The Story of Hong Gildong (date and author unknown, trans. Minsoo Kang)

The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th  century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.

There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.

The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:

Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.

The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.

The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.

Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.


The Black Spider (1842, Jeremias Gotthelf, trans. Susan Bernofsky)

A community of serfs, set an impossible task by their tyrannical lord, is offered assistance by a mysterious green man: in return for helping them, the serfs must provide him with an unbaptised child. The serfs accept, thinking that they will be able to outwit the green man (who is, of course, the Devil). I trust I won’t be accused of giving away spoilers if I say that things do not turn out well, or that disaster appears in the shape of a monstrous black spider.

That’s the set-up for a fiendishly entertaining story, one that’s liable to give you some less than pleasant dreams. The splendidly-named Gotthelf (a pseudonym; he was really Albert Bitzius, a Swiss pastor) is a master at conveying fear, dread and appalling physical pain. But this isn’t readily apparent for the first fifth of the book, which lulls us with scenes of delightfully cosy comedy. In the midst of an idyllic valley, a christening is taking place – and what a christening! We have the bustle of preparation, the comic tension of a narrowly avoided blunder and the extravagant indulgence of celebration. The descriptions of food rival those in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: wine soup with saffron and cinnamon, beef soup with bread, ragouts of brains, mutton and pickled liver, sliced beef, thick slices of bacon, prodigious cheeses, dried pears, local pastries and cakes with names like Züpfe, Habküchlein and Eterküchlein. You might be forgiven for letting your mind wander while your stomach stakes its claim to your attention. You might also be curious, or impatient, as to where all this is leading. Where’s the damn spider? After a while, I started to feel anxious; surely it isn’t these good people, at the height of their happiness, who are about to be terrorized by the titular arachnid? Fortunately, no, it isn’t. During a break in the feast, the baby’s grandfather regales the guests with an old, long-forgotten tale concerning the very valley in which they live…

It’s a story (or rather stories; the grandfather tells two of them, set generations apart) we’re meant, at some level, to believe. Place names and topographical details root it in a community, making claims of literal truth, while the narrative’s sermon-like qualities and the biblical cadences of its prose reach for a higher, non-literal truth. Significantly, in a book written by a priest, it is a priest who plays a prominent and heroic part in the action, while both narrators (the grandfather and the authorial voice who relates the frame tale) make pointed, preaching remarks to their listeners/readers, urging them to keep to the right path. Dismiss the story if you will, but do so at your own peril.

Not altogether surprisingly, the chief transgressor and villain of the piece is a woman, Christine. I wonder if there’s any significance to the name; it suggests a feminine version of Christ (another, very different, character is a man called Christen), who sacrificed himself for the sake of others, whereas Christine’s plan involves sacrificing another for her own sake. It is she who persuades the community to agree to the Devil’s bargain, she who seals the pact with a kiss, believing herself capable of somehow tricking him at a later date. As a sure sign of her impudence and wantonness, even before the Devil requests a kiss of her, the narrator notes that she ‘might even have resorted to caresses in the hope of gaining time.’ A rather alarmingly conservative morality is evident throughout the book. Not only is Christine a woman, she is also an outsider, i.e. not local. In fact, she is sometimes referred to as ‘Lindau Christine’ or ‘the woman from Lindau.’ Not for her the traditional feminine role of passive domesticity, for here is a ‘frightfully clever, daring woman,’ not the sort ‘who is content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children’ (tellingly, she has no children, though she is married – to a weak man who does as he’s told). The Devil informs her that he approves of bold women who do not flee him, and to reiterate the point, we later meet two more women from outside the valley, one of whom is clever and strong and in charge of her household; these two are scarcely better than Christine. Just in case we don’t get the message, the narrator makes it as plain as can be: ‘ …vainglory and pride took root in the valley, brought and fomented by women from other lands’ (hmm… not sure if something that has been fomented can take root). There are wicked men, too, of course, though they are associated with foreignness (such as von Stoffeln, the overbearing lord, and his knights, who have fought in other countries and are not local) or womanhood (either by being ruled by women, such as Christine’s husband and brother-in-law, or by being notably attractive to them, such as an unruly servant who is also an outsider). Lest we think that all women are bad, we are provided with a few models of ideal femininity: an austerely devout grandmother, a couple of devoted mothers. And that, ladies, is what you should aim for if you don’t want to die in agony after being bitten by a huge demonic spider (not that achieving this aim will be sure to safeguard you from such a death). And men, if you’re keen to avoid the same fate, then stop complaining about your slave-driving maniac of a boss and get to work – and whatever you do, don’t let your women step out of line.

Now, about this spider… In a grotesque parody of birth, it begins to make its appearance just after a child is successfully baptised, and occasions a particularly icky scene of body-horror following a second baptism. The adoption of its final, ghastly form is accompanied by a ‘horrific hissing sound like wool in fire, like lime in water.’ It can move with astonishing speed, making escape impossible. Stones, axes and cudgels are useless against it. It takes sadistic pleasure in taunting and playing with its victims before it kills them, glowering at them with malicious eyes. It is ubiquitous and indestructible. Against such a foe, there appears to be no hope:

And the one who was most cautious where he set his feet and who peered most sharply with his eyes would suddenly see the spider sitting on his hand or foot, or racing across his face, sitting fat and black upon his nose and peering into his eyes, and flaming thorns lodged themselves in his marrow and hellfire engulfed him until he lay dead.

