The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is perhaps the most well known and popular of classics written by Washington Irving. The story’s enduring popularity no doubt has much to do with the tale’s terrifying villain, the Headless Horseman, whose status as an undead Hessian soldier gallivanting about the countryside sans his head has made it a classic Halloween tale for all ages. There are many editions of the story available, from the plain ol’ text edition found on Gutenberg’s web site as a free read to illustrated ones sold by your favorite online retailer. This review pertains to the Audible audiobook edition narrated by Tom Mison, who ironically played the main character, Ichabod Crane, in the Fox television series, Sleepy Hollow.
Written in 1820 while Washington was living abroad in Birmingham, England, the story takes place outside Tarrytown, New York, in a glen known as Sleepy Hollow. Our hero, Ichabod Crane, an unassuming school teacher, is introduced to the reader as a “worthy wight” and further described as such:
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.
Crane is not that different from you or I. He is a contribution member of his community, acting as schoolmaster and music instructor; has dreams of success, which are perhaps exacerbated when he meets Katrina Van Tassel and wonders over the life they might have together (or, rather, the lands and other assets he will inherit as a result of such a union); and he possesses a healthy interest in the fantastic:
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.
Much of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow revolves around Crane’s pursuit of Katrina and the many obstacles standing in the way of his taking her hand in marriage. The entire audiobook runs about 1 1/2 hours; it isn’t until the last 22 minutes or so that the reader receives the full measure of Sleepy Hollow:
There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed orth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andre was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.
It should come as no surprise that Ichabod Crane finds himself alone at night traversing the same area the Headless Horseman frequents. A chase ensues, and while we know the Headless Horseman proves too much for our gangly hero, Ichabod’s exact fate remains a mystery. All we know for sure is that he is never heard from nor seen again, though those passing his now deserted schoolhouse sometimes claim they can hear “his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.”
Enough cannot be said for the narration of Tom Mison, whose voice with its captivating eloquence and English accent is a treat for the ears. His having played the role of Ichabod Crane in the Sleepy Hollow television series aside, he is the perfect narrator for this story, as he captures the time period and the story’s classic language superbly. As for the author himself, Washington demonstrates a mastery of the written word that somehow retains a high level of eloquence while remaining very readable despite the year the story was written.
If I were to have any complaint about this classic story is that it takes far too long to get to the real attraction: the Headless Horseman. That aside, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a classic read made even more so during the spookiness of Halloween. I give it four rockets and a recommendation for you to give it a read or a listen.