Book Title: The Story of Hong Gildong
Author: Minsoo Kang (English translator), Original Author Disputed
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Mythology
Page Count: 128
Format: eBook (Library)
Reading time: 1.5 hours
Date Finished: 2/09/17
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My impressions: I happened upon The Story of Hong Gildong as I was searching for a short classic to read on a brief flight – I wanted to have something loaded on my Kindle that I could read quickly after I finished another book, and I was hoping for something that would be different from other books I’d read recently. I struck gold in finding The Story of Hong Gildong – it’s an English translation of one of the most famous works in Korean literature, and while it’s virtually unknown in the Western world, it’s as big a part of their culture as the Journey to the West novel (that’s partially translated in Monkey) is in China.
With that said, I’ll admit that I found Hong Gildong to be a little bit less accessible as a story – it’s distinctively Korean and takes place in an extremely high-context culture of the Joseon Dynasty where there are all sorts of rules governing how families interact. The story begins with a man named Minister Hong having a dream of great power and deciding that he needs to immediately bed his wife. When she refuses, he decides to force himself on a lowborn 19-year-old servant (who really seems more like a slave) and then takes her as a concubine when he finds out she’s pregnant. She gives birth to a son, Gildong, who not only inherits his father’s nobility, but who also shows a great talent for knowledge, combat, magic and wit, making him a hero of the era. The problem, however, is that he’s lowborn, which means he’s not allowed to call his father Father or his highborn brother Brother, much to Gildong’s chagrin. He’s also despised by another concubine who can’t bear children, who works hard to ruin his standing with his father and then attempts to have him killed because of her jealousy.
From that point, the story splits into three parts: how Gildong survives the attempt on his life, how Gildong happens upon a band of assassins and becomes a bandit king who robs from the corrupt and gives to the poor, and how Gildong conquers another kingdom and finally becomes a noble himself, altering the path of his father by ensuring that his own sons, no matter which station they’re from, are equally loved.
While the story has some really interesting moments, Gildong himself is overpowered and never has any chance of losing. He’s smarter and more capable than everyone, and it’s only because he’s bound by codes of honor and decency that he ever keeps his own behavior in check. The story is really much more about the difficulties of upward mobility in a regimented culture and how one has to operate on the outskirts of what is permitted to have any chance to become something other than society dictates. Gildong’s fate is to be a great hero and king, and even though it should not be possible, he achieves that goal without relying on his lineage to get him there. Even so, his path involves duplicity and deception, aggravating kings and organizing groups of bandits to make his point and achieve his goals. He’s also constantly concerned about protecting his father, brother and mother in reputation and in standing, even though they have done nothing to change his position or to aid him in his journey.
I feel like I understood the broad strokes of what the story was trying to convey, but as an American, it’s very hard for me to connect to the tale in a manner than truly feels what it’s conveying. Unlike the story of Monkey, where a godlike being is forced to temper his selfishness in exchange for enlightenment (something I think we Westerners can grasp since it’s similar to many Christian themes), the story of Hong Gildong is about a godlike being using his power to shape the world around him until he is finally on the path he was meant all along. It’s harder to understand the moral of that story if you’re a Western reader like myself, and it’s also harder to recognize the heroism of the character beyond the simple recognition that Gildong is a hero because the story says he is.
And while Hong Gildong is sometimes compared to Robin Hood because of his “take from the corrupt rich and give to the starving poor” attitude, his motivation is very different; Robin Hood is an outlaw by circumstance awaiting the return of a Christ-like king who will set the world right, whereas Hong Gildong is an outlaw by choice who eventually uses his power to establish his own island kingdom by conquering a group of demons masquerading as human nobles.
What I’ve read is that this story is essential to understanding Korean literature, and the wildness and constant duality of the story are themes that resonate with those who have grown up in Korean culture quite strongly. I would love to learn more from Korean folks I encounter in life what the story means to them… and to see if they feel the same distance to some of the stories we Westerners cherish than I feel to this one.
I’m still glad I read this book; it’s helped me to think a little bit differently and to see the world from a slightly different vantage. Plus, it’s one more reference from East Asian culture I’ll understand should I ever come across it!