Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Battle For America

Ichabod Pursued by the Headless Horseman, 1849, F.O.C. Darley. The "dark forest," as we see in this image, will always symbolize a soul in the turmoil of temptation and sin: please note how knotted, broken and twisted the stylized trees are in this image. Because the climax of the story takes place within a forest, we are right to interpret this element of the story as revealing why Ichabod Crane is hunted by the Headless Horseman: Ichabod hasn't cultivated the "tree" of the Cross, true Redemption, rather, he has invoked superstitions to protect him and ward off evil, which works in just the opposite manner and, instead, invites evil, such as the Headless Horseman. The twisted forest then, is a manifestation of the sin upon Ichabod's soul, because we see the dead trees rather than the living tree of the Cross in his actions.
Washington Irving's famed tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (complete text HERE) was considered at the time, and still today, to be the first real piece of American literature written and, given all the versions and variations the story has given birth to, I would like to suggest it is because the story was the first to define what would prove to be the primary struggle in America:  religion and politics.
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor, 1858. In this image, the artist has invoked two great oppositions: life and death, light and darkness. Please note where Ichabod's horse is heading, into a patch of darkness, rather than the light from where he appears to be coming. Secondly, we see plenty of dead trees and limbs because there are so many living trees and brush in the painting. The dead trees, again, invoke that Ichabod hasn't been a true Christian honoring the Cross of Jesus, rather, he has followed his own little religion that has resulted in the death of his soul.
The name Ichabod is Hebrew for "God's glory has departed."  The wife of Phinehas had given birth to a son; when she heard that Phinehas had died, and that the Ark had been captured by the Philistines, she named her son "Ichabod" and then died herself, leaving her son an orphan.  Not a very promising omen.
The Indian Sarus Crane with long legs and neck. 
Ichabod's last name, Crane, invokes the bird for at least three reasons:  cranes are opportunistic feeders (Ichabod is always eating), they put on elaborate mating dances (Irving writes that "Ichabod prided himself on his dancing") and Irving makes it clear that Ichabod looks like a crane:

The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Symbols associated with Ichabod are generally religious in nature, however, Irving skews them in such a way that we know Ichabod is not a "holy figure" (he is compared to the "genius of famine," or one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation).  Birds are symbolic embodiments of the Holy Spirit, for example, but Irving draws upon the unfavorable qualities of the "crane" to contrast with the gentleness of the Dove which descended at Christ's Baptism.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse with "Famine" on the black horse. 
Later in the story, Ichabod rides the horse Gunpowder and tries to outrun the Headless Horseman.  The horse in general, likewise, is usually associated with the Holy Spirit because the strength and nobility of the animal is a symbol of the heart as well and it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that our hearts are formed.
St. George slaying the dragon with the Virgin Mary praying
for him in the upper right corner, the mansion awaiting
him in heaven above her and the dragon in the lower
right/center, by Gustave Moreau. 
In the stories of St. George slaying the dragon, the horse depicts the Saint's heart and soul; St. George and his horse "become one" as the heart and soul become one, as the Saint becomes one with God's Will.   The importance of the horse can now be seen in comparison with Ichabod's rival, Brom Bones, of whom Irivng writes:

From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. He was foremost at all races and cock fights; and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that admitted of no gainsay or appeal.

The import which Irving places upon "horsemanship" can be greater clarified by Brom himself:  "Brom" is a nickname for "Abraham," which is Hebrew for "father of a multitude."  If one knows the stories of the Bible, then one already knows which of the two men will receive the hand of the "fair Katrina," for the name "Katrina" means "Pure and pure of heart."  For not only is Brom a "champion" upon horseback, but his horses's name is Daredevil, which leads many to assume in reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that Brom is the Headless Horseman; however, I would suggest, that because Brom is the only one who can handle Daredevil, it shows that Brom has mastered the devil, unlike Ichabod who is fascinated by the devil; like St. George slaying the dragon, Brom can discipline his heart and his mind, whereas Ichabod "gives way to flights of his imagination."  It is because of this self-discipline that Brom holds the right--in the eyes of the citizens--to discipline others:  the last sentence in the quote above demonstrates that, like the Prophets of the Old Testament, Brom is also a judge.
But there is a judge to whom Ichabod is compared:  the Reverend Cotton Mather.  Mather will be forever linked to the most infamous Salem Witch Trials for which his writings aided the judges of those accused of witchery.
Title page of Wonders of the Invisible World (1693)
by Cotton Mather. Irving writes that Ichabod,
"
was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's History
of New England Witchcraft
, in which, by
the way, he most firmly and potently believed."
Irving likens the struggle between Ichabod and Brom to a battle and a war, and this is very literal because the two men represent opposing forces trying to become the dominant force shaping and defining America (the wealth of the van Tassel farm which Irving symbolizes the wealth of America and the question is, "Which of the two sides shall inherit the kingdom").  At the end of the van Tassel party, Irving writes that Ichabod had effectually lost the hand of Katrina, but Ichabod didn't know why he was rejected:  it's because "the pure in heart shall see God," and in Ichabod, Katrina knew that there was nothing "Godly" about him, so she rejects his suit.
The Courtship in Sleepy Hollow, 1868.
During this time frame when Irving was writing, the writer was often considered to be an observer, and writing was almost always in a narrative form with very little to no dialogue and Irving follows this convention in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  There is, however, one line of dialogue and one line only that comes at a precise moment necessary for understanding the entire story.  As Ichabod journeys homewards after Katrina rejects him, Ichabod finally sees himself as he is, but he is such a monster he doesn't recognize himelf:

