The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Themes and Colors
History and Storytelling Theme Icon
Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Theme Icon
War and Battle Theme Icon
Consumption, Appetite, and Greed Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
War and Battle Theme Icon

The plot of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is largely concerned with a battle—one for the heart of Katrina Van Tassel. Or rather, perhaps, a war, made up of various battles and conflicts between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones. This imagery is not an accident: Irving’s story takes place in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, around 1790. This language of war and battle would have made sense to a reader in a newly born nation fresh from the battlefield—a nation which was attempting to forge its own, internal hierarchies. The battle for Katrina takes place on various planes: Brom Bones plays practical jokes on Ichabod, for instance, while Ichabod’s attempts to win over Katrina are compared to the conquests of a knight errant going off into battle. Implicit in their competition is a tension between the physical and the intellectual spheres, between Brom’s brute strength and “manliness” and Ichabod’s role as a schoolteacher. Even within Ichabod’s sphere, there is a contrast between his magisterial reigning over the classroom and his need to ingratiate himself to the families that host and feed him.

Indeed, Irving is acutely aware of the ways in which social maneuvering is its own kind of battle, with the prizes being power and wealth rather than territory or political independence. In the early United States, though there were certainly social and economic hierarchies, there was also greater mobility and interaction between classes—both Brom Bones and Ichabod are invited to the same quilting frolic, and both are permitted to court Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy family. In the newly egalitarian society of the United Sates, paradoxically, battles such as that for the conquest of Katrina only become more dramatic, since greater heights now seem attainable and within the characters’ reach.

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War and Battle Quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Below you will find the important quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow related to the theme of War and Battle.
Main Story Quotes

He would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than to ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, the way Knickerbocker narrates the story of Ichabod's sojourn in Sleepy Hollow has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it. Ichabod may terrify himself with the tales (that he nevertheless adores) of "ghosts, goblins" and witches, and yet a woman—that is, Katrina Van Tassel—is shown to be even more powerful in her hold over him. This equivalence reminds us both of Ichabod's hyperbolic reaction to supernatural tales and of his difficulty of distinguishing between reality and the supernatural. Against both, Knickerbocker suggests that Ichabod's attitude will be one of attempting to fight what he understands as great force with his own kind of force. He will attempt to "conquer" Katrina just as he conquers his fears, as he tends to treat her as a material object to be won more than as another person. 


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Brom, who had a degree of rough chivalry in his nature, would fain have carried matters to open warfare and have settled their pretensions to the lady, according to the mode of those most concise and simple reasoners, the knights-errant of yore,—by single combat; but Ichabod was too conscious of the superior might of his adversary to enter the lists against him.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

Knickerbocker has introduced us to Ichabod's "adversary" in his fight to win the heart and the hand of Katrina: Brom Bones, another inhabitant of the region. Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane could not be more different—where the latter is fanciful, timid, and easily frightened, the former is rational, confident, and belligerent. Knickerbocker portrays Brom Bones as in some ways a relic from an earlier time, when conflicts would be resolved through man-to-man fights and brute strength was considered the greatest weapon in one's arsenal (even in the battle for a woman's heart). Here, Ichabod is shown to be shrewd, even if he cannot compete with Brom on that level: knowing that they are not well-matched, he prefers to wage battle on a more indirect front. Still, it is difficult to know whether or not Ichabod is underestimating Brom by only considering him as an adversary in brute force rather than also one in trickery and strategy.

The story was immediately matched by a thrice marvelous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Brom Bones , Headless Horseman
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

Many of the guests at the Van Tassel party are discussing the most famous superstition of the region, that of the Headless Horseman, who was killed in the Revolutionary War and now gallops around chasing anyone who crosses his path. They have just related the story of old Brouwer, who didn't believe in ghosts until he met the Horseman one night and was chased by him, ending up being hurled into a stream.

