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Cold Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
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If you'll come with me now, we'll take a journey to a strange land. But this land really isn't all that peculiar. As we wrestle our way through the brambles and hedges, one becomes aware of the faint scent of nostalgia clinging to the trees. There are memories here, in the earth and the sky. This is a land we've been to before. That's because it is a place that belongs to the dream world, that realm we visit on a nightly basis when we give in to the cool embraces of slumber. Washington Irving is our dream master, his tale of spooks and schoolteachers weaving an enchanting tapestry of myths, magic and, of course, that immortal "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
The namesake of our story is a peaceful hamlet nestled in the beautiful forests of colonial New York. Filled with eccentric personalities, no character comes more colorful than town schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. The gentleman (who resembles a bird in appetite as well as appearance) is talked much about amongst the old gossips, his courtship of the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel known by many. Ichabod dreams of being master of the Van Tassel farm, but one rogue stands in his way: Brom Bones. Brom plays on Ichabod's superstitious mind and fuels the schoolmaster's mind with stories of the legendary Headless Horseman who is said to haunt the region in search of his lost cranium. Riding back home one wild autumn night, Ichabod faces the very specter in a mad race of life and death.
An avid fan of history, Washington Irving paints a beautifully detailed and magical portrait of a small town that seems to be completely frozen in time and place. It's a charming place in its appearance, the crisp air seemingly filled with the aroma of delicious sweets baking in the open window of a nearby house. But the residents of Sleepy Hollow are still primitive in their own ways, nearly everyone a staunch believer in ghosts and goblins. Irving introduces a unique idea here by claiming that the very air of Sleepy Hollow is apparently hexed by magic, its fairy dust clouding the minds of every one within residence. This goes not only for those who live in the town but also any travelling soul who just might be passing by. Even the name of the hamlet suggests that this land exists on the very edge of reality, all the dream-things and flights of fantasy that occupy the dark side of the mind invading the town.
And at the very core of this kingdom of shadows stands the Headless Horseman, the purported spirit of a slain Hessian soldier who was beheaded by a raging cannonball during a small battle of the Revolutionary War. Like any classical wraith, he has returned from the grave to reclaim that which is his, his endless search causing him to run amok many of the fearful villagers. Irving embodies all the local legends and myths into the figure of the Horseman, a vengeful ghost who personifies all the terrors that the night has to hold. The image of the horse-riding demon is a powerful one, one that has ties back to the Bible as seen in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Headless Hessian channels all these ancient fears of doom and destruction, creating a character whose appearance can strike a resounding chord within the collected primal fears of society.
But "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is not all horror and gloom by any means. A crackerjack satirist, Irving imbues his little anecdote with enough charm and wit to make even the damning presence of the Horseman seem somewhat amusing. As noted before, Irving's characters all share their own unique and endearing eccentricities and, while this may regulate them to the role of archetypes, Irving's prose still makes for highly enjoyable reading. From Brom Bones (the typical man's man with a running love for mischief) to Katrina (the slightly light-headed coquette who leads Ichabod on), they're all beloved characters from our favorite bedtime tales. They may be a case of "all the familiar faces in all the familiar places," but Irving's skillful pen manages to add just the right spark to really make their moments in the story crackle with kinetic energy. Given that no one in the story has any actual lines of dialogue, this is an accomplishment in the highest degree!
But amongst the cast of ruffians and rosebuds, none catches the eye more than our ever intrepid friend Mr. Ichabod Crane. From the moment that Irving introduces us to this wiry teacher, our hearts let him in completely. He seems to be a true relic of the time, a master disciplinarian but a man who also enjoys a warm fire, the company of elders, and a heaping plate of delectable food. Whether he's dealing out punishment with rod clenched in fist or kindly offering the palm of his hand to a passing lady, Ichabod is the essential everyman who is vital to any type of story. A true scholar and lover of life, Ichabod's fate at the conclusion of the story can't help but sadden us a little. His whereabouts remain unknown after his encounter with the supposed Horseman. But whether he was the victim of a practical joke or the witness of a genuine haunting, it becomes clear at the story's climax that Ichabod will continue to live on. For just like the tall tales that he loved so dearly, Crane has been adopted into the pantheon of those legends and his story will be told for generations to any eager schoolmaster willing to hear it.
Irving also achieves the perfect tone for his story, setting it in the toasty and familial season of autumn. The fire-tinged leaves and budding pumpkins stir up thoughts of the Halloween season, the presence of ghouls and monsters adding just the right dash of macabre to make "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" mandatory reading for the arrival of All Hallow's Eve. Its magic will intoxicate your mind and ensure that your dreams are full of sugar plums and skull heads dancing amongst a forest of wild imagination. Gather the family around for this one because "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a story for everyone to enjoy. There's no better way to celebrate the joys of the season than to recount the story of the menacing Headless Horseman who haunted a land far, far away... and the schoolteacher who met him there.