The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up, therefore, a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, "Who are you?" He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet 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.  (Emphasis added)

Ichabod is the Headless Horseman because Ichabod has "lost his head" to superstition.  Irving writes that Ichabod

was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow. It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather's direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. 


And elsewhere Irving tells us that


Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars . . . 
The "row of apples" mentioned suggests "a forbidden fruit" because by listening to superstitions, Ichabod becomes superstitious.  Superstition is a sin against the First Commandment, "To love God above all other things," because by loving God above all other things, we become like God; whenever we love something that is not God, we become like that thing we love; because Ichabod fills himself with the tales of the superstitious, he has become a goblin, a ghost, a monster, a Headless Horseman himself.

Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow under the name
of Diedrich Knickerbocker, so if you don't believe that the
Headless Horseman is a "double" for understanding Ichabod Crane,
consider that Washington Irving has his own double pictured in this sketch above.
It's not that Brom Bones dresses as the Headless Horseman, or that Ichabod just imagines the Headless Horseman:  in art, the characters can see themselves in a way that we do not see ourselves in reality, but because of art, we can see ourselves in the characters.  Consider Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is allowed to see what will happen if he doesn't reform; this is the same premise for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod seeing "his soul" in the Headless Horseman as if he were Dorian Gray looking at the portrait that had taken on all the sins he had committed.   
Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving.
by William J. Wilgus, artist chromolithograph, c. 1856
Now that we know the Headless Horseman is Ichabod Crane,... Who is Ichabod Crane?  The guilt complex of Americans from the Salem Witch Trials.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a great success at the time it came out because it allowed Americans to understand what had happened during the Trials and allow us to separate genuine religion from superstition:  while there is still the haunting of the memory of the Trials (like the haunting ghost of Ichabod himself), never fear, it won't happen again as long as we, like Ichabod, don't let our heads "get carried away."  It is clear that by associating the hero, Brom Bones, with Abraham and the judges of the Old Testament, that Irving is not in the least against religion, but all should be against superstition, and no where did superstition show itself plainer than in the Salem Witch Trials.

Examination of a Witch from 1853 illustrates the Salem Witch Trial. 
Obviously the Communist "witch hunts" of McCarthyism have been compared to Salem and could act as our modern day superstition, but that would be a dangerous platform for Christians:  secularists still use, unconsciously, the Salem persecutions as a means of justifying the separation of Church and State.  When the church takes over, look at what happens.  The Salem Witch Trials were orchestrated by elders of the Church but the hunt for Communists was orchestrated by the State, and that's why it has to be kept separate (remember, Joseph McCarthy was a Senator).  It is wiser to enumerate the qualities of human nature, rather than to create a clown out of Jesus Christ, but this is exactly what politicians do when they want to keep religion out of state affairs.
A 1947 propaganda comic book published by the
Catechetical Guild Educational Society raising
the specter of a Communist takeover.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow still holds salient reminders of the importance of being religious (like Brom) and not superstitious (like Ichabod).  But politicians today see any call for "religious responsibility" or "moral accountability" as a sign of fanaticism and an invitation to the Ichabod Cranes of the world . . .  knowing this, Christians can articulate what happened and why religion is necessary to every person:  so when a Brom Bones comes along that will be the "father of a multitude," we won't mistake him for the Headless Horseman.