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.


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

  1. I read somewhere recently – I honestly don’t remember where, it might even have been here — that the ‘jack o’lantern’ can be traced to an old Irish tale about ‘Stingy Jack,’ a thoroughly unpleasant man who managed to torque off both Heaven and Hell, so he had nowhere to go when he died. His ghost still wanders the earth, with only a lantern to light his way, and he’s as unpleasant a ghost as he was when alive. His lantern was originally a carved turnip, but over time it somehow became a pumpkin instead. Hence, “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack o’Lantern,” whose lantern is a hollowed-out, carved pumpkin with a lit candle inside.

    I have also heard the tale that Francis Drake’s drum was heard during WW2, and Drake’s power helped deter a Nazi invasion. But I read that in Katherine Kurtz’s occult-fantasy novel Lammas Night, so I’d take it with a grain of salt.

    I have to wonder where the “went underground/into Faerie and lost time” stories came from. I’m a firm believer in the idea that most folktales have a grain of truth in them, though it may be hidden deep and almost unrecognizable under all the make-believe. But where could the ‘lost time’ tales come from?

  2. The Headless Horseman was a Fake.

    Brom Bones pretended to be the Horseman to scare off Ichabod Crane.

    After all, If Brom Bones, a good horseman on the best horse in the valley, barely escaped the Headless Horseman, how could Crane, a poor horseman on a poor horse, manage to escape the Headless Horseman? 😈

    Oh, Crane survived and fled back to New York City. 😉

  3. Tales ‘merge’ and ‘diverge’ over centuries, much like the telephone game… And it IS interesting to try tracking them back to origin.

  4. I was rereading this post and something jumped out at me. How on earth do the Tales of Washington Irving connect with Transcendentalism?

    • I’m not sure. Both have elements of the Romantic era fascination with emotion and semi-deified Nature, and Irving overlaps with the Transcendental movement. I’ve never really dug into Irving’s philosophy to see how he might align. His early work seems to be satire, then you get the more Romantic and regionalist pieces, then serious non-fiction while he was an ambassador.

      • Well, since log x is a transcendental function, and both Transcendtalism and Washington Irving lived in a time of log structures being common, I think they’re connected via logs. (runs for cover)

  5. The dullahan has moved over to the Final Fantasy series, where they are rather high damage suits of armor with very small ‘heads’, if they have a ‘head’ at all.

  6. Makes me wonder if the original of the Headless Horseman didn’t come about because some sod on horseback managed to get his head cut off in a fight, but he happened to be sat just right in the saddle so he didn’t fall off and his horse went charging off through somebody’s lines and everybody got scared and ran away.

    But yeah, that legend seems to be all over everywhere, so I don’t know.

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