'Hong Gildong': Korea's Classic Swashbuckler Gets A New Translation
Stop me if you've heard this one: A young man from a noble family suffers hardship that robs him of his place in the family. When the men in charge of government refuse to help him, he takes matters into his own hands, gathering a ragtag group of bandits and whipping them into shape to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Also, he has magic powers. You're in, right? (If not, we can talk about the part where he builds doppelgangers out of straw and lets them get arrested in his stead, just to teach the king a lesson. Your move, Robin Hood.)
Hong Gildong is an iconic figure in the Korean literary canon; he's so ubiquitous his name is used as an administrative placeholder, John Doe-style. And discovering him feels like a gentle reproof of folklore myopia in the Western tradition — an ambitious young man chafing against family disappointment and the social strictures of court and turning to a life of noble crime would be (and is) a shoo-in for any audiences that grew up with Robin Hood, Arthur, or any other chosen-hero who goes rogue for a while. There's so much resonance, in fact, that it seems odd Penguin's new edition is one of the few English translations of this story that have been published. He's the mythic center of a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-unsettling tale, and it's time the Western world gets to know him.
That's easier said than done, though. Hong Gildong's legacy is murky enough to make any folk hero proud. Translator Minsoo Kang points out that while the story has been attributed to a 17th-century courtier, there's no proof of a manuscript before the 19th century, which makes authorship tricky to determine — and there are 34 disparate manuscripts facing down anyone who's trying to bring the story to a new audience.
Stop me if you've heard this one: A young man from a noble family suffers hardship that robs him of his place in the family. When the men in charge of government refuse to help him, he takes matters into his own hands, gathering a ragtag group of bandits and whipping them into shape to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
And the edition Kang has delivered is a chewy one, combining historical context and the archness of myth with wry personality. That's no easy task given the thematic interplay going on beneath the magic. One of the biggest tensions in the story is between the necessity of revolution and the comfort of the system. (The Story of Hong Gildong has been called both satirical and subversive, though Kang points out that many of the political issues the novel explores were openly debated around the time it was written, suggesting that the original author might have been using the fantasy elements simply for the pleasure of it, rather than as a smokescreen for commentary.)
The thrill of rebellion gives way to the reliability of order; Hong Gildong does his time as the leader of bandits, but he takes an official ministry post as soon as he can, and yearns for a kingdom of his own. It places him at the intersection of trickster and classic hero, and Kang teases out those layers in dialogue; you can picture the smirk on his face when he opens his audience with the king by announcing, "I, a most disloyal and wicked subject named Hong Gildong, have committed a great crime against the country and troubled the mind of Your Majesty, so I deserve to be executed ten thousand times over."
The set pieces of Hong Gildong — — family murder plots, elemental magic, the occasional beheading — are as familiar as a newcomer could want. For those hoping to pick it apart, the introduction and endnotes provide an intriguing map to the story outside the story: a boom in popular fiction, a glimpse at deep concerns about legacy and social order, and the occasional burst of borrowed Chinese magic. That combination of everyday and myth makes for a story more fascinating than the sum of its parts.
With any luck, it will leave you curious about its greater influence on the Korean literary tradition; the tale has practically become its own genre, with adaptations and reimaginings in conversation for the last few centuries, and hopefully this new edition will spur more exploration. But in every way that matters, Hong Gildong speaks for itself.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Persona.
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