The Enduring Legend

I could be wrong but I somehow doubt that when Washington Irving took quill to parchment in 1820 he ever contemplated that his story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” would, almost two hundred years later, find life on the stages of high schools across the United States, particularly in late October. I thought about this last night as I watched Annalisa, my younger daughter, take the stage just these past Thursday and Friday nights at Westerville North High School in the female lead role of Katrina. The faculty director, an extremely talented woman named Kimberly Mollohan who has in her time graced several stages on Broadway (yes, the one in New York), wisely did not attempt to modernize the story in any way. As a result the primary characters, which have become archetypes in American literature and drama, shine through.

Ichabod Crane is the odd schoolteacher come to town, he of the strict discipline and the voracious appetite which belies his slender build. Crane, however, is outclassed by The Headless Horseman. Though he does not enter the proceedings until almost the very end,  The Horseman is owed a debt by every boogieman that you can think of, from Stephen King’s clown under the bridge in IT to the walkers on Walking Dead  to every villain Batman ever faced. Even last night, among the crowd of high school students and the parents of the actors, an involuntary scream (or two) was elicited from among those assembled.
How is it that “The Headless Horseman” has come to endure, after lo these many years?  I would say that it is because its themes are simple and universal. There is a love triangle involving Katrina (and even though it’s just a play, gentlemen, let’s not get too close to the lady, y’hear?); “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the affable but underachieving town layabout; and Crane, whose feelings toward Katrina are influenced more by his desire to get his hands on her considerable inheritance than by her beauty.  Thus love, lust, and greed create a conflict; throw in a hint of the supernatural and you’ve got a story that survives the centuries.

As I fell asleep last night, the play still fresh in my mind, I wondered: have the great stories all been told? Can you think of a story, a novel, a play published in the last, say, fifty years that has a chance of still being read (or whatever passes for reading) and well known in 2153? What say you? And Happy Halloween!

16 thoughts on “The Enduring Legend

  1. You bring up a good question Joe. I was actually thinking about this very subject recently. My sons are reading Rick Riordan’s Olympians series and that brought to mind the stories on which his are based. Those tales told by the likes of Homer and Hesiod, were they the only writers of their day? Were they even the best writers of their day? Or was it simply the fate of meeting the right promoter of their work, some ancient Greek version of a literary agent? What even greater ancient authors are we missing out on from way back then, simply because they didn’t get the continued promotion that could’ve pushed their work through the eons?

    What works of today will survive for a hundred and forty years? There are so many writers today whose work is spread far and wide and who may, by mere fact of market saturation survive, think Patterson and King. But who knows what will catch on years from now? I think the story must be one that transcends time and is fresh and relevant, if not in fact in the moral/emotional connection to readers. Look at those whose work is still living from fifty years ago, Lewis and Tolkein being among the chiefs whose tales are not only entertaining but deeply moral and character building. Whoever can take up that mantel today, will be the one whose name will ride the tides of history. To be honest, while there are many writers I truly enjoy reading, at this moment I cannot think of one who has had the Narnia / Middle Earth impact in my lifetime.

    • Basil, I would add Ray Bradbury to your short list, given that there’s now a third generation of Hartlaubs reading him. But your point I think,is well taken. John O’Hara, to name but one, was a huge seller in the 1950s, and so was James Michener, but their names are probably better known than the contents of their books at this point. Vonnegut maybe? Slaughterhouse Five? It’s hard to say.

  2. If the Harry Potter series is not being read in 200 years then something is wrong. Surely the plot was not new, but Ms Rowling did come up with a fresh way to convey the story.

    A bit OT but I want to say that I saw an episode of “Sleepy Hollow” on TV during my recent visit to the US and thought that Mr. Irving must be rolling in his grave. Or chuckling to himself.

    • Hope you enjoyed your visit, Michael! I’ve commented before about being on New Orleans on the eve of the dropping of a Harry Potter book and seeing parents and children lined up down North Peters Street to buy a copy at midnight. There is a timeless aspect to that series, one not unlike The Wizard of Oz. The fantasy aspect of it makes it a bit (among other things) makes it a bit more likely (I think) to withstand the passage of time.

  3. Hopefully, some of our own stories will receive new legs when Hollywood discovers them–think Phillip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, or even Agatha Christie. Following that line of thought, I wonder how many people saw the Harry Potter movies and never read the books? Anyone have the stats? I have many friends who were close to the books only when they purchased them for their kids. People are reading less. By 2153, everyone might be in a vegetative state enjoying their soma.

    • Good question, re: the Potter movies vs. books, Steven. As for Hollywood, it can go either way. If people are still reading the Jack Reacher novels 100 years from now, I can almost guarantee that it won’t be because they saw the movie 🙁 ). I hope you’re wrong about the state of things in 2153 but I fear you may well be right.

  4. I’m glad that JK Rowling came up. Every time I think about her personal story and writing success, it just blows me away. Just consider the circumstances under which she sat at her table and wrote this stuff. [Just to be clear, I’m not a Potter fan.] The story hit a nerve and resonated with nearly everyone on the planet, it would seem. Then the movie people jumped on it. Then all the other marketing people jumped on it with hats, shirts, cups and whatever. Just from her head, under dire circumstances, all this sprung forth. It’s astounding. Even major movie stars have credited this story and their acting in it with ensuring their retirement. Wow! What an impact for a person to achieve with a story about flying brooms.

    • And you know what, Jim? You bring up what is a lesson for all of us who write and type and ignore that little voice from within and without that whispers “No one is gonna wanna read THAT.” Flying brooms, indeed!

    • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) would be considered modern era, I think? Definitely it will continue being read. Horror-wise, I think Stephen King’s The Shining may endure. Jaws, perhaps, for making generations fear the water. I can see Bruce the Shark surviving as a kind of marine version of The Headless Horseman in 140 years, if the oceans and marine life are still alive then.

  5. I read the Will Moses version of Sleepy Hollow to my 5th grade class every year and then we watch the vintage Disney version. I don’t know if the kids are more frightened by the headless horseman or the fact a teacher lived in his students’ homes. I have to cast my longevity vote to Harry Potter.

    • There was an episode of Leave It to Beaver, Leslie, where the Cleavers had Beaver’s teacher over for dinner. Terror ensued.

      The Headless Horseman survives as an archetype. There is a legend in a Toledo, OH suburb about a road haunted by a headless motorcyclist. If you park on the road late at night, and blink your headlights, he’ll suddenly drive up behind you and pass through your car. Some things never die. Harry might well be permanently ensconced in the literary lexicon.

  6. My big brother scared the living heck out of me when I was about 6 by telling me the headless horseman story by candlelight, then later coming at me with his jacket zipped up over his head. Now THAT’s the power of story.

    • James, I had totally forgotten this until you mentioned it — but at my grade school we used to have “battles” where we zipped our jackets over our heads and had at it. I kid named Johnny S. was really good at it. He’s now an attorney. I doubt that it’s a coincidence.

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