on June 7, 2002
Will Moses' illustrated retelling of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow rivals Arthur Rackham's near century-old version as the best edition of the book ever published. The Rackham version, with its moody, archetypal illustrations, has the slight edge, as it contains Irving's full original text in addition to Rackham's spectacular artwork.
However, Moses's simplification of the narrative is masterfully executed, and the colorful, playful, and numerous paintings which adorn the book have a warm period charm of genuine Americana. Moses portrays the Hudson River Valley as a lush expansive valley not unlike the Garden of Eden on the first day of creation. Happy farmers, their wives and children, cows, geese, ducks and pigs frolic together amid fields of wheat and corn; galleons approach dramatically from the river; and the Catskill Mountains, sun, and sky suggested an infinite panorama and endless horizon full of promise.
The story tells us that the Dutch colonists were a superstitious lot, and that the Sleepy Hollow region itself was or seemed to be under a spell of some kind. The farmers and their wives suspected witchcraft; strange music was heard in the air; visions were seen; and the inhabitants themselves lived their lives in a kind of continuous dreamy revery. These tales and superstitions give rise to the legend of the headless horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a canon ball in the war, and now nightly prowling the region in search of it. Moses' nocturnal landscapes of the swamps, hills and the Old Dutch Cemetery under a bright harvest moon are particularly effective. Significantly, these stark, haunted landscapes do not violate the spirit of the book, but enrich its sense of wonder.
Moses' Ichabod is a cheerful but somewhat hapless fellow, confident and foolish in equal parts. His Katrina is a strong but innocent blond beauty, and a friend to children. Brom Bones is an appropriately square-shouldered, square-jawed hooligan, rowdy and full of mischief, if not absolute spite.
Anyone familiar with the tale knows that it is not a horror story but a folktale, a fireside spook story, and a `legend' as Irving, writing here as Diedrich Knickerbocker, himself called it. This edition of the book is appropriate for children but is equally suitable for adults. Highly recommended.
on February 24, 2003
The original 1928 Arthur Rackham edition of Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' (1819) was one of the most beautifully-illustrated versions of the tale ever produced. The Books Of Wonder facsimile of that edition is certainly the finest available today, though folk artist Will Moses' bright retelling runs a close second.
Rackham's watercolors for this American classic are very much in keeping with his earlier work, which had established him as the greatest British illustrator of his era.
Where much of Irving's tale is painted in the warm autumn hues, Rackham choose to portray Sleep Hollow as not only a place of overwhelming haunts and visions, but as a region existing in a state of permanent, moody twilight. His Sleepy Hollow seems perpetually in crepuscular shadow: the last pure rays of the sun have just vanished from the earth, and darkness, though it has not fallen yet, is falling quickly. In the artist's eye, Irving's fireside tale appears to take place not in glorious mid-October, but in storm-swept late November. The illustrator's anthropomorphic and archetypal Sleepy Hollow also magnifies elements of Irving's romantic landscape over and above the necessities of the text.
While witches, ghosts and "visions in the air" are discussed in the story, Rackham depicts the trees, houses, and countryside of the region as teeming with every kind of fairy, goblin, dryad, and witch, as if calmly revealing to the eyes of man the always-coexistent, if invisible, supernatural life of the Hudson River Valley.
His painting of Major Andre's Tree, for example, depicts a traditional European fairytale witch and her black cat familiar walking along the road beneath Andre's tree as if they had every right to be there. It is mankind that is the anxious, insecure, and mortally temporary interloper into this vaster mystical world. Rackham's trees are trees but also fairies, his fairies are fairies but also witches, his witches are human in form but also trees, and the birds resting in the trees, while birds, are sometimes partially fairies.
All of these creatures confidently, humorously, and mischievously observe mankind, which, when not perpetually scurrying home to safety, gathers together in nervous groups to share tidings, portents, and spook tales.
Irving's remarkably poetic prose is in every way worthy of the man who bears the honor of being America's first great writer. Interestingly, the tale is partially a study in contrasts: schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and his rival, the rabble-rousing Brom Bones, though obvious opposites, each also contain elements of the other. Ichabod, though he lives largely in his thoughts and dreams, has a very definite physical side: he plays boisterously outdoors with the town children, and, at the fatal party at the story's end, commands the dance floor in a way that delights and astonishes the other guests.
And Brom, who is a great horseman and a fearless fighter, is also known throughout the region for his cleverness in shrewdly achieving his own ends.
Ichabod is an ugly, eccentric "scarecrow" of a man, while Brom is "broad-shouldered and double-jointed," with a "Herculean frame and great powers of limb." Brom, unlike the ultimately solitary Ichabod, is a well-established alpha male with "three or four boon companions who regard him as their model," and who comprise his "gang." On the other hand, Ichabod, when not surrounded by his boy students, spends his time gossiping and sharing ghost stories around midnight fires with elderly Dutch women.
Ichabod and Brom both court the lovely Katrina Van Tassel in their own fashion, not only because she is a model of feminine beauty and charm, but because each covets her family's wealth and bountiful farmland.
It is no accident that the "dominant" specter of Sleepy Hollow, who is "commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air," is a headless horseman, while Ichabod is a respected teacher and storyteller, a "man of letters" and a "pedagogue." The fearsome, massively-built Headless Horseman, who may or may not be Brom in disguise, is all torso and limbs, while Ichabod is one of the few, if not the only, inhabitant of the hollow who earns his living by his intellect--by his head. Thus they make symbolically perfect, if unequal, opponents.
With his real or illusory ties to the supernatural, the headless horseman, who is believed to ride the wind and to appear and disappear in bursts of fire, is a malevolent force of nature. If of supernatural origin, then he does indeed command "the nightmare, with her whole ninefold," and all the other spirits of the air; but if merely human, then he still commands Brom's raw, "Herculean" power, and is physically far more than a match for Ichabod.
Clearly, Irving was making a statement of sorts. Brom's earthy cleverness and steely masculinity triumph in the end, while Ichabod's misapplied intelligence, more often than not, leads him towards, and not away from, superstition, anxiety, and hysteria-ridden imagining. Brom's quiet confidence in his prowess is genuine, but the talkative Ichabod's confidence is only a smug self-deception out of which his boastfulness and foolish behavior are born.
This edition is a happy marriage of two masters of their form, and contains the unabridged text.
Travelers may be particularly interested in the Rackham watercolor captioned "Reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones," which portrays Ichabod and three Dutch maidens standing in the Old Dutch Churchyard on an overcast afternoon. The illustration is remarkable, because, 75 years after it was completed, those visiting the churchyard today, which is now a national landmark, can stand in exactly the same spot and see how incredibly accurate the artist's representation of the burial ground was, and how little the beautiful site has changed, in mood and detail, over the years.
As Irving wrote, "Time, which changes all things, is slow in its operations on a Dutchman's dwelling." And thereabouts.