-wights that figure in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. That is not the way Irving uses the word, however.

A key to understanding the tone of this word is considering the sentence of which it is a part:

In this by-place of nature, there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane; who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, “tarried,” in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity.

There are a few things that stand out here. One is the ironic relation of the narrator to the story he is telling. This comes through in his remark about the "remote" period of history that the tale describes, which he admits is only thirty years ago; a similar gently ironic quality comes with describing the Hollow as a "by place of nature" when it is simply a normal village. In short, there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality to the way the narrator describes the setting for his tale, which carries over into his description of Icabod.

Icabod similarly is slightly ridiculous; name aside, the fact that he thinks of himself as "tarrying" in the village makes him out to be a bit self important: he is portrayed as bestowing for a short time his wisdom to the local children. In fact, he is just a simple school teacher.

The narrator's use of the term "wight" is part of this gentle satire. That is, the narrator is aware of the archaic nature of the term; using it places Ichabod squarely in this mock "fairy tale" setting. It is, in short, a word that suggests that there is something slightly funny about Icabod and the tale in which he appears.

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"Wight" is an archaic term that means an unfortunate person, much as the word "waif" does. "Worthy wight" seems almost an oxymoron, or contradiction, but at the same time, an unfortunate person could be worthy.

The narrative tone of "worthy wight," however, is derisive or mocking, as the tone is toward Crane throughout most of the story. Ichabod is used as a foil, or opposite, to the red-blooded, all-American, strong, and hearty Brom Bones.

The narrator goes on to say that Crane "tarried" or hung around Sleepy Hollow, teaching children, as if he were idling in the village. He describes Crane in vaguely unflattering terms as tall and slim with long, dangling limbs. He says one could mistake Crane for a "scarecrow" or a famished person—he is so very thin.

Throughout the story, Crane is lightly mocked as an effeminate European style schoolmaster, full of backward-looking ideas and superstitions derived from books. As part of a developing American mythology, the hardworking, hearty, down-to-earth, and popular trickster Brom wins the girl by playing on the delicate Crane's fears. The story shows American pragmatism and ingenuity winning out over European education and frailty.

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