Brom Bones, as usual, seems entirely unaffected by the frightening tales swapped by the others. He takes the opportunity to remind everyone of his own prowess as a horseman and of his inability to be conquered even by a malicious ghost. Only by the Horseman vanishing at the last minute, Brom claims, did he fail to capture and unseat him. Brom thus makes clear to Ichabod, among others, that he is not someone to be trifled with. However, his "making light" of the situation also suggests that he has escaped at least some of the bewitching influence of the region. By making fun of the Headless Horseman rather than duly expressing awe and fear of the apparition, like the others, he shows himself to be firmly anchored in reality and factual accounts of history—in other words, seemingly not a "true" citizen of Sleepy Hollow.

He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” though Ichabod, “I am safe.”

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

After leaving the party, Ichabod is confronted by a towering figure on horseback. Soon, with dread, he realizes that it is a headless body on a horse carrying its head in its saddle. The horseman pursues Ichabod through the dark paths and towards the church. Ichabod remembers this church from the story told by Brom Bones: it was there that the horseman had disappeared, so it is there that he believes he will be safe.

Ichabod thus is shown once again to embrace the tales told by fellow Sleepy Hollow inhabitants as historical truth, even though he knows that Brom Bones is prone to bragging. Although he mistrusts Brom Bones as a competitor for Katrina Van Tassel, Ichabod is credulous enough to accept his story, especially since the tale has been echoed in other versions by so many other guests at the party. These tales have become Ichabod's own reality, and he acts for his own safety in line with this reality.

In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

The day following the Van Tassel party, Ichabod Crane cannot be found anywhere, and a search party fails to turn him up. Knickerbocker describes the evidence that they do find, much of which the reader can piece together as belonging to Ichabod's escapade the night before. It is apparent that Ichabod was there, since his hat must have flown off.

The shattered pumpkin, however, is noted in the narrative without any further explanation being attached to it. It is up to the reader to recall that the headless horseman had hurled his "head" at Ichabod, who fell to the ground, and to imagine what that "head" might be. Of course, the fact that Knickerbocker refrains from interpreting the scene means that we cannot know for sure. But significantly, the story does not draw to a close with Ichabod's immaturity and wild imagination being revealed as a fraud, while fact-based reality wins out. Instead, the story leaves us with a historical, material possibility coexisting with the supernatural explanation that Ichabod would have embraced.

Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s appearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Brom Bones , Katrina Van Tassel
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

Much of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been concerned with the competition between Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane to win the hand of Katrina Van Tassel. Here, Brom Bones is shown to have won that battle, as he marries her and gains access to her father's estate and wealth. Even without facing Ichabod in direct, face-to-face battle, Brom has managed to conquer him. At the same time, it is suggested that Brom is much wilier than others, including Ichabod, believed. Brom is unable to fully hide his satisfaction at Ichabod's abandonment of the village, insinuating through his laugh and knowing looks that his own plot was at work in driving his rival away. 

The narrative thus suggests that greater knowledge might be what can do away with supernatural beliefs. Brom is able to dismiss the fear of the marvelous because he knows what really happened that night with Ichabod (perhaps), while the other inhabitants of the village must resort to other beliefs.

Postscript Quotes

“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures—provided we will but take a joke as we find it:
That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.
Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high preferment in the state.”

Related Characters: Storyteller (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

In the postscript, the storyteller is asked to tell the "moral" of the legend of Sleepy Hollow, and this quotation is what he comes up with. On first glance, the passage seems nearly nonsensical. It employs terms like "therefore" and "ergo" that recall the language of philosophical argument, or at least of maxims stemming from the culture of the highly educated. But the relationship between cause and effect—between failing to marry a Dutch heiress and gaining an important state position, for example—is far from clear. 

Of course, the storyteller is alluding to Ichabod Crane's own luck, following the rumor that he did end up in an important position after the luckless mishaps of his youth in Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod, the storyteller suggests, actually won the battle against Brom at the end of the day, because he was able to break out of the sleepy village frozen in time. Still, we cannot take this "moral"—that every situation of life "has its advantages and pleasures"—entirely at face value, given the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone of the storyteller's words. Indeed, this tone suggests that any effort to assign a fixed meaning or a final cause to events is bound to be at least somewhat random. Rather than draw conclusions about Ichabod's trajectory and make a pronouncement on what it means for the listeners' own reality, the storyteller evades such an "educational" purpose and instead revels in the sheer delight of storytelling.