Unsurprisingly, given the fraught nature of the country’s recent history, much Korean literature can be rather serious and heavy (judging by what makes it into English, at least), and while I’m not averse to such works, there’s also a time for something a little lighter. Luckily, one of my recent reads provided a welcome antidote to all the societal hand-wringing, which was surprising as it’s one of Korea’s seminal works of literature. However, if you consider old books to be dull, sleep-inducing tomes, think again – this is a classic any school kid would enjoy reading 😉
The Story of Hong Gildong begins long, long ago, with the introduction of a minister of the royal court who has a portentous dream. Realising that it concerns a future child, he’s keen to visit his wife to bring this future a little closer, but unfortunately she rebuffs him. Instead, he visits one of his concubines, and nine months later Gildong is born, the son the minister’s dream foretold.
This is ancient Korea, though, where lineage is everything, and while the minister loves his son, admiring his intelligence and application, Gildong’s low birth means he is fated to be shut out from any glittering future around the court. What’s more, his mother isn’t the only concubine around, and the evil Chorang begins to plot against him, hoping to have him killed. Little does she know that her plans don’t stand the slightest chance of coming to fruition – not much can harm you if you know a little magic…
Hong Gildong has been described as a Korean Robin Hood, and there’s certainly a lot of truth in the description, as Gildong’s first stop after leaving home is to fall in with a bunch of merry men and become their leader:
He addressed all the bandits. “We will go forth across the eight provinces of Joseon and seize wealth that was ill-gotten, but we will also help the impoverished and the oppressed by giving them goods. And we will do so without ever revealing our identities. We will go after the powerful who obtained their riches by squeezing the common people and take away their unjustly gained possessions.”
p.31 (Penguin Classics, 2016)
To truly get the full idea of his character, though, you’d have to mix in a bit of Harry Potter and a large dollop of Superman. You see, Gildong is able to magically transport himself between locations, summon up spirits, create doubles of himself (literal straw men for people to chase after) – oh, and fly, of course. He’s not your average bookworm.
The story (a fairly short one) is divided into three distinct parts. The first section concerns his early years at home, outlining the neglect and intrigues of certain members of his household and showing how his diligent studies enable Gildong to master magic and other useful skills. When Chorang manages to persuade an assassin to put an end to the family’s embarrassment, it turns out that he’s no match for the young boy:
And so he raised his dagger and cautiously went forth to commit his act, but then he found that Gildong had disappeared without a trace. Suddenly, a fearsome wind blew and thunderclaps shook heaven and earth. The room then transformed itself into an immense field filled with countless rocks, layers of green mountains that soared into the air with intimidating grandeur, and rivers that flowed gently through valleys. An abundance of blue pine trees made the scenery all the more fair.
Teukjae tried to orient himself in the strange environment as he thought, “A moment ago I went into Gildong’s room to kill him, so how did I come to this mountainous place?” (pp.16/7)
The hapless mercenary is mercilessly dispatched, along with a couple of the other plotters, but sadly the boy realises that those around him have betrayed him, so he decides it’s time to leave so as not to bring trouble upon the rest of his family.
The second part describes his stumbling upon his own merry men, the Hwalbindang, who swear fealty to the youth after he proves his worth with a cunning raid on a famous temple. This is just the start of a campaign of terror against the rich and corrupt, and no matter what the authorities try, Gildong is able to avoid them effortlessly. Finally, they come to the point where it’s almost easier to simply concede that he’s beyond their laws.
However, Gildong is no mindless criminal. An avid scholar and a follower of Confucian doctrine, he is loyal to his father, his elder brother and the Joseon King. The tragedy of the story, and the impetus for all his deeds, is the fact of his illegitimacy, which prevents him from being recognised and granted the position and affection he craves. In truth, his actions are merely attempts to create a place for himself in society, but he may have to create his own society to be truly accepted.
The Story of Hong Gildong is an enjoyable story which will appeal to many readers. It’s wonderfully written (i.e. translated) in an excellent, compelling style, never appearing stilted or clumsy. Kang has got the tone spot on in his translation, crafting a text catching the register of traditional folk- and fairy tales. In fact, even here, there’s a lot that ties it to tales such as those of Robin Hood and King Arthur.
While the story is the main attraction, there’s also an interesting story behind the book. Kang’s introduction explores the work’s origins, dispelling the myths behind its creation. The story was long thought to have been written several centuries ago, but research has shown that it probably dates from the late nineteenth century, and the translator briefly discusses the major issues facing researchers of the text, namely determining which of the many versions out there (some short, some long, many with differing details) is the real Ur-Hong Gildong.
For me, this all adds to the attraction of the book, but if literary history isn’t your thing, never fear – you can simply ignore all that and just read the story. I won’t say how it all pans out (where would be the fun in that), but rest assured that there’ll be a happy ending with a Korean twist. The Story of Hong Gildong is a wonderful little book, with plenty of magic, murder and monsters – and if you ask me, that’s how all classics should be 😉