Beloved followers of Fairy Tale…
I know this fantastic column had a few months of silence, but believe me when I tell you it was for a good cause.
But somehow we are always here and in this period we are fond of “macabre” fairy tales
Therefore, for this special Fairy Tale event (which exceptionally falls on a Sunday instead of Nichy- YŌbi 日 曜 日 – Art in the day of the sun), I will tell you about a story – or perhaps more a legend – that is part of the Halloween folkloristic corpus.
And that with it we are going to celebrate it.
The work is titled The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, painted in 1858 by the American John Quidor, a skilled painter above all of subjects drawn from literary stories and contemporary events, inspired by the lessons of Hogart, Joseph Wright of Derby and Turner.
Among the literary stories that inspired him, there were also the short stories of the writer Washington Irving, known for having written the famous “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“, published in 1819.
In fact, the painting represents the highlight of the story with its true protagonist: The terrifying Headless Horseman.
The story of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” itself is very short and suggestive:
In a farming community in the north of New York in 1790, called “Sleepy Hollow”, lives the meek and gullible schoolmaster Ichabod Crane.
On Halloween night, he is invited to the richest man in the county party, where they begin to tell ghost stories. Among the stories, there is that of the Headless Horseman.
The specter is hunting for heads that can replace his own and in the night he goes on horseback in search of victims.
The only way to escape it is to get to the Sleepy Hollow, crossing the bridge; beyond that he has no more powers.
Irving contextualizes the figure within the suggestion of the night of Halloween, but the presence of the beheaded ghost has been present in many traditions since the Middle Ages, from Dutch to Irish.
In the Irish one, for example, it was a demonic goblin who held his head under his arm and had a whip made from a backbone.
The name was dulachán or the dark man, who shouldn’t be too far from the idea of our “Black Man”. Present every night, not just October 31st.
His transformation into a “knight” with a war past, is mainly due to the German and American tradition, in which he was a mercenary soldier, beheaded by a cannonball.
Even Brothers Grimm took inspiration from this legend, claiming to have seen it with their own eyes.
In the painting, Quidor captures the climax in which a terrified Ichabod Crane is running away from the Knight in the depths of the forest and the village begins to be outlined on the horizon.
The painter is fully based on Irving’s short story, rather than on the most archaic legends:
the pumpkin in the hand of the knight is a purely Halloween element, as well as (if you look closely) the detail of the cemetery before the houses; according to another creed, evil demonic spirits cannot enter cemeteries, consecrated land.
The idea that the Knight cannot cross the bridge – ergo, the water – has Christian correspondences, which sees water as something purifying and divine; something transitory that scares the ghost as it does not want to return to the other side in the realm of the dead.
The tale ends openly: the next morning, the villagers find the schoolmaster’s cap and a shattered pumpkin.
No one saw Crane anymore.
The real secret of this ghost is to try to understand what he wants: revenge, peace, liberation, terror…?
Unfortunately, we will never know. If you are in a wood on All Saints’ Eve, however, listen carefully to hear the sound of hooves…
Happy Halloween 2021 from The Blue Drop!
This post is also available in: Italian