This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the greatest educational enterprises of modern times: In 1946, Penguin Books first issued E.V. Rieu’s modern English prose version of Homer’s “Odyssey.” This specially commissioned paperback launched the celebrated “Penguin Classics,” and over the years since, it has been joined by hundreds of other titles, including Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (with superb notes), poet Robert Graves’s unexpurgated rendering of Suetonius’s “Lives of the Twelve Caesars,” a small library of the bleakly magnificent Icelandic sagas and, not least, many of the finest works of Asian poetry and prose.
That last category now includes “The Story of Hong Gildong,” perhaps the major work of pre-modern Korean fiction. According to its translator, Minsoo Kang, this iconic narrative about a nobleman’s illegitimate son who becomes a kind of Robin Hood “has been retold, revised, and updated countless times in fiction, film, television shows, and comic books.” In his introduction, Kang outlines the scholarly controversies over the origins of this marvel-filled swashbuckler, eventually concluding that it was probably written sometime around the middle of the 19th century by an anonymous author.
The tale, set in a half-imaginary 15th or 16th century, begins when a distinguished government minister named Hong falls into a dream. In it, he wanders through a realm of celestial beauty until a fierce blue dragon suddenly appears and rushes toward him. The minister then awakens, feeling great happiness. Why? One of the book’s many endnotes explains that “a dream featuring a dragon is a sign of great fortune to come.”
Full of high spirits, Hong eagerly leads his wife into their bedroom. “There he took her exquisite hands and made apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner.” Shocked at the proposal of afternoon delight, the wife rejects these advances and flees. Just then, a 19-year-old serving girl appears with some tea. Nine months later, the pretty servant gives birth to “a precious boy whose face was the color of snow and whose presence was as grand as the autumn moon. He was born with the appearance of a great hero.”
The child is given the name Gildong and quickly reveals amazing talents as a scholar and fighting man. As he grows up, Gildong righteously wishes to serve the king in some important ministerial capacity. Alas, because his mother was a concubine, he is only a low-born “secondary” son, destined to the humblest stations in life. Nonetheless, Gildong continues to study military treatises and to master astrology, geomancy and “the magical arts of invisibility and metamorphosis.” He also gains the power “to summon supernatural spirits and control the wind and the rain.”
When a jealous member of the Hong household engineers a plot to have the youth killed, “The Story of Hong Gildong” begins to resemble a sword-and-sorcery fantasy in the mode of the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” On the night of the arranged contract murder, a raven appears outside Gildong’s room and caws three times. The young magician divines the meaning of this warning and immediately casts spells “to change the directional orientation inside the cottage.” When the assassin enters Gildong’s study, he inexplicably finds himself in an immense landscape of rocks, pine trees and mountains. After wandering aimlessly, he eventually encounters Gildong idly playing a flute. In a trice, the would-be murderer is himself cut down, the mountain scene vanishes amid a flash of multicolored lights and “the assassin’s decapitated head fell in the middle of the room.”
Following this night of violence, Gildong flees home and escapes into the wilderness. There he discovers the secret lair of an outlaw band, which he quickly takes over: Henceforth, the bandits will steal from the rich and give to the poor. Before long, though, pressure for Gildong’s capture grows so intense that he fashions eight figures out of straw in his own image, then imbues these replicants with life. Eventually, all these decoys are apprehended and announce to the king that Gildong’s depredations are the result of social injustice. Speaking in their creator’s voice, they say together: “I was born of a servant girl and was not allowed to address my own father as Father and my older brother as Brother. The frustration I felt at my station in life reached deep into the marrow of my bones.”
Prior to founding a royal dynasty of his own, Hong Gildong will undergo many more exploits, my favorite being the story of how he met his future wife. One evening, while collecting medicinal herbs in the mountains, Gildong happens across a gang of humanoid monsters who have kidnapped a beautiful girl. The hidden Gildong immediately wounds their king with an arrow. The next day, he appears at the monsters’ stronghold disguised as a healer. As he is ushered in to treat the king, Gildong again glimpses the beautiful captive “who was trying to commit suicide by hanging herself from a crossbeam. Two other women were holding on to her steadfastly, preventing her from carrying out her intent.” Needless to say, Gildong soon acquires not only a wife, but also two concubines.
Besides being half fairy tale, half social protest novel, “The Story of Hong Gildong” possesses a profound resonance for modern Koreans. As Minsoo Kang points out, its theme of a secondary son who is “disrespected, unappreciated, and underrated,” who must “prove his true worth as a man, a leader, and a ruler,” is nothing less than the story of modern Korea itself.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
Translated from the Korean by Minsoo Kang
Penguin. 100 pp. Paperback, $15