Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle' originally appeared in 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.' (1819) alongside another evocative piece of Americana, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' a wondrous story equally set in Irving's beloved Hudson River Valley.
Though not as multilayered as its longer and slightly more well known fellow, 'Rip Van Winkle' also has long roots in Old World folklore, which is appropriate, since 'The Sketch Book' was the first book by an American writer to be taken seriously by the European audiences that then set the standard in the West.
Like the earlier 'A Knickerbocker's History of New York' (1809), 'Rip Van Winkle' is playfully attributed to Dutch antiquarian "Diedrich Knickerbocker," the most famous and certainly the most charming of several personae Irving adopted as an author.
Written in simple but gorgeously visionary language, 'Rip Van Winkle' is the story of the lazy but warm spirited farmer, who, in an effort to escape the "petticoat despotism" of his "termagant" wife, flees for an afternoon's hunting in the lonely, autumnal Catskill Mountains.
Accompanied only by Wolf, his faithful but equally harassed dog, Rip is surprised when he notices an odd figure approaching through the wilderness and calling out his name.
The "short, square built old fellow with thick bushy hair and a grizzled beard" is carrying a "stout keg," and gestures to Van Winkle to assist him with his burden.
Taking up the "flagon," Rip hesitantly follows the little man into an isolated ravine, and thus steps unknowingly into fairyland; there he finds himself confronted by a solemn and outlandishly dressed party of dwarfs playing at ninepins.
Bewildered, Rip pours out the beverage for the assemblage, but can't resist taking a drink himself.
Awaking on the mountainside, Van Winkle, finding Wolf gone and a badly rusted gun at his side, returns to town, where he discovers his home in ruins, his wife dead, his children grown to adulthood, the land of his birth now an independent nation freed from the yoke of the British, and himself a stranger to the villagers, who stare at his tattered clothing and exceptionally long facial hair.
After making bewildered inquiries, he comes to accept that twenty years have passed.
As a humble, good hearted, and mild tempered dreamer, Rip is an archetypal fairytale hero, though the only dragon slain is Dame Van Winkle, and she accidentally, by the passage of time itself.
Like kindred spirit Ichabod Crane, Rip is not an absolute novice when it comes to the fantastic, for he has enjoyed telling the village children who love him "long stories about ghosts, witches, and Indians."
As in traditional Celtic fairy lore, in which eating or drinking while visiting fairyland is often punished with permanent residency there, Rip had made the honest mistake of partaking of fairy foodstuffs, and thus pays an unintended price for doing so.
For Celtic fairy lore also featured multiple variations on the theme of fairy time; one minute of perceived human time might be seven years of fairy time, and a man spending a happy week dancing in fairyland might discover that one hundred years or more has past on earth upon his return.
Whether dwarfs, elves, boggarts, or fairies, Irving's little people are first cousins to many of the mythological beings of European mythology.
Interestingly, like the literally "solitary" fairies of Ireland and Scotland, who were brusque of manner at best and never seen in groups (as were the far more gregarious "trooping" fairies), the little men Rip holds audience with "maintain the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence," and thus represent "the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed."
But Irving, who deftly places his story in the historical setting of pre-Revolutionary America, also shrewdly offers his audience other interpretations for Van Winkle's strange mountain encounter.
Though narrator Diedrich Knickerbocker acknowledges early that the Catskills are "fairy mountains," one character, sage Peter Vanderdonk, explains that it was the dead "Hendrick Hudson" himself, who returns with his crew every twenty years "to keep a guardian eye on the river," whom Rip encountered, while the postscript indeterminably discusses a variety of Indian spirits, including the Manitou, who haunt the region.
One fact entirely overlooked by scholars everywhere is that American literature was born in the daimonic, a tradition begun by Irving but enthusiastically continued by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.
Like most of Irving's work, at present 'Rip Van Winkle' is a grossly underappreciated piece of pure Americana; certainly American literature could have gotten off to a much worst beginning than it did than with its gallant, optimistic, and uncynical founder. For Rip, despite the precariousness of his experience, learns to accept his fate and settles into a comfortable old age as a venerated member of his community.
Not that very long ago, there was a time in America when, taking a direct cue from the story itself, some of America's young schoolchildren were fancifully taught that thunder was not the result of lightning, but merely the echo of the elves' occasional game of mountain bowling.
This definitive edition, first published in 1905, features over fifty genuinely "mesmerizing" though somber watercolor illustrations by British master Arthur Rackham, which perfectly suit Irving's text and will captivate both adults and children alike.