June 23, 2021

Rip Van Winkle

         In 1818, a bankrupt Washington Irving, staying with his brother-in-law in England, wrote the short story “Rip Van Winkle” in the hopes of making some cash.  (It worked.)  In the story, Rip Van Winkle is a man who hates both working and listening to his wife nag him for not working.  To escape both, he wanders into the Catskill Mountains near his village, where he meets a mysterious man in old-fashioned Dutch clothes.  He helps this man carry a keg up the mountain until they reach a whole party of men in similar antiquated style, all drinking and playing nine-pins in a sort of natural amphitheater.  Van Winkle sneaks a few drinks himself, and falls asleep.  When he wakes up with a long beard and makes his way back down the mountain, he discovers that everything has changed.  The King George Inn is now the George Washington Inn, his wife and most of his friends have died (many fighting in the American Revolution), and his children are now grown up.  He realizes that he’s been asleep for at least twenty years, and lives happily ever after being taken care of by his daughter.
        I am thinking of this little fantasy tale now, because I’ve been seeing Rip Van Winkle referenced as we begin to “wake up” after the strange hiatus in “normal” life that has been covid.  Admittedly, for most people this past year and a half has been crazier and more stressful than normal, not at all like a peaceful sleep, but it has still seemed strangely outside of time for many of us.
        “Rip Van Winkle” is one of those literary classics that few people have actually read, but which is nevertheless very widely known, at least in its basic gist.  That basic gist is not unique to Washington Irving’s story, of course.  The motif of a person falling asleep and waking to find that lots of time has passed appears in tales from ancient Greece to modern sci fi, from India to Ireland to Islamic tradition.  Although Irving identifies his mysterious mountain men as the ghosts of the crew of the Dutch ship Halve Maen, which explored up the Hudson River (named for Henry Hudson, the captain of the ship) in 1609, these beings play the same role that fairies, trolls, and little folk play in many other traditional stories.  (Besides, it’s not like the crew of the Halve Maen died on that journey, so I don’t know why they’d be haunting the 
Catskills anyway!)  Everyone knows that time passes differently in the fairy realms, and that to eat or drink with the fairies does strange things, and this story certainly fits that pattern.
        The most iconic image of Rip Van Winkle is with the long white beard, asleep or just waking, and this image is used in many a cartoon as well as straight illustrations of Irving’s story.  I have for you today several versions of this scene by various artists, including Arthur Rackham.  The depictions of the ghosts/faeries/dwarves can also be a lot of fun, though.  One of the unique aspects of Irving’s description of them is that even though they are drinking and playing nine-pins and should be having a grand old time, they are all completely solemn and stony-faced (much to Van Winkle’s discomfiture).  This, at least, is a different twist on most of the traditional tales of partying with the little folk!  Most artists show the mysterious men looking small and dwarfish, although there is no textual evidence that they are markedly shorter than a normal human, and if in fact if they’re human ghosts I’d expect them to be more normal-sized.  Still, it’s a lot more fun to see them (and no doubt more fun to draw them) if they’re more exaggeratedly odd-looking.

[Pictures: Rip Van Winkle sleeping and waking, two illustrations by Arthur Rackham, 1905;

“Wanting in his usual activity” illustration by Frank T. Merrill, 1887 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

“They stared at him with such fixed, statue-like gaze, that his heart turned within him…”, two illustrations by Rackham, 1905 (Images from Project Gutenberg);

Rip Van Winkle play poster by Winnie Fitch, 1960’s (Image from Today’s Inspiration).]


Pax said...

Fun to compare the Year of Covid with Rip van Winkle. I think of it as the Year that Wasn't. The fact that the "year" was a full 15 or 16 months adds to its unreality. Thanks for these interesting prints.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yeah, strange times to be sure.