Friday, December 30, 2011

Rip Van Winkle

This is one of the two stories Washington Irving is best known for. The other being “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” This one, however, is more often considered a “fairy tale” than the other, and I included it here partly because it’s a good story, but mostly because it was the only story from the TV series “Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre” which I haven’t done yet, and that was bothering me.

Many of the stories I have related here have come from far away places and far distant times. This story, however, is not really all that old and took place right here in the USA. Not that it was called the USA back then. It was just another part of the Great British Empire. And the people of the village at the foot of the Catskill Mountains near the Hudson River in New York were all just servants of the king.

Well, maybe not all.

It would be hard to describe Rip Van Winkle as a “servant” to anybody, because “servant” implies work and the only thing harder to do than describe Rip Van Winkle as a servant would be to catch him in the act of doing work.

Okay, I could’ve said that better. The point is he’s lazy.

Don’t get me wrong, Rip was a perfectly nice guy, descended from a noble family. He had many friends, was good-natured and well-liked within the community. He was always good to his wife. Kids loved him. His dog, Wolf, was the closest friend any man could hope for. He just had that one significant character flaw: a chronic aversion to manual labor in any form. In other words, he hated to work. Ever. For any reason.

If you needed to find Rip Van Winkle (which wasn’t terribly likely in and of itself), you could usually find him at the King George Inn having a drink, telling stories or just sleeping in one of the comfy chairs. You also might find him fishing in the Hudson where he would happily sit for hours without even the hint of a nibble (had he put in the extra effort to bait his hook, that might not have been the case). Any other time, you’d find him at home being shouted at by his wife for not doing any work, for wasting time at the inn, for that horrible mutt of his and when are you going to fix the roof like you said and look at me when I’m talking to you and…In fact, that’s probably the reason he was so happy when he was fishing for hours without even the hint of a nibble.

“I swear, Rip,” said Dame Van Winkle on more than one occasion. “You’ll sleep your whole life away at this rate.”

“Well, if life is nothing but work, I’d just as soon sleep through it,” was his usual response in these cases.

In short, with very few exceptions, Rip Van Winkle led a simple, easy, happy life, however unprofitable.

Then came that fateful day when Rip took his gun and his dog into the woods for a hunt. His wife insisted that he stay and help with the housework, but Rip felt strongly that today was the day for a hunt. He loaded his gun, packed his extra shots and powder, kissed his son and daughter goodbye and he and Wolf set off for the Catskills. It was a beautiful day for a trip to the mountains and Rip passed the day happily enjoying the scenery, talking to Wolf, not even making an attempt to appear like he was hunting and not just wasting time in the woods. He spent most of the day out there, and into the evening as the sun began to set.

Rip was about to head for home when he heard a strange sound. A kind of booming, crashing, echoing sound. Wolf tugged on Rip’s coat, whimpering to go home, but Rip was curious about the sound so he followed it deeper into the mountains. The skies got darker and darker as Rip wandered further and further from home. Soon he came to a large cavern in the hills where the sound was coming from. He entered a torch lit space and what he saw made his jaw drop.

Dwarfs. Many, many dwarfs. Little men with long beards and ragged clothes who were clearly having…a bowling party. They had set up a nine-pin bowling course and were taking turns knocking down the pins. Between turns, they drank ale from big wooden casks. Rip had never seen anything like this in his life. When the dwarfs saw him, he was frightened for a moment. As though he feared they would attack him like hairy little piranhas…instead they gave a hearty cheer and invited him to join their game.

Dwarfs are known for their hospitality, ya know. Plus they’re short.

Rip Van Winkle was always up for a game so he dropped his pack and set his gun against the wall. While a few dwarfs played with Wolf, Rip took his turn and bowled better than anyone else. And he drank better than anyone else. He drank and drank and drank. It was the sweetest ale he had ever tasted, like nectar. The party raged on all night and, eventually, even Wolf stopped worrying and joined in the fun. He even had a few bowls of ale himself. Rip and the dwarfs got a good laugh at the slightly drunk dog walking sideways into the pins and scoring nine points before falling down…

And that’s the last thing Rip remembered before he woke up.

Rip Van Winkle woke to the sound of birds singing and the feel of the sun on his face. He blinked his eyes a few times until he could see clearly. But even after this, he wasn’t sure he was seeing clearly. He distinctly remembered that he came to the mountains on a crisp, autumn morning. Now there were blossoms on the trees as though it were spring. Instinctively, Rip stroked his chin as he thought about this, which led him to his second shock of the last two minutes: A beard. Quite a long one, in fact. Now, when a man falls asleep, he can usually expect to wake up with a little bit more fuzz than he had before bed, but not a beard that hung all the way down to his feet! His hands, too, seemed wrinkled and gnarled, as though they belonged to a man much older than he. He looked around for Wolf, but he was nowhere to be found.

He saw that he was lying under a tree that was growing just at the entrance to the cavern where he and the dwarfs had bowled the night before. In his mind, Rip imagined that the tree had been much, much smaller. Surely it hadn’t grown this tall overnight? He ran inside the cavern crying out “Wolf! Here boy!” but no one answered. There were no dwarfs, no pins, no ale. Not only that, but in the exact spot where he had left his brand-new, well oiled rifle, he found an old, rusty relic, though it was clearly the same make and model of his own. It even had his initials, RVW, carved into the handle.

“This is definitely my gun,” said Rip, noticing at last that his voice was somewhat raspier. “But how did it get so rusty so quickly? And where is my dog?” He searched around the cavern and retraced his whole route along the mountains until he was almost back to his home village. He hadn’t seen any trace of Wolf, but reasoned that he must’ve gone home in the night by himself.

He was more concerned with the town when he saw it. Everything had changed. He met a number of people he didn’t recognize who were wearing bizarre clothing. Rip thought he knew everyone in town, so this struck him as odd, even without the strange clothes. The strangers stared at Rip with the same confusion, though this might have been his beard just as much as his costume. When he reached the town proper, everything was a different color, the buildings all looked rebuilt, and the streets were full to bursting of people he’d never seen before.

Then he made his way home, expecting to be chewed out by his wife for being gone all night...but his house was falling apart. It was an old ruin. And to make matters worse, the only one in residence was a mangy, half-starved dog who looked like it might have been Wolf’s ancestor. “Wolf? Boy, is that you?” asked Rip, and he put out a hand to stroke him. But the dog barked and snapped at the hand, which Rip was only just able to pull away before he was bitten. “Don’t you remember me, boy? It’s Rip! Your old friend! We went to the mountains and played bowls with the dwarfs. Don’t you know me?”  The dog snarled and ran away when Rip made another move to pet him. Rip went all through the house calling out for wife and children, but to no avail. They were nowhere to be found.

Confused, bewildered, and beginning to feel fatigued, Rip Van Winkle decided to get some answers. He went at once to his old tavern, where he expected to find his usual friends chatting away about anything and everything. But not only were none of the people there ones he recognized, but the sign above the door had been changed from “King George Inn” to the “George Washington.” Who the heck is George Washington? asked Rip to himself. An overweight man was standing outside handing out fliers with words printed on them that Rip didn’t recognize: “Bunker Hill,” “Heroes of 76,” “Continental Congress.”

This man noticed Rip and approached him, asking, “I beg your pardon, sir, but which side will you be voting?”

“Voting?” asked a bewildered Rip.

“In the election. Are you a federalist or a democrat?”

“I’m nothing of the kind! I’m a citizen of the Great British Empire! Long live the king!”

This man, and all others who were within earshot, reacted with nothing short of abject shock at hearing this. As though admitting loyalty to one’s king was something shameful and wicked. The silent shock (unfortunately) soon gave way to shouting.

“He’s a tory!”

“He’s a spy!”

“Look! He’s even carrying a gun!”

