Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving, 1819
The magic trick:
Connecting the folk tale plot to a comment specific to American history
We begin another October of scary stories. Our sixth year!
We’ll start with a classic. I’m not sure it’s really a classic of macabre fiction. I never thought of “Rip Van Winkle” as legendary ghost tale, but then again I’d never actually read it. I only knew the character from pop culture reputation. This is a really eerie story. The essential section that finds Rip wondering off into the woods is vividly drawn. And then the equally essential section that finds Rip waking up into a confounding new reality is just plain creepy.
The real surprise for me in finally reading the story was the interesting connection to American history. (The other surprise was the straight-up mean-spirited women hating, but I digress…) Rip wakes up and finds that his country has declared independence from England during his nap. More than a mere folk tale, “Rip Van Winkle” actually has a lot to say about the speed of history. One minute you’re a colonist, the next you’re an American. Eighteen years can pass you in one night. I know I feel that way sometimes. And that’s quite a trick on Irving’s part.
On waking, he found himself on the green knoll whence he had first seen the old man of the glen. He rubbed his eyes—it was a bright sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was wheeling aloft, and breasting the pure mountain breeze. “Surely,” thought Rip, “I have not slept here all night.” He recalled the occurrences before he fell asleep. The strange man with the keg of liquor—the mountain ravine—the wild retreat among the rocks—the woe–begone party at ninepins—the flagon—”Oh! that flagon! that wicked flagon!” thought Rip—”what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?”
He looked round for his gun, but in place of the clean well–oiled fowling–piece, he found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel encrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm–eaten. He now suspected that the grave roysterers of the mountains had put a trick upon him, and, having dosed him with liquor, had robbed him of his gun. Wolf, too, had disappeared, but he might have strayed away after a squirrel or partridge. He whistled after him and shouted his name, but all in vain; the echoes repeated his whistle and shout, but no dog was to be seen.
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