One of the reasons why the Disney adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
is so effective is because it is remarkably faithful to Washington Irving's original tale
Hollywood has ever been notorious for inverting the moral and philosophical values of whatever literary work it adapts, imposing slave morality in place of master morality--a noxious practice that is even more prevalent today than it was decades ago. However, in 1949, at the time that The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
was released, the Disney studio was still consciously outside the Hollywood structure, practically constituting an anti-Hollywood alternative to the entertainment establishment. Every Disney film was very much the brainchild of Walt Disney himself, who paid no obeisance to the movie industry's dominant ideology ("Hollywoodism"), which is why, to this day, movie-industry ideologues view Walt with as much suspicion as the public adores him and his creations.
Disney's adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
is exceptional even among the studio's already singular output. Given that this film was not based on a fairy-tale source but on a work of high literature, the Disney animators were freed from the moral imperatives of storytelling for young children and preserved the adult sensibilities of Irving's work, albeit relayed in the entertaining visual manner that is the Disney hallmark.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
--both the Irving tale and Disney's adaptation--is how harmoniously it blends depictions of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In the Disney film, Katrina is as much an archetypal embodiment of Beauty as the Headless Horseman is a perfect realization of the Sublime, specifically in the Gothic horror vein that the Romantics favoured.
Pairing the Dutch enchantress with the demonic rider is as vivid a study in Beautiful/Sublime contrast as . . . well . . . as it would be to meet Sophie Sheppard one day and then to stand before the nightmarish, apocalyptic paintings of John Martin the next.* * *
Irving's description of Sleepy Hollow situates his tale within the Gothic Romantic genre:
Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement . . . The whole neighbourhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the night-mare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
The "High German doctor" to which the text refers is undoubtedly the necromancer Dr. Faust, who notoriously made a pact with the devil for infernal power. The "night-mare," on the other hand, is exactly what its name implies--a demonic mare (horse) that haunts the world by night. Its most famous incarnation, for the Romantics, was as the steed of the ghostly rider in Gottfried August Bürger's seminal horror ballad "Leonore
," which veritably instigated the entire tradition of horror Romanticism on the European continent. Here is Horace Vernet's memorable 1839 painting of Bürger's skeletal rider on his night mare, a mount quite identical to the steed that the Headless Horseman rides in Irving's tale and in the Disney film.
Irving's account of the Headless Horseman is quite vivid, equalling anything in Poe or Stoker:
The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
The image of a spectral rider on a demonic horse and his nocturnal career references a motif that long predates Bürger: the famous "wild hunt" of Wotan (Odin), the supreme god of Norse mythology, who was fabled to gallop across the skies atop his mount, Slepnir. With the advent of Christianity, Wotan, like all of the other pagan deities, became reinterpreted as a sinister devil, and his "wild hunt" was reconfigured as a parade of the demonic host.
Interestingly, although Irving's tale strongly suggests that the Headless Horseman is simply Brom Bones in disguise, the Disney adaptation leaves the Horseman's identity, whether physical or supernatural, entirely ambiguous, offering equal support for both interpretations.
Irving portrays Ichabod's first sight of the Horseman in a suitably eerie manner:
In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.
On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!--but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!
By contrast, Irving's narrator describes Katrina in the most ravishing terms. In addition to the succulent passage that Tamika quotes in her post, deeming the Dutch beauty "plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches,"
the text twice refers to her as the "blooming Katrina,"
which carries with it a beguiling idea of increasing
beauty, implying that her figure is steadily blossoming into a fuller size.
Irving also tantalizingly underscores Katrina's deliciously flirtatious and excitingly spoiled qualities:
Ichabod, on the contrary, had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments . . . He who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette is indeed a hero.
Irving traces the origins of her bewitching selfishness to her pampered upbringing, establishing her as the original, spoiled "daddy's girl":
Balt van Tassel was an easy indulgent soul; he loved his daughter better even than his pipe, and, like a reasonable man and an excellent father, let her have her way in everything.
