Folk Tales and Long Tails: When Legends Linger

” . . . and have them watch these two videos from the Tales of Washington Irving. They tie in with Transcendentalism.” Eh, actually I think Mrs P. was trying to show the students just how lucky they are to have escaped the Age of Bad Animation. The Disney musical version of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow was state-of-the-art CG compared to these. The Rankin and Bass Lord of the Rings was ground-breaking art compared to these. Yes, they were that bad. But the stories still work, and provided me with a little mental meandering fodder. Far more than the rest of the The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Esq., “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” tap much older folk-tale traditions. If you read the original, Irving mentions that people thought that thunder without obvious storm clouds might be the ghosts of Henrik Hudson, the Dutch explorer, and his crew playing bowls (nine-pins) up in the Catskill Mountains. But the tales of malign ghosts and sleepers go a very long way back in the past.

Almost the same time I first heard the story of Rip Van Winkle, one version of it, I also read about how Charlemagne, and King Arthur, and Friedrich Barbarossa, and perhaps Francis Drake, are not dead, but only sleeping and waiting for the call that they are needed once more to defend their lands. There are stories that about the time of the Battle of Britain, a deep booming rolling sound was heard that was neither thunder nor artillery, a sound like a drum beating. And the RAF fought the Luftwaffe to the point that Hitler and his generals opted to try Plan B rather than invade England.

Older than those are the tales of the Seven Sleepers. They are found in a couple of places, including the Koran and early Christian legendary writing, and (IIRC) the Arabian Nights. The general story is that seven faithful believers fled a time of persecution and hid in a cave. Their god concealed the cave until the danger had passed, and they awoke a year, ten, twenty, years later, without aging or suffering harm. How much farther back than 100 AD/CE they go I’m not certain, but they fall neatly into a story family about people who venture into a different realm, often underground, and pass what seems like an hour or a night there, only to emerge and discover that a year or a decade or longer have passed. The difference in time between the world of mortals and the Underhill of the Sidhe, the Fair Folk of Ireland and Wales, is a common theme. Those who visit are cautioned not to eat or drink, or they will fall under the Elves’ spell, a taboo Rip Van Winkle violates with interesting results.

Evil ghosts looking for revenge, or blindly attacking anyone who crosses into their territory are rather common. So are headless riders, including the Irish Dullahan and German versions. The flaming pumpkin of the Disney edition does not appear in Irish and European takes, though flaming eyes and fireballs racing along the ground are possible, and the head the Dullahan carries glows with fox-fire, the green-white phosphorescence that warns of supernatural forces and powers. Irish and Low Countries tales of the headless horseman appear in some monastic chronicles and compilations, possibly as far back as the 6th century (although there’s some question). Some scholars link the headless horseman, or a Black Rider to worship of the Irish Celtic Crom Dubh. Since head collecting was a common part of Celtic (La Tene and Gaulish) warfare, and sacred heads appear in Irish and European Celtic archaeological sites, the connection is plausible, although perhaps not as direct as some would like. While Irving’s ghost can’t cross running water (another very common trope), the Irish Dullahan can cross water, undo locks, and only gold will stop him. The presence of even a tiny bit of pure gold drives him away.

‘Tis interesting, to take a tale and follow it back to the Old Country and beyond. I must admit, Disney’s flaming pumpkin is very cool, although the dullahan sounds far more terrifying. When the dullahan speaks your name, you die.

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2 thoughts on “Folk Tales and Long Tails: When Legends Linger

  1. Well, one aspect of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that the old Disney film got right is that the “Headless Horseman” was a fake and Crane survived. [Wink]

    • True. In the version the class watched, they find the remains of a pumpkin and Crane’s hat, but no trace of a body.

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