Rip Van Winkle: Twenty Years of Missing Time
A literary perspective

by Raymond W. Cecot, Organizational Director, IRAAP

Foreword - As a student of English Literature in college, I have always been fascinated with certain authors, especially some of the American writers. Once I became interested in "unusual" phenomena (such as UFOs, alien encounters, etc) I kept a close eye on Washington Irving's tale Rip Van Winkle, and began to relate some of its aspects to the alien abduction concept. At first I would bring this up in my talks on the UFO subject, always wanting to eventually put into writing my thoughts on Rip Van Winkle's possible alien encounter. I have finally done so. Although it is not the definitive work on the subject, you may find it interesting enough to provoke further investigation. Whether you have read Rip Van Winkle before or not, I hope this inspires you to pick it up, and enjoy it from an entirely different perspective. -Ray

The concept of "alien abduction" has become the object of much scrutiny and research among UFO enthusiasts during the twentieth century. Beginning with the famous Betty and Barney Hill case in September 1961, right up to the present day, countless witnesses have come forward claiming to have been taken against their will by beings not from this earth. No one knows the cause of this abduction phenomenon -- whether it is extraterrestrial in origin, spiritual, interdimensional, or merely some sort of psychosis -- any explanation may hold the answer. Yet, the history of alien abductions in UFO research may go back as far as the advent of man on this planet.

Ancient literary works have been interpreted as alluding to visitations by alien beings and their interaction with mankind. References to visitors from space can be found in texts as far back as ancient Sumer and India, down through Greek and Roman civilizations, the Bible, and into the Middle Ages. This theme continues on with the discovery of America and its growth as a nation. Washington Irving's The Sketch Book contains a work which has become a favorite among scholars of American Literature. Rip Van Winkle, with all its simplicity and enigmatic overtones, has been read and studied by students from grade school to post-graduate level. It has been translated into numerous languages including French, German, Polish, Yiddish (to name a few), often with elaborate illustrations. Although studied from various viewpoints including historical authenticity and significance, allegorical value, humor, folklore, and politics, Rip Van Winkle is rarely, if at all, mentioned in UFO literature. If so, it is with a humorous, tongue-in-cheek air. However, Rip's apparent twenty year nap may be seen as a representation of the now familiar "missing time" syndrome. If other literary works can be viewed in this light, thenRip Van Winkle also has the potential for such an interpretation. To do so, it is necessary to approach the story, not from a traditional literary analysis, but from an underlying message which lies waiting to be revealed.

Folklore inevitably contains a kernel of truth upon which a particular story is based. In the case of Rip Van Winkle, the tale contains many elements of the modern abduction scenario. It is possible to view Washington Irving as a story teller who stumbled upon an account of some "strange" event which took place in the Catskill mountains of New York State. As with modern day alien abduction stories, the people of Irving's day would have had difficulty understanding what actually took place and putting the event into words. The folktale of Rip Van Winkle may have been the result, and the use of the fictitious character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, may have been a convenient way for Irving to relate this story without repercussion.

To this day, the Catskill Mountains are filled with tales of anomalous events. From strange lights in the forest to "little people" such as fairies and elves, the mountains have a certain "otherworldly" quality to them, bewitching to anyone who finds himself within their wooded slopes. Diedrich Knickerbocker, said to be an old gentleman from New York, was very curious about the Dutch history of the area. As presented by Irving, Diedrich Knickerbocker's research was not derived so much from books as it was from his personal contact with the local residents, who were found to possess a wealth of information regarding Dutch history and folklore. His chief merit was his scrupulous accuracy. With this allegorical perspective in mind, the examination of Rip Van Winkle in light of the alien abduction phenomenon becomes one of interpreting both the literal text and the underlying meaning. It may very well be that Irving is trying to relate a story which is as difficult to accept as it is to understand.

In order to keep the events in the Rip Van Winkle story close to the alien abduction perspective, the relationship will best be seen by juxtaposing the various components as they unfold. This will be seen by use of the terms RIP (Irving's story) and ABDUCTION (relating to the abduction phenomenon) before each segment.