In another reference to the character's distinctively plus-size beauty, Irving highlights the "dimpled hand of Katrina van Tassel"
--and pretty, plump hands with dimples at the knuckles are, as we have often pointed out on this forum, unique characteristics of genuinely full-figured goddesses.
Furthermore, those who wish to think of Katrina as a de facto Disney princess,
though not formally crowned, can be buoyed by Irving's poetic reference to the van Tassel farm:
It was toward evening that Ichabod arrived at the castle of the Heer van Tassel . . .
Thus, given that Katrina resides in an estate likened to a castle, and that Irving repeatedly refers to her as a "Dutch heiress
," Katrina is clearly meant to personify a princess in all but formal rank.* * *
One of the most telling indications that Disney's adaptation is free of Hollywoodist slave morality and preserves the Shakespearean neutrality of the original tale is that in the Disney film, just as in Irving's story, Ichabod Crane is no hero, nor is he even altogether sympathetic, while Brom Bones is no villain, and may even be a more likable character than Ichabod.
Viewers of the film today, brought up as they have been with Beauty and the Beast, invariably misinterpret Brom Bones as a quasi-Gaston. But Brom is very different from Belle's antagonist. He is a prankster, to be sure, and is understandably infuriated by Ichabod's attempts to steal his girlfriend. However, as the text explains, Brom
had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom.
Moreover, when Irving refers to Brom, he associates him with Classical figures such as Hercules and Achilles:
From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of Brom Bones, by which he was universally known
He was not a man to be thwarted in his amours, any more than that stormy lover, Achilles.
Given that Katrina, in her physical description, appetitive nature, and flirtatious personality, is an embodiment of Classical feminine beauty, a latter-day Helen of Troy (she who also inspired a love triangle, the most notorious and consequential in the history of the world), Irving clearly means for Katrina and Brom to embody the respective Classical ideals of femininity and masculinity.
Ichabod, on the other hand, is very much a flawed figure. His love for Katrina, while undoubtedly genuine, is tied up with his material avarice for her father's wealth, in a manner not unlike Shylock's conflated love of both his daughter and his money ("My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!"
). This materialism taints Crane's character, while Brom, for all of his boisterousness, is not shown to be as materially inclined.
Furthermore, the text describes the town of Sleepy Hollow, and the surrounding countryside, in terms of abundance and plenty, of which Katrina's blossoming figure is a prominent feature. Ichabod, on the other hand, is shown to be a rootless outsider, an interloper, a discordant element in this harmonious environment:
To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
Many commentators on the Disney adaptation marvel at how Crane eats and eats yet never gains a pound. This is a direct adaptation from Irving, and is not complimentary to Ichabod. Given the textual comparison of the schoolmaster to "the genius of famine"
("genius" meaning "spirit" in this context), Crane is "the spirit of famine," a figure of folklore so notorious that it constitutes one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. By extension, the phenomenon of Crane's endless yet unproductive consumption is a reference to the prophesy of famine in Egypt recounted in Genesis, 41:17-21:
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river:
And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fatfleshed and well favoured; and they fed in a meadow:
And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill favoured and leanfleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness:
And the lean and the ill favoured kine did eat up the first seven fat kine:
And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they [were] still ill favoured, as at the beginning. So I awoke.
The locality of Sleepy Hollow, with its abundance and plenty, is like the "fatfleshed and well-favoured" cattle in the biblical narrative, while Ichabod is the "poor and very ill favoured and leanfleshed," who, even though he endlessly consumes the bounty of the region, remains "ill favoured." He is, in a sense, a parasite, and driving him out restores harmony to the community.* * *
The real meaning of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is revealed if we view it through the lens of Oswald Spengler. In his story, Irving sets up a contrast between the rustic and the urban, between the country and the city, between Culture and Civilization so significant that one might think that Spengler, writing a century after Irving, had read the tale himself.
In describing Sleepy Hollow, Irving writes:
I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.
The idea of the historyless permanence of this rustic community, and how it contrasts with turbulent urban life, is precisely analogous to Spengler's comparisons of the country village and the city in The Decline of the West.
