One-Minute Book Reviews

November 2, 2013

Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:23 pm
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Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?

A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.

An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”

– Janice Harayda

2 Comments »

  1. This is an example of “didn’t do the research.” While it’s a fun interpretation it’s wrong. The motif of a headless horseman has been around since the middle ages especially in Celtic and Germanic lore. The myth of Dullahan is very prominent in Ireland and England. Washington Irving would have been very familiar with it.

    The face and head is also the source of identity and life, which enhances the mystery of who the headless horseman actually is, mortal man or ghost.

    Comment by shuart24 — November 2, 2013 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

    • Amanda Foreman makes the point in her Wall Street Journal article that the headless horseman motif has been around for ages. But it seems to me that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” lends itself to multiple interpretations. One credible reading of the story doesn’t necessarily rule out others.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 3, 2013 @ 3:55 pm | Reply


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