10

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?

3 Answers 3

14

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.

8

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
0

I think there's a good chance that it was inspired by a Jewish tale, the story of Rabbi Honi. The story goes like this:

The Rabbi was very proficient in Torah and very well known in his town and all around by all Jews. However,he was not especially fond of a social life, and found the company of men to be tiring and frivolous, although he did have a family. He often found himself taking isolated walks along the town paths and enjoying nature while contemplating the Torah or life.

On one of these walks, the rabbi finds an old man planting a certain tree (I believe it was a carab tree). The rabbi scoffs at the old man, "You old fool! Don't you know that this tree takes 70 years to grow! You'll never live to see it grow, and this is completely futile and worthless!"

The old man smiles, and answers, "Oh, I'm very much aware of how long this tree will take to grow. When I was young I took a seed from a tree that my grandfather had planted when he was an old man, and now I am planting a tree for my grandchildren to enjoy its fruit."

The rabbi scoffed at the answer, and decided to lay down on the grass due to feeling particularly depressed. He had no sooner closed his eyes when he fell into a deep slumber. Night came, and he had still not woken. Morning came, and he had still not woken. Night came again, and he had still had not woken. A group of stones appeared around him so as to shield him from passerby, and the rabbi slept on and on and on, until finally 70 years later the stones disappeared and the rabbi woke up from his slumber.

Looking around, the Rabbi saw that it was darker than when he had left his house, and was worried that his family would be concerned over his seemingly hour long disappearance. He started back toward the way home, but was stunned when he beheld a great tree not too far from where he had been sleeping. He walked up to the tree and found a young child eating a fruit. He asked the child, "Did you plant this tree?"

"How could I have planted this tree?" responded the child, laughing. "It takes seven decades for this kind of tree ago. My grandfather planted this when he was an old man and now I'm eating its fruit."

The Rabbi was shocked beyond words. He had an inkling that not all was the same as when he went to sleep. He started walking home, but soon realized that the streets he was walking were nowhere near like the ones he had walked - from his perspective - only hours before. Eventually, after a while of being unable to find his house, he told a passerby that he was Rabbi Honi. The villager looked at him oddly and said, "That's impossible, Rabbi Honi disappeared a long time ago." Slightly deterred, the rabbi asked him where Rabbi Honi's family lived.

He went to the house and hesitantly knocked on the door. A younger child opened it up, and the Rabbi asked him, "Is this where Rabbi Honi's son lives?"

The child responded, "Rabbi Honi's son died many years ago. I am his youngest son."

"Then you must be my grandchild!" the Rabbi exclaimed, and went to hug the child but stopped when the child backed up uncertainly. The other family members came to the door and the Rabbi saw that none of his relatives recognized him for who he was. He had originally shunned society when they were willing to accept him, but now that he needed society more than ever they were not willing to accept him, not even his own family. He called out a prayer to God to take him out of this living Hell and God relented, and took his wearied soul up to heaven.

//

There are some big similarities between Rip Van Winkle and the story of Rabbi Honi, but one of the biggest reasons I think it did not necessarily come from a German tale is that most likely the German tale came from the around the 13-14 centuries or so, while Rabbi Honi lived in the 1 century.

1
  • Welcome to the site! Could you please edit your answer to include a source for this story? I tried searching the web for the text you've included here, but got 0 results. From where did you get this text, or did you retell/translate the story yourself? What (and especially when) is the origin of this tale?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 11, 2022 at 12:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.