Rip Van Winkle: An examination of the element of magical imagery

“Rip Van Winkle” was the first American fairy tale. It has many of the common elements and motifs of a fairy tale. These motifs have been used time and time again in literature like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” They’re even used in movies, like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and “The Neverending Story.” This story was written by Washington Irving as a way to immortalize the country he loved. At the time, America was still a wild and mainly undiscovered land full of adventure. Washington Irving presented an exciting picture of this land to the British and other well-established (and settled) countries of Europe.

In “Rip Van Winkle” the common fairy tale motifs are extended sleep, fanciful imagery, magic, fairy time, and fairy food. K.M. Briggs is one of the most renown scholars of british fairy tales, and has written many books on the topic. She states that  “these stories of the miraculous passage of time in fairy land are common” (Briggs 512). Briggs writes of a man in Scotland who spent the night with fairies near his home. An example she cites is as follows:

There was a man down Bruernish way walking about in the night when he heard the strains of fairy music. It was lovely music and seemed to be coming from a mound, which (he noticed) had a red light on top. He then saw that a stone had been rolled aside, revealing an entrance. Plucking up his courage he went in, and saw the fairy pipers and the banquet spread. He was offered some food, and refused at first, but afterwards partook of it. When he thought the night was drawing to a close he asked leave to go, which was granted, provided he replaced the stone. When he did so all sound of fairy music ceased, and he walked home, as he thought, in the early morning. When he reached home he found his dwelling a heap of stones, and his neighbour’s house in the same condition, so he walked on till he did find an inhabited dwelling and someone at home. He told the man where he came from, and asked what had happened to his wife and family. The man replied that he had heard tell that a man had once walked out of that clachan and was never seen again, but that had happened nigh on a hundred years ago. Then he sat down saying, ‘Man, I’m feeling awful weary and ill; would you send for the priest.’ And he looked very old suddenly, and [had] great lines on his face. So they sent for the priest, and he had to be fetched all the way from Eoligarry. But he did arrive in time to administer the last rites, after which the man shrank and shrank and fell away into a little heap of dust (Briggs 511,512).

This is very similar to what Rip experienced, and there are many other tales that are similar, such as The return of Ossian. Another common motif used was the use of fairy food, which is almost always cautioned against, as it is rumored to lead to entrapment. This entrapment is very similar to that of Prosperina in the greek myth where she eats the pomegranate seeds. Because she ate the seeds, she had to stay there for a number of months every year. Magic is a key motif of every fairy tale and this one is no different. Magic has to be involved for a man to sleep as long as Rip does, and not die from it. This magic is evident in even the children’s fairy tales, such as Cinderella, The Seven Dancing Princesses, and Puss in Boots. Washington Irving writes of the mountains as if they are magical themselves, and reinforces this in his postscript, saying “The Kaatsberg or Catskill Mountains have always been a region full of fable” (Irving 22).


“Rip Van Winkle” is full of fanciful imagery, in particular the descriptions of the mountains. These are important because they set up the scene for the unbelievable events that are about to occur. Descriptive and fanciful imagery are common to fairy tales because they set up the reader to be  receptive to the unbelievable tale as well as for the moral of the story since so many are cautionary tales. The descriptors used are colorful and vivid. An excellent example is this passage, which strikes me every time I read it:

“Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives far and near as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled they ware clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapours about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory” (Irving 9).

The key words in this passage are “magical,” “clothed in blue and purple,” “hood of gray vapours,” and “crown of glory.” Through them you get the sense of the constant presence of the mountains. He goes on to use even more descriptors to heighten this impression, such as “fairy mountains,” “blue tints,” “fresh green,” and “yellow bricks.” All of these descriptors reinforce the feeling that it is a whole other world- one that fairies could be readily found in.


The break from the real world to that of the magical land is especially descriptive, comparing “The lordly Hudson, far far below him, moving on in its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands” (Irving 12) to that of “A deep mountain glen, wild lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun” (Irving 12). Through this imagery we understand the sheer familiarity and calm of the town, as well as the unfamiliar and exciting fairy land that exists in the Katskill mountains. This is the great beginning of the story; the first real divide between the ordinary world and that of the magical world. This is also the first threshold.


In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler credits Joseph Campbell with the original explanation of the elements in a myth, which is a group the fairy tale belongs in, along with fable and folklore. This takes form in two ways: the stages of the hero’s journey, and archetypes. The hero’s journey has 12 stages- ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting with the mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests, allies, enemies, approach to inmost cave, supreme ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and the return with elixir (Vogler 18). Now, not every story has all of the components, but there is a consistency that at least some will appear. In “Rip Van Winkle” the stages present are the ordinary world (The background on Rip and his family as well as the town), call to adventure (Rip hearing his name called over the mountains), the first threshold (the divide between the mountains and the glen), the supreme ordeal (Rip drinking the magical liquor), the road back/return (when he wakes up and goes into the town after being unable to find the amphitheatre), and resurrection (when Rip lives the life he had led before).  The most common archetypes are the hero, mentor, threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, and trickster (Vogler 36). Rip is the foolish hero of the story, and Wolf is his faithful ally. Hendrick Hudson, the bowling ghost is the trickster, and Peter Vanderdonk is the town mentor. The mob itself is a herald as well as a threshold guardian.


For being one of the first american fairy tales, Rip Van Winkle is an excellent one. It’s underlying political message is very American, and it is balanced perfectly with the depth and imagery of the fairy tale elements. The fanciful imagery is delightful, and the stages of this foolish hero’s journey are clear and defined. The moral of the story is clear and easy to find, helping it along in its classification as a fairy tale.



Briggs, K.M. Some Late Accounts of Fairies. Vol. 72. N.p.: Folklore Enterprises Ltd., 1961. 509-19. Folklore. Ser. 3. JSTOR. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. < HYPERLINK “” >.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Vol. 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. Print.

Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” American Literature: Beginnings to 1900. Ed. John Bryant. N.p.: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 8-22. Print.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992. 18-36. Print.


This was written in 2010 for an American Literature course at Madonna University. Please cite this if you use it.


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