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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


by Washington Irving

The Headless Horseman

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Ready for a good spook? Gather around and bring your scariest flashlights. It's story time.

The Man (er, Ghost), the Myth, the Legend

It may shock you to hear this, but Irving didn't come up with the Headless Horseman. (Gasp!) In fact, the Headless Horseman is such an old myth, we're not even sure anyone invented it. It just is.

We're pretty sure Washington Irving took his cue from the German side of things. Gottfried August Bürger's The Wild Huntsman and folktales by Karl Musäus have supernatural horse chases just like the one between Ichabod and our headless friend, down to the bridge and all. Coincidence? We think not.

Through the Sands of Time…

So Irving did a bit of copying. But this is where it gets interesting. Irving decided to make his headless horseman a Hessian. In addition to creating some amusing alliteration, Irving gave the Horseman a real history for the first time.

Who exactly were the Hessians? They were German soldiers (German story, German guy… seeing a trend?) who were hired to work for the British during the American Revolution. There were a heck of a lot of them and the guys were trained to fight while the American rebels were, well, not. Put together their numbers and their training and you have a pretty good reason to be scared of these guys—even when they're alive.

Instead of using the magical, spooky creature that was popular in folklore, Washington Irving turns the Horseman into the ghost of a guy who fought in a very real war. Roots the whole thing in history a bit more, don't you think? And wait, is Irving getting political?

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost

Shmoop isn't afraid of ghosts (most of the time), but the same can't be said for the people of Sleepy Hollow. We don't know if they were ghoul-obsessed before the war, but we think it's safe to say that all the hub-bub increased because of it. These people are obviously traumatized. (And as we know, Sleepy Hollow is not a fan of change, so they're not likely to get over it any time soon [1.7].)

And what's the perfect symbol to embody their trauma? A headless Hessian horseman, of course. These people are Dutch, after all, so they probably knew the horseman myth. Plus, Hessians often rode horses, and a cannonball could take off your head—it's a no-brainer to put the two together. It seems like the townspeople of Sleepy Hollow have collectively dreamed up the very thing that attacked them just a short while ago.

Greedy Horseman

One last thing. Hessians were kind of like mercenaries, and mercenaries are thought to be very greedy people—sometimes we even use the word to describe just that. Is it possible that the Horseman is a manifestation of the green-eyed devil? Imagine that. The greediest guy in Sleepy Hollow is attacked by greed itself. We wouldn't put it past old Irving—he probably thought this was the best joke ever told.

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