2016’s The Story of Hong Gildong is a translation, by Minsoo Kang, of a classic Korean tale.
Born to high-ranking Minister Hong, Gildong is bright, talented, and clearly destined for a glorious future serving the kingdom. Or he would be, if only he were the son of the minister’s legal wife, rather than being the son of a concubine.
Gildong was raised in his father’s mansion and was given a scholarly education. But he is of much lower status than the children of the legal wife. He cannot aspire to high status occupations. To even call his father “Father” or his brother “Brother” earns immediate punishment.
His situation is worsened by rivalries between his father’s concubines. Chorang is bitterly jealous of Gildong’s mother Chunseom and loathes Gildong. She schemes to have Gildong killed. She attempts to convince the minister, her master and Gildong’s father, that Gildong is too bright, too talented, too ambitious to be tolerated. He will inevitably try for power and doom his family, perhaps even the nation.
The minister resists these efforts; although he follows the law regarding concubine’s offspring, he is very fond of Gildong. So Chorang plots an assassination.
Teukjae is a master assassin who has never failed. Gildong is but a boy, armed only with good character, keen insight, familiarity with the classics, and a prodigious talent for reality-altering sorcery. How can Gildong hope to prevail?
Having easily vanquished Teukjae, Gildong realizes his destiny must lie far from his father’s household. He embraces the only course open to him: he becomes the legendary leader of an army of bandits targeting corrupt Korean functionaries.
He promises to spare his father and his father’s household from any consequences of his decision. But his efforts naturally bring the state’s attention to Gildong and the Hong family. Consequences ensue.
In addition to the story itself, Minsoo Kang provides an introduction in which he rebukes his fellow scholars for embracing the standard views regarding the history of this text. Kang also supplies extensive end-notes.
Some readers may note the inconsistency between the promises Gildong makes to his family (my actions will not harm you) and his subsequent actions. This seems familiar; I’ve seen this sort of thing in the Chinese1 heroic fiction in which I am better experienced. I must suppose that heartfelt vows are necessarily quickly forgotten. The more dramatic the promise, the faster it is erased. At least it took longer than in The Bride With White Hair.
As his father points out, Gildong’s situation is hardly unique. Many children of aristocrats are relegated to secondary status by virtue of their mother’s lowly origins. This appears to be entirely due to an attempt to reconcile two irreconcilables: monogamy and polygamy. To quote from the text:
In the previous dynasty of Goryeo (918‑1392), polygamy was legal and widely practiced by elites who could afford to do so. In Joseon, however, Neo-Confucian ideas on family life dictated that a man could have only one legitimate wife. Wealthier men continued to bring extra women into their households as concubines, but these women had no legal standing in society. When a Goryeo man died, all of his wives and their children were eligible to receive a part of his property, but in Joseon only the one wife and her children could claim the inheritance.
The status of secondary children was a sore point at this time in Korea. To quote from the text:
Seoeol men found themselves in a difficult situation as they grew up in yangban households. They became intimate with yangban men who were their fathers, half-brothers, and friends, and had access to education. But they were not accorded the rights of nobility. As a result, despite their privileged upbringing and high educational level, they often had to depend financially on their relatives or engage in the occupations of commoners to live.
The only difference between Gildong and the other children of concubines is that destiny is on Gildong’s side. The plot being driven entirely by the friction between the status Gildong’s abilities should earn him and the status to which he is relegated2, one cannot help but feel that the author is making a point here.
It appears the conventions of this genre do not include any pretense that the protagonist will face significant challenges. Gildong’s opponents may be highly motivated, crafty, powerful, and skilled. Gildong is playing in God-mode; he has whatever abilities he needs to prevail. Every confrontation is a curb-stomp battle in his favor. What dramatic tension exists is provided by two questions: whether the Hong family will survive having produced Gildong and what marvelous and previously unmentioned new ability Gildong will produce to prevail in his current battle3.
I came to read this work thanks to mentions of this popular tale which stressed the parallels between Gildong and Robin Hood. It was something of a surprise that Gildong isn’t only bright, capable, and trained in martial arts; he also possesses magical abilities that would awe Merlin. Perhaps if I were more familiar with Korean literature and folk tales, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It is a popular tale, adapted into other forms frequently, but I’ve not seen any of them.
No doubt there are subtleties that elude me in this tale, but I must admit that I enjoyed Minsoo Kang’s commentary more than the actual story.
1: What an excellent place to observe that I am aware China and Korea are different polities and cultures. However, they were in routine contact so it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see literary conventions from one pop up in the other.
2: I suspect that if Gildong were a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays, he’d be the villain seeking to elevate himself above his rightful place.
3: Reading this, I was reminded of the SF protagonist Telzey Amberdon, who turns out have all necessary talents to win in any struggle.