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I was recently surprised to discover that the story of Rip Van Winkle is credited to the US author Washington Irving, who published it in 1819. I'd always vaguely imagined it to be a Brothers Grimm story or an old (probably European) folk tale. It certainly has the feel of such stories.

Was it, in fact, based on one? Or did Washington Irving come up with the story out of whole cloth, inspired merely by the idea and atmosphere of traditional folk tales in general?

Was "Rip Van Winkle" inspired by a particular traditional folk tale or older story?

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I'm reasonably certain that Irving's major inspiration for Rip van Winkle was the German folktale Peter Klaus (text here). Almost all the analyses I've read give it precedence over other works (Karl Katz, for instance is a similar, though less-well-documented story). There are many similarities that quickly indicate some connection:

  • The main character disappears for twenty years:

    "Ah, poor man, Rip Van Winkle was his name, but it's twenty years since he went away from home with his gun" - Rip van Winkle

    "It is now twenty years since his goats returned without him" - Peter Klaus

  • Rip/Peter witnesses a supernatural game of bowling:

    On a level spot in the centre was a company of odd-looking personages playing at nine-pins. - Rip van Winkle

    Here were twelve knights, who, without so much as uttering a syllable, were very gravely playing at nine-pins - Peter Klaus

  • Upon his return, he asks about whether his old friends are still around:

     Rip bethought himself a moment, and inquired, “Where’s Nicholas Vedder?”

    . . .

     “Where’s Brom Dutcher?”

    . . .

    “Where’s Van Bummel, the schoolmaster?” - Rip van Winkle

    . . . to get rid of his questioners he mentioned the first name that occurred to him, “Kurt Steffen?”

    . . .

    “Velten Meier?” - Peter Klaus

    Even more specifically, it is mentioned that Vedder and Steffen are both "in the churchyard".

This is all besides the fact that both stories follow the same pattern:

  • Man lives in a small town ("a small village"/"the peaceful village of Sittendorf") by the mountains ("the Kaatskill mountains"/"the Kyffhaeusen mountains").
  • Man walks in the mountains and follows someone ("a short square-built old fellow"/"a boy") to witness men playing nine-pins.
  • Man drinks wine and falls asleep for decades.
  • Man wakes up and returns to his town. He eventually meets his daughter (Judith/Maria).

This collection of folk-tales (The German Novelists) has a slightly different text, but all of the above connections are the same (although "Velten Meier" is "Valentine Meier", and the boy is a groom tending wild horses).

Even if all of the above were not the case - which they are - there is an even more compelling reason to indicate that Peter Klaus is the main source of inspiration for Rip van Winkle. Irving ends his tale with a humorous note:

The foregoing Tale, one would suspect, had been suggested to Mr. Knickerbocker by a little German superstition about the Emperor Frederick der Rothbart, and the Kyffhäuser mountain: the subjoined note, however, which he had appended to the tale, shows that it is an absolute fact, narrated with his usual fidelity

The German Novelists notes that "similar tales of enchantment" surround the long-dead Emperor Barbarosa (the same person as Frederick der Rothbart), who holds court under the Hartz mountains. I'm reasonably certain that Irving's addendum is a nod to these stories, and, by extension, to Peter Klaus.

Furthermore, Staley's Rip van Winkle's Odyssey states

Irving himself admitted that he drew on the tale of Peter Klaus in creating Rip Van Winkle7

7 In W. Irving, Bracebridge Hall, ed. H. F. Smith (Boston, MA, 1977), 247, in a sketch titled ‘The Historian’, Irving answers the charges of ‘plagiarism’ and asserts that he ‘had considered popular traditions of the kind as fair foundations for authors of fiction to build upon’.

I do not have the text and so cannot verify this myself, but it seems that if Irving explicitly acknowledged that Peter Klaus was the inspiration, it most likely was.

Furthermore, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving states

As Irving admitted whenever asked (and even inserted as a postscript in the 1848 edition), he drew upon a popular German folk tale, "Peter Klaus", for the central theme of his story.

This could just mean the postscript I cited above, but I'll try to find a text of the edition. This isn't just word-of-author evidence; it's accompanied by strong textual parallels.

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Yes, certainly, but we don't know exactly which one(s).

The Wikipedia page for the story lists many possible literary forerunners from both European and Native American folk and fairy tale traditions -- so many that it's difficult to say whether Irving was inspired by one in particular or some larger subset of the candidates. He was very erudite and had access to multiple literary traditions -- high probability predecessors for "Rip van Winkle" include tales of the Seneca, the Orkneys (where his father was from), and the early medieval Levant (which Irving had studied and written about).

Irving's take on the trope was unique in that:

  • No one had told the story in the modern tale/short story format before
  • The external changes in Rip's world relate to his internal character in a way that's more sophisticated than the predecessors
  • Irving has a sense of irony that is not present in folk tales

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