Rip Van Winkle Essays and Criticism
by Washington Irving

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Manipulating the Hero

(Short Stories for Students)

Although Washington Irving’s ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ offers one of the most widely recognized characters in all of American literature, and was a part of the first book by an American to win international acclaim, it is in many ways not an American story at all. Irving was not shy about admitting, and scholars have since verified, that the basic elements of his plot were borrowed from German folk tales that he learned about through a life of reading and traveling.

Beneath that level of influence, however, lie deeper levels. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) theorized that behind each individual’s unconscious lies the human ‘‘collective unconscious,’’ the memories of our existence before history, or even before we became human. As we struggle to regain our memory, he argued, we form stories around a small group of images called ‘‘archetypes.’’ Because we are all human and share the same archetypal memories, each culture around the world tends to create the same stories.

One story that is repeated in many similar forms in cultures throughout the world, or one archetype, is the archetype of the hero. This story has been studied and explained by a great number of scholars, but the clearest and most thorough book on the subject is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, originally published in 1949. Campbell studied myths, epics, legends, dreams, and rituals from around the world, and synthesized them into a basic framework for the story of the hero. His framework outlines the adventures of Ulysses, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins. Another hero whose quest follows this pattern is Rip Van Winkle.

According to Campbell, the story of the hero takes place in three stages: separation, initiation and return. To put it more clearly,

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This pattern will sound familiar to anyone who has read much or seen many movies: the hero leaves home, has adventures, and returns home a better man (and it is usually a man). But a closer reading of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ side-by-side with Campbell will demonstrate that Irving was well aware of the pattern, and that he followed it and veered from it intentionally for his own purposes.

As Campbell explains it, the hero’s story starts with a call to adventure. The hero does not necessarily want to become a hero, or to venture out on a quest that will separate him from the world he knows and change his life forever. Instead, some outside force compels him to leave home. Frodo Baggins must leave home because his Uncle Bilbo has left him the One Ring, and he must get it out of the Shire before it is found. In Rip’s case, the force that drives him away from home is his wife’s bad temper. She scolds him to such an extent that he is ‘‘at last reduced almost to despair,’’ and finally ‘‘his only alternative’’ is to take up his gun and ‘‘stroll away into the woods.’’ Campbell writes that ‘‘the dark forest’’ is ‘‘typical of the circumstances of the call,’’ and it is not until late evening, too late for him to reach home before dark, that Rip begins to leave for home and hears a voice calling his name.

The next step in the hero’s progress, says Campbell, is an encounter with one of the ‘‘ageless guardians,’’ supernatural figures who guide him through his initiation, his first tests. ‘‘Not infrequently,’’ Campbell continues, ‘‘the supernatural helper is masculine in form. In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require.’’ Rip does meet a stranger, a ‘‘short square-built old fellow’’ who may not be...

(The entire section is 13,735 words.)