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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Why is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" considered a folk tale?

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A folktale is a popular story that originates among common people and is widely transmitted in a local area by word of mouth. Folktales also usually have a fantastic or supernatural element, especially as they are embellished with retellings.

In Irving's story, a folktale circulates among the common folk of Sleepy Hollow of the headless horseman. According to this tale, a Hessian or German soldier from the Revolutionary War had his head blown off by a cannonball. He is supposedly now frequently spotted as a ghost riding around at night, searching for his lost head. When Irving says this story is attested to by "authentic historians" in the area, he is being tongue-in-cheek or comical—these "historians" are the ordinary people repeating a fake ghost story. We learn that:

Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known, at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

In other words, the story is repeated word of mouth and is a "wild" or made-up tale.

This story becomes the basis of a second folktale—that of the "headless horseman" frightening Ichabod Crane out of town. Of course, we know that Brom Bones creates a fake headless horseman because he wants to get rid of Crane, a rival for Katrina. He knows that Crane, the schoolteacher, is superstitious and believes in the story of the headless horseman, so Brom provides one to scare him away. This ploy works, and Crane runs off, never to be seen again. However, the real story is embellished into a folktale, as we learn:

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.

In other words, the local people have replaced what really happened—Brom tricking Crane—with a supernatural tale they repeat orally. Thus we have one folktale about a headless horseman generating a second folktale about him, which is Irving's tale.

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Why is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" considered a legend?

What a good question! I think Irving was making a parody when he called his short story this. (A parody is a kind of satire when a literary work mimics another one in form but is something quite else in sustance!)

A legend is a story usually ethnically identifiable, and the protagonist is a hero type, often "bigger-than-life" (if not quite,though, of "epic" or mythical proportions). Gangly Icabod Crane is certainly not the movie star type and quite something less than a legendary hero. If anything, the story could rather be classified as a tall tale with tongue-in-cheek humour achieved through diminishment of both characterization (Icabod's) and events in the story line.

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