After World War II, many readers saw in The Black Spider a kind of clairvoyant proto-allegory of Nazism, with its depiction of a community being almost overcome by a sweeping, dominating evil. You can read the plague into it as well, if you are so minded. What interests me is that though it shows a community given over to panic and fear, fear itself assumes a somewhat ambiguous quality. On the one hand, the inhabitants of the valley, in abandoning themselves so completely to mortal terror, lose sight of God and the salvation of their souls, thereby not only securing for themselves a painful death, but also precluding them from afterwards enjoying heavenly bliss. Gotthelf stresses repeatedly that the truly righteous feel no fear in the face of deadly evil. The heroic characters arm themselves with faith to the extent that their fear vanishes; others, who fail to do so, are weak and helpless. But fearlessness is displayed by villains as much as by heroes, most notably by Christine. In addition to the green man’s praise of her boldness, it is stated that ‘her insolent heart [is] devoid of fear’. There is also one of von Stoffeln’s knights, who rides out to destroy the spider, and who is likened to a heathen for fearing neither God nor devil. He comes a cropper, of course.

If fear of death and of the devil is a mark of weakness (pointedly, the villagers’ fear of the Devil is greater than their fear of God), an absence of fear is not more laudable if it entails fearlessness before the Almighty; defiance, as the grandfather says, can lead to misfortune. Gotthelf’s religion is one in which fear is of paramount importance, for without fear – the right kind of fear – there is complacency, which leads to sin. Gotthelf’s God is a deity who browbeats his people with raging storms, which, though they are described with relish (‘every cloud became a warring army, each assailing the next, attacking its life force in a wild melee of cloud’), for the most part, don’t seem to have the desired effect on the villagers. They do succeed, however, in spurring the priest into action. He and Christine both stride into the same tempest undaunted, she taking it for ‘a sweet rustling of leaves’, he fortified by the knowledge that ‘he who walks God’s path can safely entrust himself to God’s storms.’ Gotthelf’s style is at its most Biblical here; the priest seems almost superhuman in his courage and steadfastness (‘his feet striking no stones, his eyes blinded by no flash’); he is likened to a warrior seized by a holy battle lust. This is a struggle between Good and Evil in the most starkly Manichean terms, appropriate to the distant medieval past, a fervent, turbulent age of crusades and cathedrals, depicted in the bold lines and colors of a stained glass window or manuscript illumination. This world is very different from the comfort and ease enjoyed by the grandfather and his audience, whose general pleasantness and good humor contrasts with the sharply differentiated righteous and unrighteous figures preyed upon by the spider.

The contrast is less than at first appears, of course. For in the contentedness of the modern-day (i.e. 19th century) villagers, free from cares, is there not a danger of complacency? That contentedness contains several subtle and not-so-subtle hints that we ought not to take it at face value. The cleanliness of the grandfather’s farmhouse is likened in the second paragraph to family honor, which ‘must be upheld day after day, for a single unguarded moment can besmirch it for generations with stains as indelible as bloodstains’. A reference to Easter is followed by the reminder that Heaven is attained only by those who ‘sought their salvation in the realm of the Father and not here on earth’. The spring flora, which burgeons heavenward, is a symbol of human destiny. A verse on a platter used to display the party food mentions the fires of hell. In his sermon at the christening service, the pastor says that human lives should be nothing more than a gradual ascent to heaven. There are high stakes even in these scenes of cosiness, even in the cosiness no doubt enjoyed by the reader, who perhaps – only perhaps – is in need of a reminder of those stakes.

Vainglory, vainglorious, pride, proud: repeated words of condemnation applied by the grandfather to the people who feature in his narration. How are their pride and vainglory manifested? By ‘unseemly displays’ in faces and clothes; by continuous rebuilding of their houses, expanding them as they grow richer, furnishing them luxuriously; by frequent feasting and celebration. Not so different from the prosperous ‘modern-day’ villagers, then, who like to build large, comfortable homes and celebrate christenings with extravagant feasts. They may, on the surface, seem affable and respectable, but when put to the test, as were their precursors, how would they fare? Of course, dear reader, one trusts that you would not yield to temptation, but perhaps some of your relatives, your friends, would not be so steadfast. In the context of such a rigid moral code, even a seemingly throwaway remark about young people not knowing the importance of rising early assumes a darker coloring.

The Black Spider is a good example of how a sense of humor can co-exist with a grim, forbidding understanding of morality and society. For there is humor here, whether it be the amusement provided by the framing scenes (especially a bit about a godmother being obliged to eat more and more food until her stomach is fit to burst) or the black, sadistic comedy of the spider’s rampage. But Gotthelf insists, nonetheless, on the importance of sobriety. Though the depiction of the christening and its ensuing party might seem attractively jolly and festive, we’re meant, retrospectively, to see how inappropriate that jollity is to the seriousness of the occasion. The ceremony of baptism is shown by the grandfather’s narration to be one of crucial importance, involving, as it does, the small matter of the salvation of a human soul. Yet the modern-day villagers seem more concerned with the business of eating, drinking and making merry. The fact that this particular christening is taking place over Easter compounds their thoughtlessness. In the grandfather’s narrative, their forebears display an even greater frivolity – celebrating baptisms with feasts even under the circumstance of their having done a deal with the devil. The priest advises them to tremble and pray; their reward for ignoring him is death by demon spider. I suppose that few readers today will be minded to tremble and pray after reading Gotthelf, but though one might be tempted to laugh at his clerical sternness, it’s not so easy to dismiss his tale’s unsettling power.