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Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”: The Americanization of a German Fairy Tale

In Washington Irving’s well-known tale “Rip Van Winkle,” the lazy, good-natured Van Winkle follows a strange gentleman into the woods, is led to a group of sullen, bearded men playing nine-pins, takes several drinks of a delicious beverage from a flagon, and falls into a 20-year sleep. When he finally wakes up and makes his way back to his village, everything has changed. His town has grown, no one recognizes him, and the townsfolk gawk at his clothes and long beard. In addition, his house has fallen into decay, and his favorite haunt “the village inn” has been replaced by “The Union Hotel.” Most importantly, a new country has been born. Van Winkle is no longer a subject of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, but he is now an American citizen. He fell asleep in the colonies and wakes up in a new nation. Not only has his little town been energized with the new American spirit, but the character of the people has been changed as well: as Van Winkle observes, “[t]here was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility” of the former colonists. The new America is alive and thriving, and she has found her rhythm.

Published in 1819, Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” is the oldest published fairy tale in America and appears to be an American original; however, the tale has ancient roots that reach back to Europe. Irving based his story on an old German folk tale concerning a man who experiences a similar fate. The Grimm Brothers published a version of the tale called “Karl Katz,” and fellow German Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal published a version called “Peter Klaus the Goatherd.” Both of these versions are noticeably similar to Irving’s reinterpretation. For example, in all three accounts, the main character is lured into the woods by a stranger, encounters a group of gentlemen playing nine-pins, drinks a delicious beverage from a cup, and falls asleep for years. In each version, he is also ultimately recognized by his daughter who now has children of her own, and he lives happily ever after.

Irving’s Americanization of the story is obvious. Not only does he set the tale in the “Kaatskill” (Catskill) mountains of New York, he infuses Van Winkle’s reawakening with a true American feeling and vernacular—Van Winkle’s town is bustling and the people are active and straight-forward. Irving also turns American history into myth as he casts “Hendrick” Hudson—“The first discoverer of the river and country”—as the strange man who lures Van Winkle into the woods and Hudson’s crew from the ship Half-moon as the men who are playing nine-pins. In the company of these men, Van Winkle drinks from the flagon that produces his 20-year sleep. Rip Van Winkle (or Karl Katz or Peter Klaus) may have gone to sleep as a subject of a European monarch, but he awakens in Irving’s tale as a bonafide American. Irving’s reinterpretation of this European tale goes through this same, satisfying Americanization.

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