I’m not much of one for watching new TV shows, for a variety of reasons, but something about the hype among my friends surrounding Sleepy Hollow caught my attention and now, I have to admit, I am completely hooked. It doesn’t seem to strike most people as the type of show that could actually be really enjoyable—the best description of it that I’ve seen says “It’s like if Supernatural and Hannibal met and had a baby, and then Sherlock and Fringe met and had a baby then those two babies had a baby then that baby had a baby with Once Upon a Time,” to which I would add “And then THAT baby had a baby with National Treasure,” and between all those babies it seems like Sleepy Hollow should be a poorly written hot mess.
But it isn’t! Surprisingly!
The basic premise is about the adventures of Ichabod Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills. Ichabod is a Professor of History from Merton College, Oxford (awesome!) who fought for George Washington (wait what) and had a spell cast on him in 1781, only to awaken in 2013 and be completely dumbfounded at the sales tax on donut holes. Lt. Mills works for the Sleepy Hollow Sheriff’s office and has been derailed from her intended course towards Quantico to become an FBI profiler by the events of the series’ pilot episode. Somewhere along that interesting new spin on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though, the show took a sharp left turn away from “amusing alternative to clearing my Netflix queue of a Monday evening” towards “… wait a minute, they’re speaking Middle English?!??!?”
There will be SPOILERS for Episode 5, “John Doe,” below this picture! Do not proceed if you do not want to read SPOILERS!
I’ve lifted this comprehensive, SPOILER-FUL (hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you) synopsis of the plot of the episode from Wikipedia:
A sickly boy suffering from an unknown disease is discovered in the woods and immediately put under CDC quarantine. Because the boy can only speak Middle English, Irving asks Ichabod to question the boy. The boy, Thomas, says that he is from Roanoke, which Ichabod realizes is the Roanoke Colony that mysteriously disappeared in the sixteenth century. Ichabod and Abbie track the boy’s journey from where he was found, and discover a hidden village where the Roanoke colonists show symptoms of the same disease but are still alive. From the colonists’ story they figure out that the disease originated from the horseman Pestilence/Conqueror, who wished to spread a plague through the land in preparation for the Apocalypse. The colonists were protected by the ghost of Virginia, the first girl to die of the disease, who lead them to the hidden village where the disease is contained. When Thomas left the village he took the disease with him. Abbie and Ichabod return to town to fetch the boy, but Ichabod starts showing symptoms and has to be quarantined. Abbie persuades Irving to let her take Ichabod and Thomas back to the woods. They are successful in returning Thomas to his village, only to realize that the colonists were dead the entire time. Thomas was lured back out into the land of the living in hopes of spreading the disease, but once he is returned all the infected people in Sleepy Hollow, including Ichabod, are cured.
—Wikipedia: Sleepy Hollow (TV Series)
It is, of course, absurd for anyone to suggest that the colonists who sailed to America and founded Roanoke in the 1580s spoke Middle English, which largely gave way to Early Modern English by around 1500. But I actually think I can understand why it was done, and think it’s quite clever, historical accuracy aside. I would argue that the show’s writers are using Middle English intentionally to push Thomas and Roanoke further into the realm of the monstrous other from which all of the strange and threatening things are appearing in Sleepy Hollow, because Early Modern English would be too like modern English and not create enough tension between “modern, safe, understandable” and “strange, threatening, other.”
I know I have an entire graduate degree that dealt with Middle English and that 98% of the 7.59 million viewers who tuned in to “John Doe” would not understand Ichabod and Thomas’ conversation without the subtitles, as I did, but I believe they intentionally used obscure words and a non-received pronunciation dialect. As I discussed with Brandon Hawk on Twitter, it would have been perfectly easy for the show to have had Ichabod and Thomas speaking Early Modern English or a Middle English that was almost entirely comprehensible to modern audiences, and YET they chose not to. They chose to use archaic lexical choices and an intentionally obscure dialect because they wanted to make the language spoken by Thomas as difficult for modern audiences as they could. Hence, also, the use of subtitles to highlight the foreignness, the mysteriousness of the dialogue. In addition, I found Crane’s side of the dialogue infinitely easier to understand than Thomas’, yet again showing that the writers went out of their way to other Thomas and his village.