The story opens with a description of the "Kaatskill" mountains, an offshoot of the Appalachian chain. The mood is quickly set by placing the reader in a location filled with "magical hues and shapes" amid the "fairy mountains." Residing in one tiny village is a man named Rip Van Winkle, "a good-natured fellow [and]... a kind neighbor." His main character flaw is described as an "insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor." This may have been in part to his overbearing and nagging wife. Nevertheless, Rip found it impossible to keep his farm in order. His fences were in continual disrepair, his cows would wander out of the pasture, and weeds found a way to overcome his crops. In short, his farm was in the worst condition in the area. In his defense, Rip is always seen to be helpful to others in need, especially to the good wives of the village who regarded him with great favor. "The children ... would shout with joy whenever he approached ... not a dog would bark at him throughout the neighborhood." "He would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil, and was a foremost man at all frolics for husking Indian corn, or building stone-fences; the women of the village, too, used to employ him to run errands, and to do such little odd jobs ..." Certainly, any man assisting in building a stone fence should not be considered "lazy." Obviously, Rip's lack of enthusiasm stemmed from his abuse at home.

Abduction research is replete with a sense of "otherworldliness," referred to as a "Zone of Strangeness" by Dr. Thomas E. Bullard, an abduction research analyst. Abductees often enter a state where the laws of nature no longer seem to apply. The realm of the fairies has the same quality, as related in many of the tales surrounding these beings. Yet, Rip Van Winkle, himself, is a man who lives in the reality of his world. He is well liked throughout his village, recognized and respected by man, woman, child, as well as beast. He is hard working when it comes to lending a helping hand to a neighbor in need. On the home front, however, he is in a continual state of ridicule, his wife seeing him as worthless and lazy. Some abduction researchers may see this aspect of his life as a formation of an "encounter-prone personality" where an abused individual may be predisposed to an encounter with alien beings. Although the research in this area (as with most aspects of the abduction scenario) is difficult to label as definitive, some abductees have been found to suffer from a high degree of "childhood abuser" trauma. Rip Van Winkle definitely falls into the category of "abused" from the tongue-lashings of his wife, abuse which may or may not make him a "high risk" for an alien encounter.

The abuse at home grows worse as time goes on. Rip Van Winkle's "sole domestic adherent" is his dog, Wolf, who shares the insults of Dame Van Winkle with his master. Wolf is described as "courageous an animal as ever scoured the woods." Eventually, Rip is "reduced almost to despair," so to avoid any further vituperation, he heads for the mountains for a day of squirrel shooting, his gun in hand, his dog at his side. With the sheer joy of being alone with his canine companion and the sounds of nature -- not to mention the lack of his wife's voice to interrupt his peacefulness -- Rip finds that he has mused too long. Darkness would be upon him before he would be able to return home. He quickly begins his descent from the peaks when he hears "a voice from a distance, hallooing, Rip Van Winkle! Rip Van Winkle!'" At this point he looks around for the source of the voice, but sees nothing but a "crow winging its solitary flight across the mountain." Thinking he imagined the voice, the same cry is repeated. This time, Wolf reacts by bristling "up his back, and giving a low growl." Wolf skulks "to his master's side, looking fearfully down the glen."

Once the abuse at home reaches a point where it becomes unbearable, an individual often takes measures to either rid himself of the abuse or find a means of coping. Some shut down, closing their feelings off as much as possible. Others, unfortunately, may resort to murder or suicide. Fortunately, Rip Van Winkle decides to spend the day in one of his favorite pastimes, squirrel shooting. Inadvertently, he stays too long in the mountains and becomes stressed and "he heaved a heavy sigh," when he realizes he will invoke Dame Van Winkle's wrath in getting home after dark. [Relate this to the "encounter-prone personality" above.] He twice hears a voice calling his name. It is possible that the voice could have been "heard" in his head, a possible telepathic communication. This "voice," whether audible or telepathic, becomes a "Drawing Force" often found in the abduction experience. This drawing force lures the potential abductee to a UFO or alien being. Two items are worthy of note here:

1. At the first instance of the voice, a crow is seen flying across the mountain. This is significant because many alien encounters are prefaced by the witness seeing an animal of some sort: a deer, an owl, etc. Why this occurs is unknown and the subject of much conjecture. Some theorize that aliens may be "shape-shifters," showing themselves as something familiar to lessen the abhorrence of an encounter with an unfamiliar being. Others speculate that the "image" of a familiar object is mentally placed in the victim's mind. A variety of theories exist in this regard and may all be equally valid. Researchers have a difficult enough time proving abductions actually occur, without giving definitive reasons as to why animals may often be associated with them. We will see the reference to animals later on in the story after Rip has his encounter with the strange little men.

