Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Specter Bridegroom”

The return of the blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” explores other Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic. 

Washington Irving’s “The Specter Bridegroom” predates “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by a few months (the former appeared in the fourth American installment of The Sketch Book on November 10th, 1819; the latter in the sixth installment on March 15, 1820) and prefigures it in many ways. For starters, both tales are framed as oral transmissions. The preceding section of The Sketch Book, “The Inn Kitchen,” sets up “The Specter Bridegroom” as a traveler’s tale conveyed by “a corpulent old Swiss” with “a pleasant, twinkling eye,” while the Postscript to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” identifies a “pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow” as the slyly humorous narrator. Both tales also feature similar setting-establishing opening sentences. “The Specter Bridegroom” begins: “On the summit of one of the heights of the Odenwald, a wild and romantic tract of Upper Germany that lies not far from the confluence of the Main and the Rhine, there stood, many, many years since, the Castle of the Baron Von Landshort.” Irving in turn opens “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with: “In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of
Tarry Town.”

The parallels between the two tales extend to characters and themes. Like Ichabod Crane, Baron Von Landshort sports a satiric surname; both figures also evince a love of–and strong belief in–spook stories. “Much given to the marvelous,” Landshort is a “firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds.” Both characters are marked by an excessive air of self-importance. Just as the rustic scholar and schoolhouse potentate Ichabod “prided himself upon his dancing as much upon his vocal powers,” the busybody Landshort was “the oracle of his table, the absolute monarch of his little territory, and happy, above all things, in the persuasion that he was the wisest man of the age.” Ichabod’s famously voracious appetite, though, is not shared by Landshort but is instead given to his importunate “poor relations,” who are mock-heroically devoted to “the indefatigable labors of the trencher.”

“The Specter Bridegroom” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are each centered on a celebration scene–a wedding feast and the Van Tassel “quilting frolic,” respectively. Landshort’s relations have gathered at the castle for the arranged marriage of the Baron’s daughter and Count Von Altenburg. But the nuptials are delayed by the failed appearance of the Count, whom readers learn has been waylaid and mortally wounded by robbers while en route to the event. The Count begs his traveling companion, Herman Von Starkenfaust, to bring news of his demise to the Landshorts: “Unless this is done,” he intones, “I shall not sleep quietly in my grave!” In his dying moment, the Count calls for his horse “so that he might ride to the castle of Landshort,” and “expire[s] in the fancied act of vaulting into the saddle.” So there is some crafted ambiguity when a pale cavalier of “most singular and unseasonable gravity” arrives at the castle–is this a revenant or the dead man’s messenger Herman? The figure, whom the Landshorts assume to be that of the living Count, sits solemnly through the subsequent dinner, which is followed (much like at the Van Tassel party in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) by the telling of “wild tales and supernatural legends.” Landshort regales his guests “with the history of the goblin horseman that carried away the fair Leonora, a dreadful story, which has since been put into verse [by Gottfried August Burger] and is read and believed by all the world.”

Upon completion of Landshort’s tale, the would-be bridegroom arises and makes a sudden exit from the castle, but not before solemnly identifying himself as “a dead man–I have been slain by robbers–my body lies at Wurzburg–at midnight I am to be buried–the grave is waiting for me–I must keep my appointment!” A few nights later, this Specter Bridegroom reappears in the castle’s garden to serenade the Baron’s daughter, who then leaves her family in a frightful uproar when she goes missing: “The goblin! The goblin! She’s been carried away by the goblin.” The apparent supernatural abduction parallels Ichabod’s ostensible spiriting away by the Headless Horseman, but in both stories the ominous incident is treated humorously. Because Ichabod “was a bachelor and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head [pun surely intended] any more about him.” Irving likewise wrings comedy from the “heartrending dilemma” of Baron Von Landshort: “His only daughter had either been rapt away to the grave, or he was to have some wood demon for a son-in-law, and, perchance, a troop of goblin grandchildren.” The sportive Gothic tale ultimately explains away the macabre mystery: the figure who showed up for the wedding dinner was indeed Herman Von Starkenfaust, who couldn’t get an explanatory word in edgewise when the voluble Baron mistook him for the never-before-seen bridegroom. Captivated by the prospective bride’s beauty, Herman allowed the deception to persist, and became “sorely perplexed in what way to make a decent retreat, until the baron’s goblin stories had suggested his eccentric exit.”

So, just as the opportunistic Brom Bones seizes upon the tales of the Headless Horseman told at the Van Tassel party and uses the legend to scare off rival suitor Ichabod, Herman works the spook stories spoken at the wedding feat to his personal advantage (successfully extricating himself from the awkward scene, then later returning to woo and elope with the Baron’s daughter, whom he fell in love with at first sight). Both tales end happily (emphasizing matrimony rather than grim mortality) as dreaded “goblin” riders are mostly demystified. Nevertheless, the reader in retrospect can appreciate that “the wild huntsman, famous in German legend,” isn’t just integral to “The Specter Bridegroom,” but also informs “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and its ghostly galloping Hessian.



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