Book of the Week

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Title: Rip Van Winkle and other stories
Author: Washington Irving

First published in 1819, Rip Van Winkle is a story about a man who fell asleep for many years and woke up to find the world had changed. The other stories in this collection, like the title story, are characterised by a tongue-in-cheek humour and a touch of the macabre. They are all stories of migrants from different cultures to a land that gave them a new home.

Rip Van Winkle is a story of a man who helped everyone except himself. To avoid his wife’s haranguing, he escaped to the Catskill mountains (New York), fell asleep under the effect of some moonshine made by Dutch faerie folk playing ninepins (bowling)and woke up after a couple of decades to find a changed world, where his wife had died, his son had replaced him as the village lounger and the American war of independence had been fought. He finds shelter in his married daughter’s home.

The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow is the story of Ichabod Crane, the tall, lanky crane-like village school master, with a strong belief in the supernatural. He disappears in the Sleepy Hollow while returning home from a party where his proposal had been rejected by his sweetheart. The New England village folk believed that he has been killed by the headless horseman who is supposed to haunt that area. The horseman, who carried his own head under his arm , threw it at the school teacher. The next day they find a broken pumpkin where Crane had disappeared with all his effects. In the epilogue, the author says Crane’s rival married his sweetheart and could not help smiling everytime anyone spoke of Crane. A suggestion has also been made that Crane left the village and became a lawyer!

The Spectre Bridegroom is set in Germany where a bridegroom is killed on the way to his wedding. His friend, who tries to tell the bride’s party of his friend’s death, is mistaken for a ghost of his friend! It is a comedy of errors and the friend carries away the bride at the end.

The Pride of the Village is story set in a small English village, the story of a girl disappointed in love. Like in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, the affair starts with the girl being the may queen. She does not suffer as much as Tess. When she is dying is the arms of her parents, her loved one comes back to her.

The last story, Mountjoy, seems to be a comment on private education where learning is unmonitored and sometimes aimless. This is again set in New England and talks of a family that lived in France. Though three of the five stories are set in America, by the banks of the Hudson river, the current day New York, they capture the hope of the multi-cultural migrant community that created a new world in America.

I found the first three stories very gripping. It reminded me of some of Roald Dahl’s stories in a collection called Kiss Kiss, only the horror is less horrific. The stories have a macabre humour and a tongue in cheek suggestion in the epilogue to rationalise the legends.

Irving’s description of the characters are sketched with few words and incidents which leave a strong imprint in ones mind. His characterisation of Crane with his lanky appearance, green eyes, belief in ghosts and spirits and fondness of food and women’s company is very realistic as are his other characters. You can almost hear his thin voice and laugh at his housewifish outlook. He wants to propose to a girl not only over her own worth but on the worth of her father who has a prosperous farm and a good spread at the table.

The flavour of the times are well captured by Irving. When Rip returns to his village, he is still a loyal subject of the King of England but the people he encounters have lived through the American revolution! Rip changes his world view to suit the needs of the times as he had never had strong political affiliations and lives out his life as a well-loved legendary figure.

Irving has woven Red Indian lore into his stories too to add authenticity to his legends. Catskill mountain. Historically, Catskill mountain was named after either Dutch or Mohican traditions or persons. It is not very clear. Irving has played with these legends to create a misty aura around the story. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle in a park in New York. Irving did create a legend!

These are stories about common people anywhere in the world. You can see multicultural values built into these legends. They absorbed traditions of cross-continental cultures and created a new myth from them. That many Americans, unless they were native Indians, emigrated with their own cultures to find acceptance in the wilds of America is borne out by the multi-cultural flavour of the legends created by Irving.

I enjoyed these stories very much and would say they make an excellent weekend read with their one world outlook. After all, they have created new legends.

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