2. After the second call, Rip's dog reacts. The reaction of an animal to a UFO event is significant because it lends some validity to the occurrence. An animal's reaction proves something is taking place in our physical realm. In Wolf's case, his reaction is one of fear. (Remember that in the story he is described as courageous.) He emits a low growl and his fur bristles up on his back. He finally skulks beside his master, perhaps using him as a shield to stand between him and whatever is nearby. This is not the normal reaction of a domestic canine to the presence of a stranger. Usually, once the "defense" mechanism is triggered, the dog would stand between the intruder and his master. Wolf's timid reaction is indicative of something that is out of the normal course of events.

"Rip now felt a vague apprehension stealing over him," and looking in the same direction as his dog sees a "strange figure slowly toiling up the rocks." The figure's back is bent over as he carries something quite heavy. Rip, being a helpful soul, thinks it might be a neighbor in need; however, as the stranger approaches nearer, Rip is surprised at the oddity of the stranger's appearance. He is equally surprised to see any human being in such a "lonely and unfrequented place." "He was a short square-built old fellow, with thick bushy hair, and a grizzled beard." He is dressed in what could only be described as "antique Dutch fashion - a cloth jerkin strapped around the waist - several pairs of breeches ... He bore on his shoulder a stout keg ... and made signs for Rip to approach and assist him with the load." Rip does assist with carrying the keg and together they continue to climb up the mountain. Only what Rip believes to be an occasional peal of thunder disturbs the scene.

Abductees are beset with the strangeness of their situation during the abduction experience. At the onset there is often a feeling of "vague apprehension" that something is about to take place. In many abduction cases, it is the little grey beings who actually bring the abductee to the craft, either by allurement or actual force. Rip Van Winkle is filled with apprehension even prior to seeing the little man approach. The small being is reminiscent of dwarves and other little forest-inhabiting creatures from stories of long ago. He also reminds us of the little Greys associated with modern day abductions. Notice that there is no verbal communication between the man and Rip. There seems to be some gesturing, but Rip understands perfectly what he has to do. This may reflect some telepathic communication, as well. The gesturing has an aspect of "sign language" used by the deaf. In the abduction scenario, there have been reports of the use of sign language by alien beings.

Eventually, the two came to "a hollow, like a small amphitheatre, surrounded by perpendicular precipices..." It is stated by Irving that Rip and his companion "labored on in silence ... there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired and checked familiarity."

It is important to recall at this point that Rip Van Winkle has always been friendly to all of the neighboring folk in his area. It is not in accord with Rip's character to let himself remain unfamiliar with his companion. Yet, the story states that due to the "strange and incomprehensible," any type of familiarity was held at bay. Certainly, this is consistent with UFO abductions. Abductees are generally treated more as objects to study, rather than beings with whom the aliens wish to become familiar and establish a relationship. Notice, also, the end of their journey brings them to a sort of "hollow" with "perpendicular precipices," not unlike an "amphitheatre." Although this may seem insignificant at this stage of the story, it is important because after Rip wakes up from his sleep, this structure is no longer to be seen. The amphitheater-like, perpendicular structure is not unlike the inside of a space ship often described by abductees. Once inside a craft, an abductee often speaks of an examination room that is circular or curved (amphitheater-like). The walls are usually perpendicular.

Once inside the amphitheater, Rip notices other things which are a wonder to him. There are a group of odd looking little men playing "nine-pins." These men are dressed in similar garb to the man Rip helped in carrying the keg up the mountain. "There was one who seemed to be the commander ... What seemed particularly odd to Rip was, that though these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed. Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder."

Once inside the circular enclosure (amphitheater), Rip notices other men similar to his companion. They are involved in playing what Rip believes to be nine-pins, a type of bowling game popular at the time. The sound of the rolling ball reminds him of the peals of thunder he heard while on his journey up the mountain. Notice too, that the men, although seeming to amuse themselves in Rip's estimation, have on the gravest faces. There is absolute silence, except for the noise of the rolling ball. Abductees often speak of the Greys as being very methodical in their approach to the abductee. They are described as "focused" on what they are doing, almost as if their task is of the utmost importance and nothing will deter them from accomplishing it. Perhaps the nine-pin game is something Rip cannot understand, so he identifies it with something familiar to him. Whatever the little men in the story are doing, they are intent on getting their job finished, so much so that they labor on in deafening silence. One of men is referred to as the "commander." Often abductees speak of a being, unlike the Greys, who comes on the scene and appears to have an air of authority. This being seems to be obviously in charge of the situation. The Greys give this authority figure the respect due a central figure.

