Shakespeare once said that ghosts were amiable, harmless in want of company to console their haunting loneliness, lost in the crossroads between this world and that world. But that is not the case of the headless ghosts – the angriest and most terrifying of all other specter ilks, evoking the most primitive sense of fear to the eyes of beholders by the sheer eeriness of the appearance. Because they despaired and died in oft violent ways, the headless ghosts are putatively the most furious and vengeful with the domes of their souls forever lost. No wonder there are legends of headless knight riders prevalently existent in the universal world.
Meet the famed headless nightrider of the Sleepy Hollow in New York. Originally hailed from a province of old Germany, he used to be a soldier fighting on the British side during the Revolutionary War who was decapacitated by an American cannonball. His battle buddies buried him without the missing shattered head. The residents of Sleepy Hollow believed that the soul of the unfortunate young German soldier risen from his grave by his supernatural ire burning with vengeance against the earthlings that killed him was restlessly riding his phantom horse at night furiously brandishing a Jack-o’-Lantern in a semblance of face made out of a displaced pumpkin as his a makeshift head, glowing in a flame of fury as to light his nightly way.
The indelible image of the restive headless horseman is terrifically and vividly resurrected by the literary alchemy of the great American writer Washington Irving in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which the unlikely protagonist of a meek, naive, willowy school teacher of New England by the name of Ichabod Crane stumbles into his frightful encounter with the Horseman on his fateful night during his doomed journey home. Woe betided the unfortunate benevolent schoolteacher believed to be spirited away with the headless horseman to the legion of wandering spirits in between the world of the living and that of the dead till the eternity.
Apart from the spectral elements of the story, Irving’s characters in the story convey the displaced post-colonial sentiments of unease for the present and uncertainty for the future in the chaotic aftermath of the war that was supposed to beget promptly promising bright outcomes to the post-colonials. The nervous semi-detachment from the old world’s cultural and political authority and the unsettled practical value of the war due to all kinds of border chicanery in the still socially volatile post-war valence of setting intersperse the story in the fumbling figure of naïve Ichabod haunted by the furious ghost of a fallen soldier from the war. The legend of Sleepy Hollow is Irving’s superb storytelling of the birth of a new culture begotten from its old motherland at its infant stage of building a national character afresh with its own cultural capital, such as folklore endemic to the new land of hope that Irving so cherished.
The good teacher Ichabod Crane
Flees from the Headless Horseman
With all his gentle might in vain
For the ghost rider outruns the man.
Now the riders roam in the shadow
Looking for recruits in Sleepy Hollow.
P.S. This short essay on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is my contribution to a weekly Twitter event whose theme for this week is ‘The Headless Horsemen”, which seems to prevalently existent throughout the cultures of our global village. What uncanny synchronicity is to come upon this subject matter since I am currently reading Irving’s eponymous book that also contains many other stories from his wonderful ‘Sketch Book’.