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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Could the mood of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" be achieved with simpler language?

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Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was first published in 1820, making the story now two hundred years old. Some of the language in the story might be considered archaic and may thus be unfamiliar or difficult for a modern reader. In these instances, the mood of the story may indeed be better served by more modern, familiar language.

Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze.

In this first quotation, describing Ichabod's dreadful journey homewards, the words "smote" and "bough" might be deemed archaic, and unfamiliar to a modern reader, and might easily be replaced with the words "knocked" and "branch" respectively. These substitutions, I think, would not detract from the mood created. Indeed, the eerie, ominous mood is created in this quotation by words like "groan" and "chattered," which will be familiar to most modern readers.

The form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder.

In this second quotation, describing the fearful image of the headless horseman, the words "ascertained," "molestation," and perhaps "aloof" might be unfamiliar to many modern readers. These words might be replaced with the words "known," "menace" and "to himself," without obviously detracting from the frightening, sinister mood. In fact, the mood in this second quotation is mostly created by the description of the headless horseman's peculiar, disinterested demeanor, and if one does not understand the aforementioned words, then one will not fully understand or appreciate the oddness that demeanor. In this instance, therefore, the substitution of modern words for archaic ones, would certainly contribute to, rather than detract from, the evocation of the mood.

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