Rip and the little man approached this remarkable scene with their keg. All activity ceased and they "stared at him with such fixed statue-like gaze, and such strange, uncouth, lacklustre countenances, that his heart turned within him, and his knees smote together." The contents of the keg were emptied into large flagons. His companion "made signs to him to wait upon the company. He obeyed with fear and trembling." All this was done in the most "profound silence." Soon the little men returned to their business at hand, and when they were not observing him, Rip ventured a taste from one of the flagons. One taste led to another, until "his eyes swam in his head, his head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep."

Aliens have been known to have a deep, penetrating stare which can both comfort and instill fear into an abductee. As Rip approaches the busy scene, all activity stops, and each face stares at him with a "lackluster" countenance. There is no real expression here, no sheen or vitality. Aliens are often described as being emotionless, with no concern for their captive other than the work they have to finish. Whatever the work is, Rip is told to distribute some of the liquid to all present. He does so "with fear and trembling," not knowing what it is he is giving to the men. Notice that at this point in his encounter, Rip still has not heard any words spoken. There is gesturing, and one can almost assume some "mental" communication. In fact, throughout Rip's entire encounter with these strange entities, there is no oral communication at all. There are numerous allusions to possible mental telepathy and the use of sign language; however, actual verbal communication is non-existent. This silence does seem to cause Rip some degree of consternation. Eventually, Rip becomes bold enough to sample the beverage he had been serving, but it soon overpowers him and he falls asleep. Whether his captors wanted him to drink is not known in the story, but it looms as a definite possibility. Here ends the actual abduction experience. What follows is the aftermath.

"On waking, he [Rip] found himself on the green grass knoll whence he had first seen the old man of the glen." The day is sunny, the birds active in their singing and an "eagle was wheeling aloft." Rip believes he slept the entire night on the mountain, and even recalls the events before he fell asleep. His thoughts fearfully turn to his wife, who no doubt is ready to make his life more than a little unpleasant when he returns home. He searches for his rifle, but finds only "an old firelock lying by him, the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten." His dog is nowhere to be found, but Rip is sure he merely wandered off after a squirrel or some other interest. He whistles after the dog, even shouting his name, but there is no response.


There is a term used in abduction research called "Doorway Amnesia" which refers to the temporary lapse of memory an abductee has upon entering or exiting a spacecraft during the encounter. Rip seems to have no recollection of leaving the scene of his previous night's meeting, only of some of the events with which he was involved. He recalls the little men and the flagons of beverage. Again, as in the moment immediately preceding his encounter, an animal is also seen upon his awakening. He notices an eagle soaring overhead, and numerous little birds hopping about. He cannot accept what has happened to him, and is quite ready to blame the little men who he feels have played a trick on him.

Rip "is determined to revisit the scene of the last evening's gambol," and is ready to demand that the men return his rifle and dog. Upon rising up, he finds that he is stiff in the joints. He finds the area where he and the little man ascended with the keg, "but to his astonishment a mountain stream was now foaming down it ... At length he reached to where the ravine had opened through the cliffs to the amphitheater; but no traces of such opening remained. The rocks presented a high impenetrable wall..." He calls again after his faithful dog, but the only answer is "the cawing of a flock of idle crows ... who, secure in their elevation, seemed to look down and scoff at [him]."

Many abductees find themselves driven to understand what exactly happened to them, and Rip is no exception. He seeks out the location of the previous night. Although he finds the path he climbed with the little man, it has now become a stream. He follows the stream to where the amphitheater existed on the previous night; however, the amphitheater is no longer there, only high rocks which will not allow passage. Could the amphitheater have been the inside of a spacecraft, as previously explained ? Surely whatever was there before is no longer to be found.

As Rip approaches the village, he meets a number of people, but is surprised that he does not recognize any of them. Being of a gregarious nature, he finds this lack of recognition confusing, for he thought he knew everyone in the village. Even what the people wore seemed a bit odd to him. The villagers in return, looked at him as unusual, stroking their chins as he passed by. This chin stroking was done so often that soon Rip put his hand to his own chin only to discover that "his beard had grown a foot long!" The children, strangers all, "ran at his heels, hooting after him and pointing at his gray beard. The dogs too, not one of which he recognized for an old acquaintance, barked at him as he passed." The village is completely changed, possessing rows of unfamiliar houses and populated far beyond what Rip is able to recall. "His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched." Although he is able to see the familiar Hudson River and recognizable peaks of his beloved Kaatskills, all else is perplexing to poor Rip Van Winkle.