The village stands outside world-history [which “is city-history”], and all evolution, from the Saxon emperors to the World War of 1914, passes by these little points on the landscape, occasionally destroying them and wasting their blood, but never in the least touching their inwardness.
The village, with its quiet hillocky roofs, its evening smoke, its wells, its hedges, and its beasts, lies completely fused and embedded in the landscape. It is the Late city that first defies the land, contradicts Nature in the lines of its silhouette, denies all Nature. It wants to be something different from and higher than Nature.
Finally, there arises the monstrous symbol and vessel of the completely emancipated intellect, the world-city . . . There are no longer noblesse and bourgeoisie, but only cosmopolitans and provincials. All other contrasts pale before this one, which dominates all events, all habits of life, all views of the world.
The contrast between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones enacts this clash between the cosmopolitan and the provincial, with Brom provincially "embedded in the landscape," and the cosmopolitan Crane "contradicting Nature in the lines of his silhouette," his appearance so un
Between these two personages there can only be misunderstanding and enmity:
The sly-shrewdness of the country and the intelligence of the megalopolis are two forms of waking-consciousness between which reciprocal understanding is scarcely possible.
The man of the land and the man of the city are different essences. First of all they feel the difference, then they are dominated by it, and at last they cease to understand each other at all.
Primitive folk can loose themselves from the soil and wander, but the intellectual nomad never . . . They have lost the country within themselves and will never regain it outside.
In the tale, Brom's "sly shrewdness" sets itself against the "intelligence" of Ichabod, the "nomad." Crane's ultimate fate, after being driven out of Sleepy Hollow by the Headless Horseman, reinforces the work's urban/rustic dichotomy:
[Ichabod] had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.
Crane's future as a lawyer--a profession associated with the rootless, urban type--cements his urban identity.
Katrina, for her part, with her "mixture of ancient and modern fashions" is perched between both, between the country and the city, between Brom and Ichabod. Ultimately, she chooses Brom, and anyone who has read Spengler would be hard pressed not to favour her choice.
But in truth, neither suitor is worthy of her, and she, the "Dutch heiress" who lives in a "castle," richly deserves a prince, if only one were available.* * *
Gorgeous as Katrina is, we cannot let this thread go without sharing a few screencaps of our own, although the contributions by Tamika and the other commentators have already illustrated the character's full-figured beauty. The following stills validate the most sensual passage in Tamika's write-up:
Originally Posted by Tamika
It is easy to imagine, then, that once freed of the corset’s tight embrace, her waist would be as soft and naturally full as the rest of her plump figure . . . It adds an exciting tension to her character; Katrina can hardly keep her curves in check, her bountiful beauty only tamed with aggressive corseting. The almost dangerous quality of her figure, coupled with the fact that the true extent of her curves is left to the imagination of the viewer, make her positively thrilling.
Every other aspect of Katrina's physique, apart from her artificially compressed waist, discloses her lavishly indulged embonpoint.
In this image, for example, the fullness of her arms is clearly visible. Her forearms are as plump as those of a well-fed newborn, while her face is adorably round.
A second image confirms the fleshiness of her arms, as luscious as those of Katherine Roll, while she exhibits big, saucer-like, doll's eyes worthy of Kelsey Olson.
Not only do her arms reveal her zaftig figure, but so do her plump calves, which she tantalizingly displays at regular intervals, knowing that doing so will inflame her suitors' desire.
Her legs also resemble those of Katherine Roll. They have the distinctively feminine fullness that is acquired through self-indulgence and an avoidance of physical exertion. Katrina is all flesh and softness, free of unsightly "tone" and muscle.
Far more than simply an animated figure study, Katrina is a wholly convincing character. She lacks a single line of dialogue in the entire film, yet her personality is more vividly realized than that of any other Disney princess. In fact, given that she reveals herself entirely through silent actions, Katrina might well be understood in the same manner that we interpret the work of fashion models. This image, for example, speaks volumes about the character. She has just noticed Ichabod and has decided to make him her latest quarry. She exhibits a look of bemusement, a gaze that suggests coquettish mischief but incorporates a slight hint of pity, as if she were thinking, "Oh, you poor boy, if you only knew what I was about to do to you." She puffs out her magnificent bust, knowing that her voluptuousness is a significant part of her charms (as is also evident in her choice of attire). Her arms are full and fleshy, yet her hands and fingers are exquisitely delicate. She is not what some might term "big boned"; rather, she has a dainty frame, and her luscious fullness is entirely due to unchecked appetite.