And while, yes, it is totally wrong to suggest that Early Modern people would have spoken Middle English, I ask two questions:
- From a practical stand point, would more than an extremely small minority of highly educated viewers really understand the distinction between the Early Modern and the medieval versions of our language? How many would know the exact date of the founding of Roanoke (I had to look it up!) or that Middle English had largely morphed and its vowels had shifted sometime in the 150 years prior?
- Does it really matter? The anachronistic Middle English actually works within the context of the story to underscore the strangeness and threat presented by Thomas/Roanoke and Crane’s role as the only person who can distinguish and speak Middle English1 further strengthens the appearance of Thomas and the plague to the trials he and Lt. Mills will face as the story moves towards its apocalyptic conclusion, in spite of Lt. Mills’ attempts throughout the episode to rationalize the boy’s sudden appearance, clothing, and language in the terms of modern kidnapping investigations.
I spent some time last week going over and over the dialogue in Middle English between Ichabod Crane and Thomas. There isn’t a helpful video on YouTube of the entire dialogue, but this sneak preview from FOX features the two words that spark Crane’s realization that Thomas is speaking Middle English. I think those two words are “oule thern” (although I could easily be wrong and would welcome anyone else’s insight or opinion2), based on the way Ichabod pronounces and precisely translates them as “evil girl.”3
While “oule” has a first definition of “owl,” it’s second definition is recorded by the Middle English Dictionary as:
(a) A name for Satan; ~ of helle; (b) as a term of abuse and a type of ugliness; (c) as a type of spiritual blindness; (d) in proverbs, sayings, and comparisons.
It’s certainly not a common Middle English translation for “evil”—in fact, it doesn’t even show up in a Boolean search for “evil” in the Middle English Dictionary. If this was the word they intended, then they really had to look for it, probably because of the (a) meaning of “a name for Satan.” Given the presence of demons and the Four Horsemen in the series, it is reasonable to assume they’d want a word that equated the mysterious girl with the evil figures lurking at the edges of the show’s plot.
On the other hand, the second meaning is also very apt: “as a type of spiritual blindness.” This is very interesting to me, since a major theme in the episode was Lt. Mills’ movement from skeptic to believer. In fact, in the second scene of the episode, she and Crane have this exchange:
Ichabod: “An act of faith? That’s unusual coming from you.”
Abbie: “I’ve never been a big believer of what I can’t see.”
As the episode reaches its conclusion, Lt. Mills enters a hospital chapel and asks God for a sign to show her the correct course of action to take to save Crane, Thomas, and the other infected people. A woman enters the chapel as Lt. Mills leaves and dips her fingers in the holy water, giving Lt. Mills an insight into the mysterious attribute about Roanoke that is keeping the people trapped in time there immune to the plague. She has moved from spiritual blindness at the episode’s beginning to someone who is willing to take inspiration and make a leap of faith.
All things considered, I went from being sincerely amused by the presence of Middle English in Sleepy Hollow to being intrigued. Unlike some other medievalist viewers who have expressed their outrage (and about whose blog posts I have very strong feelings that I will, perhaps, express at another time or in another venue), I think the inclusion of Middle English, even as an anachronism, is thematically appropriate and shows some (potentially) clever thought processes on the part of the writers. Or maybe they just really didn’t know that Middle English wouldn’t have been spoken at Roanoke and I’ve over-thought the entire episode. Either way, I liked hearing Middle English spoken on a major network show, and I’ve enjoyed spending the week thinking and talking and writing about it, so I find it very hard to be upset with the anachronism and am very much looking forward to enjoying the rest of the season. And as with everything I post, I welcome the thoughts and comments of anyone who cares to give their perspective!
1 – There’s no way Ichabod Crane, who studied at Oxford in the 1760s-1770s (ish) and “died” in 1781 could have studied Middle English or even have known that phrase existed since the earnest study of medieval English did not start until at least the latest part of the 18th century or early 19th century and the term “Middle English” itself wasn’t used until 1830.
2 – There’s particularly an argument to be made about whether Ichabod misinterpreted what Thomas said—I am of the opinion that Thomas is speaking with an intentionally non-London accent to his ME—and that Ichabod turned “ill(e)” or even a very Prince Ludwig-esque pronunciation of “ivel” into “oule,” but I digress.
3 – The distinction between Thomas’ pronunciation and Crane’s pronunciation was probably a conscious choice on the part of the production staff, since they hired a professional voice coach from UNC-Wilmington [VIDEO].