Once a person experiences an abduction, life is never quite the same. Everyday life is somehow different. Often a feeling of "isolation" accompanies the aftermath. Fear of telling anyone about the event only increases the "aloneness," for to reveal something as bizarre as an alien encounter surely lies in the realm of insanity. Rip acutely feels this isolation. He is now alone in his once-familiar world. Notice the story tells that Rip's beard has grown to a foot long. This has an interesting aspect to it. Hair grows at the rate of approximately one-half inch (a little over a centimeter) a month. In a year's time it grows about six inches. If Rip slept for twenty years, as the story says, his beard should be nearly ten feet long, not one foot. Even given the fact that hair growth may slow down as the length increases, Rip's beard should be much longer than a foot after twenty years. This leaves us with a unique possibility. Wherever Rip was for those twenty years, he most likely was not in a place where time passed on a par with time on Earth. Earthly time shows a passage of twenty years, but according to Rip's beard, only two earthly years are accounted for. Where had he been?

Rip is puzzled by how much life in the village has changed. He finds himself perplexed when confronted with terms such as "Federal" or "Democrat." He is unable to understand many of the questions asked of him. Finally, when asked to name some of his old friends, he finds that many have either died or moved away. "Rip's heart died away at hearing of these sad changes in his home and friends, and finding himself thus alone in the world. Every answer puzzled him too, by treating of such enormous lapses of time, and of matters which he could not understand..." The only answer that Rip could make to the many inquiries is "I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they've changed my gun, and everything's changed, and I'm changed, and I can't tell what's my name, or who I am!" Eventually those around him return "to the more important concerns of the election." Rip goes to live with his daughter." It was some time before he [Rip] could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor."

The feeling of isolation increases as the reality of the abduction experience begins to take hold. Everything that was once familiar may take on a totally different perspective. Abductees begin to see themselves as "changed" in their outlook on life, their philosophy, their desires, their needs and wants. They make a supreme effort to try to understand what has happened to them, and/or cope with the entire episode and its consequences. Although everyone acquainted with the abductee may be sympathetic, for them it is just a story and they quickly return to their everyday affairs. Not so with the one who has had the unusual experience. It may take a long time, as it did Rip, to return to the normal way of life.

"He used to tell his story to every stranger that arrived at Mr. Doolittle's hotel. He was observed at first to vary on some points every time he told it, which was doubtless owing to his having so recently awaked ... Some always pretended to doubt the reality of it, and insisted that Rip had been out of his head, and that this was one point on which he always remained flighty. The old Dutch inhabitants, however, almost universally gave it full credit."

Once abductees are able to come to grips with what has happened to them, they are more easily able to tell someone about the event. In fact, to do so may have some therapeutic value. As in Rip's case, there will always be those who doubt the sanity of the teller. On the other hand, there are those who give these stories their "full credit."

Rip Van Winkle
is a story placed in a definite period of American history and thus has the value of presenting the reader
with a description of the times in which it is told. However, beneath the surface lies a tale which relates to today's experience known as "alien abduction." It is important to place this folktale among the collection of literature which has a relationship to today's alien abduction phenomenon. The following statement from Diedrich Knickerbocker at the end of the Rip Van Winkle tale makes the story even more enigmatic:
"The story of Rip Van Winkle may seem incredible to many, but nevertheless I give it my full belief, for I know the vicinity of our Dutch settlements to have been very subject to marvellous [sic] events and appearances. Indeed, I have heard many stranger stories than this, in the villages along the Hudson; all of which were too well authenticated to admit of a doubt. I have even talked with Rip Van Winkle myself, who, when last I saw him, was a very venerable old man, and so perfectly rational and consistent on every other point that I think no conscientious person could refuse to take this into the bargain; nay, I have seen a certificate on the subject taken before a country justice and signed with a cross in the justice's own handwriting. The story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt."

Although Irving's character of Diedrich Knickerbocker is fictitious, he may have been used by the author as a type of literary agent to express the strange tale of a man who had been "missing" for twenty years. Washington Irving would not have been able to explain the story in light of extraterrestrial contact. He therefore expressed it in the language of his time and in terms which he was able to understand.

Fowler, Raymond. The Allagash Abductions. Wild Flower Press, 1993
Fowler, Raymond. The Watchers. Bantam Books, 1990
Fuller, John G. The Interrupted Journey. New York: The Dial Press, 1966
Jacobs, David M. Secret Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
Litchfield, Mary E. Irving's Sketch Book. Boston: Gin& Company, 1901
Ring, Kenneth. The Omega Project:Near Death Experiences, UFO Encounters and Mind at Large. W. Morrow, 1992
Thompson, Keith. Angels and Aliens. New York: Fawcett Columbine Books, 1991
Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia. Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc, 1969


Copyright 2006 IRAAP.org.  All rights reserved.
to top