Sleepy Hollow’s Big History Error

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Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane

Tom Mison as dashing Ichabod Crane, who spends entirely too much time interpreting Middle English for someone who historically would be speaking Elizabethan English.

So for some Halloween entertainment, I thought I’d catch up on a little Sleepy Hollow, and watched the recent “John Doe” episode. For those who haven’t been watching, Ichabod Crane awakens 200 years after the American Revolution, and has to deal with the headless horseman (and all the evil he portends), with the help of a local cop.

The premise is handled well enough, even though it cleaves boringly closely to the “great evil is threatening us and only we chosen ones can save the world” model. Tom Mison as Crane is quite entertaining to watch and is doing a stellar job, as is Nicole Beharie as Deputy Mills.  Their acting is the main reason I’ve continued to watch the show.

Til now, maybe.  (Spoiler alert)

One of the most glaring historical faux pas ever was made centerpiece of this episode’s plot:  a key character is speaking Middle English (i.e. the language of Chaucer’s England, circa 14th century), which Ichabod Crane happens to have studied at Oxford and therefore can interpret. But….the character and his kinfolk are discovered to be the lost English colonists of Roanoke, VA–a place which was colonized in 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

HEY SCRIPT WRITERS, that means they speak Elizabethan English, a dialect from 200 years later, and not the Middle English of Chaucer.  Which, while it was very intriguing to hear spoken, is very little like Elizabethan English (aka Early Modern English), which for the most part is perfectly understandable to the modern ear.  No interpreter needed. And here is a delightful example of same in the linked video below.

What boneheads are writing scripts for that show? Can it truly be that no one, from show runner to producers to lowly script girl, managed to notice that the 16th century was NOT Chaucer’s England, a-wash in Middle English? Good grief. It was not just a stretching of a fact but flat-out, jarringly wrong in a show which depends upon the nuances of history and a man displaced from his proper era to work.  The plot as written required that no contemporary person easily understand what this mystery boy had to say about his origins, but one doesn’t accomplish this by arbitrarily revising what version of English was spoken when.  If you need to abuse history that severely to support your plot, get a better plot.

FEH, Sleepy Hollow, feh! Or should I say, “Fie on thee!” in stoutly Elizabethan tones.
One more pooch-screwing like this and I shall cease to watch. I can’t tolerate a show that tramples suspension of disbelief so aggressively underfoot, ravaging history as they go.

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