Korean Myths and Folk Legends

By Pae-gang Hwang. Translated by Young-Hie Han, Se-Chung Kim and Seung-Pyong Chwae. 2006. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company. xxxi + 253 pages. ISBN: 0-89581-855-8 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Timothy R. Tangherlini, University of California, Los Angeles

[Review length: 1368 words • Review posted on August 15, 2007]


The current volume is a translation of Hwang’s well-known compendium, Han’guk ?i sinhwa, first published in 1973 as the fourth of five volumes in a series of world myths and reprinted in 1988. Hwang’s original volume was one of several from the 1970s that attempted to make Korean mythology accessible to a wider Korean-speaking audience. The work has been previously translated into Spanish, and the current English translation was initiated by Stephen J. Reno, who provides a very brief foreword to the volume. For this translation, Hwang relied on numerous translators and, if the opening note of Young-Hie Han, the translator-editor of the volume, is any indication, the task was an arduous one. The difficulty of translating these myths is not surprising, since the majority of them are based on complex reworkings of variants culled from a variety of sources, many of those originally written in classical Chinese.

Hwang’s compilation, comprising twenty-eight myths, legends, and folktales that he has edited and rewritten, relies heavily on two historical sources, Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms). The former, completed by Kim Pu-sik in 1145 CE during the Kory? dynasty, was closely aligned with the ideology of King Injong (reigned 1122-1146). Hwang suggests that Samguk Yusa, compiled by the Buddhist priest Ily?n (1206-1289) during the late Kory?, provides a corrective to some of the politically motivated editorial decisions present in the former. Hwang’s reliance on these two sources reflects an antiquarian slant in Korean folkloristics that held sway up through the late twentieth century.

The volume has a fairly elaborate front matter, including Reno’s foreword and the afore-mentioned apologia from the translator-editor. Hwang provides a preface, introduction, and a “Prologue to Korean Myth.” The preface sets a decidedly nationalistic tone, one that is likely influenced by Korea’s two foremost early mythologists, Yi Nung-hwa and Ch’oe Nam-son. Yi and Ch’oe, like so many of their nineteenth-century continental forebears, engaged myth as part of the legitimizing discourse of nation. This approach was of particular importance in Korea due to the Japanese colonial annexation of Korea in 1910. Accordingly, Hwang writes in the preface that “the myths and legends collected in the book are part of the national tradition passed down by word of mouth over a period of several thousand years by the people on the Korean peninsula” (x), despite the fact that none of the stories is attested prior to the twelfth century.

The introduction to the volume is best read as a reflection of intellectual trends in Korean folklore from the 1970s rather than as a useful scholarly introduction--there is no substantive discussion of sources nor is there any significant discussion of the study of myth in Korea. Instead, both the introduction and the “prologue” are a compendium of Hwang’s musings on the philosophical and religious function of myth, including observations such as “myths are the revelation of man’s fundamental desire to return to the days of original order” (xvii) and “myth is a story explaining the oldest onetime [sic] initial fact and at the same time a science” (xxix). The introduction includes an unexpected discussion of Nazi misappropriation of myth (xix) while ignoring East Asian examples of similar politically motivated appropriation of tradition. The introduction also includes an unfortunate misspelling, referring to Max Müller as Max Miller (xxii).

The prologue is even less useful than the introduction and it could easily have been left out. Particularly troubling are Hwang’s overly Romantic musings on an ideal vision of an early Korea, where “Fields in between secluded valleys are dotted with humble cottages and cozy hamlets from whose chimneys thin coils of smoke rise up at meal times. Some trained animals are howling, some villagers are whispering to one another affectionately, while others are discussing something in a murmur or sometimes brawling boisterously” (xxv). In a gesture toward the myth-ritual school, Hwang intimates that Korean myth derives from an original ritual of Puy? (xxviii), noting that “Myths of ancient Korea had their setting in the vast expanse of Manchuria called Puy?, a land of dream and romance for the Korean people and a paradise where all types of fish and beast such as deer, roe deer, rabbits, bears, and tigers were frolicking” (xxx). Fortunately, the prologue is the last one hears about Hwang’s approach to the study of myth, and the actual stories are allowed to stand on their own.

The majority of the myths compiled here are foundation myths and center on the earliest Korean kingdoms. As with nearly all collections of Korean myths, Hwang’s collection opens with the familiar story of Tan’gun, the founder of the earliest Korean kingdom. The next five myths all detail the founding of successive Korean kingdoms. This selection of stories highlights the close connection between gods and rulers presented in both Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa. The emphasis on foundation myths is not surprising, since of Hwang’s twenty-eight narratives, eighteen are taken from Samguk Yusa, eight of which also appear in Samguk Sagi. The other two main sources for Hwang are Zong In-s?b’s collection Folktales from Korea (1952, reprinted 1970), which provides three stories, and Son Chin-t’ae’s collection Folktales of Chos?n (1930, reprinted 1966, cited in Hwang as 1968), which provides four stories, two of which also appear in Zong. Unfortunately, Hwang ignores the very large corpus of shamanist myths from the different regions of Korea that reveal a complexity and diversity in Korean mythology not readily apparent from this compendium.

There are numerous intriguing yet somewhat confusing stories in this volume. Brief annotations might have been helpful to clear up some of the confusion and to draw out connections between stories. Two of the most interesting stories focus on the penis of the king: in one of these stories (#9), King Suro’s penis is so large that it is used as a bridge, while Queen H?’s equally expansive vulva is used as a mat. In the second penis story (#22), King Ky?ngd?k’s member measures a scant eight inches, an apparent deficiency that ultimately leads to the demise of the kingdom. In other myths, children are hatched from celestial eggs (#2, #4, #6, #12) or children materialize as radiant apparitions in boxes (#11). In several other stories, snake-like suitors (#16 worm, #24 pond dragon) are caught by marking them with needle and thread, a motif paralleled in various Japanese myths. Indeed, once one gets past the front matter, the volume can be quite enjoyable.

The confusion inherent in many of these stories is exacerbated by a tendency toward unidiomatic translations. Given the apparent amount of time and resources that went into preparing the volume, a single native English speaker with some knowledge of Korean mythology should have been enlisted to provide a final language tune-up. Furthermore, without the elaborate apparatus provided by other compendia of Korean myths and legends, such as James Huntley Grayson’s landmark volume (2001), it can be difficult to situate the stories properly. Editorial intervention would also have served the volume well in regards to the accompanying photographs. Nearly all of the photographs are of such poor quality that it is hard to make out what is depicted, even with the help of captions (eg., 121, 132, 203). The captions are at times overly verbose (136) or fail to provide translations of Chinese inscriptions (63 and 67). Some of the picture choices border on the bizarre (33, 51, 84) and have little relevance to the myths they accompany. Finally, the lack of an index makes it virtually impossible to cross-reference stories or to find multiple references to kings, queens, or gods.

Korean Myths and Folk Legends is not without merit. It makes available to an English-speaking audience a number of important foundation myths, along with several other well-known tales in a relatively accessible form. At the same time, it reflects the nationalistic and antiquarian ideas of Korean folklorists from the Park Chung-hee (Pak Ch?ng-h?i) era (1961-1979). The work is both small and affordable, neither of which can be said for Grayson’s work. While Grayson’s work is still the gold standard for English translations of Korean mythology, Korean Myths and Folk Legends would make an excellent supplementary book for courses in Asian mythology and folklore.

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