This image shows a delightfully surprised Katrina, her mouth forming a pretty O, her arms especially round and full.
A moment later, she proffers Ichabod her handkerchief--a flirtatious gesture indeed, endowing him with a token of remembrance that he can treasure. Observe the doll-like roundness of her face and her kind, gentle expression. She is just a baby, looking younger than her 18 years, yet at the same time she has a power over men that is very mature and seasoned.
Consider the coquettish pleasure that Katrina takes in watching Brom Bones suffer, as she bestows her favour upon Ichabod. She may resemble an angel from a Rubens painting, but Katrina can be bad. She has a naughty side, an aspect of her character that is not at all malicious, but she takes great pleasure in having her ego stroked. In a technique that the cosmetics artists who read this forum will appreciate, the Disney animators highlight this quality by giving her a slightly darker eyeshadow than her skin tone. This hint of darkness is not usually seen, because Katrina keeps her eyes open wild and wide at most times, but when she adopts a heavily lidded gaze, her vain coquetry is revealed.
How does she get away with it? Just look at her. Any man would endure any degree of suffering to be in the company of this full-figured goddess. Note in particular her beseeching expression in the following still, a bewitching gaze so gently seductive that it could bring any man to his knees. One could endure a whole life of sadness if, just once in one's life, one were favoured with a look such as this from a goddess so lovely.
Another revealing moment shows how Katrina genuinely feels about Ichabod. She realizes that he isn't good enough for her--because in truth, no man is. (She knows it, and everyone who watches the film knows it too.) But his enthusiastic wooing amuses her. She loves the attention. She feeds off it, like a queen bee feeds off nectar. She appears especially buxom in this image, as if she had deliberately allowed her neckline to descend a few millimetres. Katrina reveals more about herself in a few scenes than most characters, real-life or animated, convey in works three times this length. Her upper arms appear luscious and full, with the fabric of her dress embracing them tightly.
Note that, as he takes his leave of her, Ichabod warmly kisses her hand--that oh-so-pretty "dimpled hand," as Irving describes it, its plumpness making it a very sensual object to kiss so passionately.
"Why have just one, when you can have more?" This is the keynote of Katrina's character. With her father holding a dance for the surrounding community, she mischievously pens an invitation for Ichabod--further to enflame Brom's jealousy, and to delight in having these suitors fighting for her favour. The pleasure that she takes in their rivalry is evident. Her bare arm appears sensually full and heavy. One can only dream of how rich her uncorseted figure might be.
Minx that she is, she signs the letter in her father's name. Also, on a somewhat pedantic note, observe that the missive provides the correct spelling of the "van Tassel" name (which many writers on the topic of this film misconstrue).
The dance gives Katrina an opportunity to show off a new gown--one which, if anything, displays her voluptuousness even more prominently than the previous dress. Again, the film allows the wardrobe choice to silently relay Katrina's character. She is proud of her physique, well aware that her buxom curves are a significant part of her appeal, and dresses to accentuate her décolletage.
The Disney animators--obviously in love with their ultra-feminine creation, Pygmalions to Katrina's Galatea--relish the opportunity that the dance gives them to depict Katrina in poses that show off her ample charms.
More significantly, from the point of view of size celebration, Katrina freely dances in such a way that her skirt frequently flies up, showing off her full, shapely legs.
Like her arms, Katrina's plump legs offer a true indication of her well-fed physique. If there was ever a character who was entirely enamoured of her own appearance, it is Katrina, living as she does in a traditional society where plus-size beauty, the natural ideal of feminine loveliness, is universally admired.