The man with the fliers was, with some difficulty, able to restore order and he spoke softly to the others, saying, “This poor old man must be confused and disoriented. We must be patient with him.” Then he turned to Rip and said, in a kind voice, “My good man, how can we help you?”

“Well, I’m just looking for my friends.”

“Fine, fine. If we know them we’ll help you find them. What are their names?”

“All right…what about Nicholas Veder?”

“Vedder?” said one of the men. “He died eighteen years ago.”

“Eighteen years? What about Brom Dutcher?”

“I knew him,” said another man. “He joined the army when the war started. He never came back.”

“Army? War? What war? What are you talking about?”

“Er, another friend, perhaps?” said the man with the fliers, trying to keep things calm.

“Van Bummel? The schoolmaster. You must know him, he’s been here for—”

“Yes, he joined up, too,” said one of the men. “He got promoted to General. I think he’s in congress now.”


This bizarre interview went on for some time, with Rip rattling off names and being told that each one had died years ago or had moved away or had fought in some war. The questions kept running through Rip’s mind. How could any of this be? I only left last night…didn’t I? He thought about his rusty gun and his malnourished dog and his long beard and his dillapitated house and…how long had he been away?

“There’s one more name I would ask after,” said Rip, bracing himself. “Who here knows…Rip Van Winkle?”

“Rip? Why he’s right inside the tavern.”

“Fast asleep if I know him!” This comment was met with howls of laughter which Rip barely heard. He walked like a ghost into the inn and there, in his usual chair, he saw…himself? So if that’s me, Rip thought, who am I? Is this me? Or is that? Or is that someone else?

Rip Van Winkle stood there gaping at Rip Van Winkle for several minutes and the bystanders began to get worried that this old stranger might cause harm. Finally, for no apparent reason, the young man sleeping in the chair woke up and looked around. “Oh, hello, old timer. Can I help?”

“What…what is your name, son?”

“Rip, sir. Rip Van Winkle.”

“Your name is Rip Van Winkle?”

“Well, Rip Van Winkle, Jr. in fact. I was named after my father.”

“You were? And, whatever became of him?”

“My father left on a hunting trip and never came back. His dog came back without him, but no one ever saw father again. Poor mother was devastated. She didn’t last much longer after he disappeared.”

“How…how long ago was this?”

“Oh, I’d say it was about…twenty years ago. Isn’t that right, sister?”

This last was addressed over Rip, Sr.’s shoulder at the pretty young woman who had just entered. The old man noticed she was carrying a baby in her arms. “Twenty years, that’s right. Hello,” she said to this elderly stranger. “My name is Judith Gardenier. Rip Van Winkle was my father, too.”

“Did you know our father, mister?”

“Well…yes. I think I did…please, may I ask…what is the child’s name?”

“This is my son. His name is Rip, too.” She looked up at the old man and was surprised to see tears running down his cheeks. Then she looked into his eyes more closely…and, at last, she saw it. “Father? Father, is it you?”

Rip, Jr. could hardly believe his ears. He sprang to his feet and stared into the old man’s eyes. “It is! It’s our father! Judith, it’s father! Come home at last!” And he threw his arms around his father’s shoulders, and Judith did the same, and Rip Van Winkle, Sr. embraced his children and grandson as though he would never let them go.

That very day, Rip moved in with his daughter and her husband where he spent the rest of his days very much as he had done before his strange adventure had begun. He got to know both his children and his grandson and became a pillar of the small, American town. He was never able to fully understand what had happened to him in that cavern in the mountain, and once or twice he had considered going back to investigate. But he always decided against it, and chose instead to just make the most of the time he had left…of course he always had his daughter or son-in-law wake him up every morning. Just to make sure.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Faerie Tale Theatre (TV) This episode starred Harry Dean Stanton as Rip and Tim Conway and Ed Begley, Jr. played his friends. Also starred Chris Penn and Talia Shire.
  • The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo (TV) In this series, Magoo played a new role every week. Including the famous sleeper in this story.
  • Rip Van Winkle (1978) This short film from the creator of the California Raisins, Will Vinton, was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short.




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