American mythology is filled with larger-than-life figures, like the axe-wielding Paul Bunyan and the rattlesnake-handling Buffalo Bill. Some of them are historical or pseudo-historical, such as Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone (who both famously die in the Alamo siege during the Texas revolution). Of course, there is little ground more fertile for American mythology than the colonial and revolutionary historical periods, with George Washington’s cherry tree and Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to alert colonists in Lexington and Concord of the British army’s approach. Both of my latter examples demonstrate how historical figures are imagined and reimagined by subsequent generations of Americans, considering that Washington probably never actually chopped his cherry tree, nor did Paul Revere quite make it to Lexington or Concord to warn that the redcoats were coming toward the rebel munitions stored there. Indeed, all of the aforementioned mythic American figures and stories are somewhat less invested in historical fact and more in the self-fashioning of a European ethnonationalist identity in the United States.
In early America as elsewhere, storytellers and mythographers, such as Washington Irving (who famously wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” about a little haunted town in New York), begin not only looking to the colonial period but also across the pond to European ethnonationalist antiquarianism in the construction of distinctly American mythology following a successful revolutionary war overthrowing the British government. This is observable in another of Irving’s works, “Rip Van Winkle” which tells the tale of a man who meets with a dwarvish fairy in the Catskill Mountains and falls magically asleep for the bulk of his life, only to awaken as an old man and find his children grown. This fantastic story brings early medieval fairy lore—elves, dwarves and the like—into the American frontier and invites these supernatural beings from the “old world” into the newly formed United States.
The story begins with an explicit epitaph from the tomb of one Diedrich Knickerbocker that invokes the pre-Christian Germanic mythic figure “Woden, God of Saxons”:
By Woden, God of Saxons,
From whence comes Wensday, that is Wodensday,
Truth is a thing that ever I will keep
Unto thylke day in which I creep into
(Irving , “Rip Van Winkle” 1-5).
In order to grow, myths need both substance and storyteller—in other words both the story itself and persons to pass the tale along to others. The art of storytelling and oral narratives are seemingly as old as humankind, but storytelling as a pastime is regularly associated with the medieval period, made famous by late medieval works of literature such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, in the tradition of English literature, Chaucer’s work looms large, and has inspired numerous imitators and allusions even in recent years.
This is an excerpt from "Longfellow’s Tales of the Wayside Inn: Early American Medievalism and Ethnonationalism" by Dr. Richard Fahey (MI Ph.D., 2020). Read the Full Story.