The famed saga of Korea’s bandit prince comes in for a new translation, if one that’s not quite idiomatic.
“Kick me with full force, so that I may know your strength.” Not exactly the sort of thing that one would cry out in the midst of some emotional moment, not exactly the most memorable of challenges. Yet, the statement and its rejoinder—“But after you kicked me I could feel my organs vibrate and my body shiver, so I know that you are a man of tremendous power”—alert us that we are in the Land of Translation, a place lots of readers associate with mustiness, fustiness, and all-around yawns. The most exciting of Hong Gildong’s adventures come to us in a chrome of not-quite-English. In fairness, he has many of them.The anonymous early modern epic celebrates the deeds of a lowborn lad, the son of a concubine, whose abilities—“He needed to hear only one thing to understand ten, and learning ten things allowed him to master a hundred”—did not go unremarked in court but naturally excited intrigue and jealousy. What’s a good prince to do? Go off and battle for truth, justice, and the Korean way, of course, taking up cause with the merry bandits of the Taebaek Mountains, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and doing suchlike things that would meet with the approval of a checklist-wielding Joseph Campbell: liminality, check. Near-death experience, check. Students of comparative mythology will be interested to see how bits of other literatures (especially Arthurian) turn up in Hong Gildong’s story. The introduction might have made more of this lineage and discussed in more detail how modern Korean writers make use of the story in their work, but it does a competent job overall of placing the book in the context of Korean literature.
If you read only one book about Korean heroic outlaws this season, this should be the one.