Since Irving's writing of Sleepy Hollow was in short story form, creative extrapolation was needed to move this legend to the operatic stage. What follows below is a condensation of the original story. Comparing this to the opera libretto reveals intriguing expansions of plot and subtle shift in perspective on the spirit world.
The short story is set in 1790 in a small Dutch pioneering farm community on the banks of the Hudson River about 30 miles from New York City.
"...From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants...
this sequestered glen (is) known as Sleepy Hollow...
A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere..."
Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts and the haunting aura that pervades the imaginations of its inhabitants and visitors. The most infamous spectre in the Hollow is the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot away by a stray cannonball during "some nameless battle" of the American Revolutionary War, and who "rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head".
The Legend relates the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lanky and superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who
Bones, the local hero, vies with Ichabod for Katrina's hand, exacting a series of pranks on the jittery schoolmaster.. The tension between the three is soon brought to a head. On a placid autumn night, the ambitious Crane attends a harvest party at the Van Tassels' homestead. He dances, partakes in the feast, and listens to ghostly legends told by Brom and the locals, but his true aim is to propose to Katrina after the guests leave. His intentions, however, are ill-fated.
After having failed to secure Katrina's hand, Ichabod rides home "heavy-hearted and crestfallen" through the woods between Van Tassel's farmstead and the Sleepy Hollow settlement. As he passes several purportedly haunted spots, his imagination is engorged by the ghost stories told at Baltus' harvest party. After nervously passing under a lightning-striken tulip tree, Ichabod encounters a cloaked rider at an intersection in a menacing swamp. Unsettled by his fellow traveler's eerie size and silence, the teacher is horrified to discover that his companion's head not on his shoulders, but on his saddle.
In a frenzied race to the bridge adjacent to the Old Dutch Burying Ground, where the Hessian is said to "vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone" upon crossing it, Ichabod rides for his
The next morning, Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones, who was said "to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related". Indeed, the only relics of the schoolmaster's flight are his wandering horse, trampled saddle, discarded hat, and a shattered pumpkin. Irving's narrator concludes by stating that the old Dutch wives continue to promote the belief that Ichabod was "spirited away by supernatural means," and a legend develops around his disappearance and sightings of his melancholy spirit.