The fête is clearly Ichabod's milieu, but Brom finagles one dance with Katrina, and in another revealing moment, the Disney animators disclose a great deal about Katrina's character simply through her expression. Though she has been tormenting the lad, observe how tenderly she looks upon him, how sincerely affectionate she is. She practically blushes.
With Ichabod, on the other hand, she always wears an expression of bemusement. She has a good time with him, and loves the attention. She likes him enough to place her hand upon his. She prominently exhibits her voluptuousness, specifically to enflame his desire. However, in this pairing, she is the one in charge, while her relationship with Brom is more traditionally balanced, and her attraction runs deeper. In keeping with the modern/traditional, urban/rustic, Ichabod/Brom dichotomy, Katrina's pairing with Crane is a more modern relationship, familiar to all of us in this post-feminist day and age, where the woman is in charge and the man, romantic that he may be, is out of his league. In Katrina's relationship with Brom, however, the power is fluid, with Brom in a commanding role but Katrina using her feminine wiles to stir his heart. With signfiicant psychological insight, the film suggests that is the Brom relationship that is more exciting to Katrina, as a woman.
In the original Irving story, Katrina breaks Ichabod's heart at the dance--whether sincerely, or to up the ante of her coquetry, one may never know. However, Disney allows Katrina to express more genuine interest in Ichabod. In this moment, she glances at him with her characteristic mixture of interest and amusement. Ichabod is, to her, a delightful plaything, and in feeling this way, she means him no malice. She simply recognizes her goddesslike status in relation to him.
Indeed, Katrina cannot help laughing wholeheartedly when Ichabod is spooked by Brom's "Headless Horseman" tale. The velvet ribbon around her neck is a wickedly feminine touch, a Parisian adornment that indicates Katrina's stylishness, a side of her that is more than a "country coquette" and would be just as comfortable in a bustling metropolis--or at court--as she is in this idyllic, rustic community.
The final screencap is the most stunning of all. As numerous readers mention in the YouTube commentary, and as Tamika indicates in her post, the Dutch heiress--whom the Disney narrator even refers to as "the blooming Katrina," using Irving's own words--appears to have blossomed into a fuller size. She anticipates Princess Aurora's tendency to alternate between light-pink dresses and light-blue ones. Katrina unquestionably appears less childlike, more womanly in this scene, even more richly buxom--and she proudly selects apparel that showcases her heavy voluptuousness. She kisses Brom with such passion that even her new husband is surprised. This indicates that, for all that she has been a coquette, Katrina has nevertheless preserved her virtue, and now hungrily looks forward to the pleasures of wedded bliss. The magnificence of the Disney animation is extraordinary, down to the translucency of Katrina's veil.* * *
Fans, understandably, keep calling for the introduction of a "plus-size Disney princess." Yet in every physical aspect except for her mercilessly corseted waist, Katrina van Tassel is as full-figured as a gorgeous plus-size model, with plump arms, lusciously heavy legs, round facial features, and a generous bust. Katrina's dresses even celebrate her generous physique.
Furthermore, the way in which Katrina's personality is depicted, so true to Irving's conception, represents the ideal character type for a "plus-size Disney princess," given her exciting vanity, her intriguing coquettishness, her sweet selfishness, her coy girlishness, her love of attention, her delicious self-adoration, and above all, her quintessential femininity. What are the odds of a present-day screenwriter, in a time of rabid political correctness, ever conceiving of such a character? Zero. The very same political imperatives that might drive the creation of a full-figured Disney heroine would taint the storyline and give us either (a) a plus-size princess who is self-conscious about her curves and has to overcome low self-esteem, thus turning her story into a pity party, or worse, (b) a political militant fighting against "oppressive beauty ideals" in general--i.e., against beauty itself. Thus, plus-size beauty could end up being hijacked to serve an anti-beauty, anti-tradition agenda.
Katrina, in her gorgeous 1949 incarnation, is the "plus-size Disney princess" whom everyone has been calling for. And Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, classic of world literature that it is, offers the perfect framing storyline for such a character, with its riveting narrative that testifies to the power of traditional femininity and true beauty.
- Read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
- Watch The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad