Monday, January 18, 2021

Murderous foxes, loving tigers (Following folktales around the world 186. - South Korea)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folk tales from Korea

Zong In-Sob
Holly International C., 1982.

The book contains 99 folktales. The foreword tells us about the author, who was born in 1905 and spent his childhood listening to Korean folktales from friends and family. Later on he was among the founders of the Korean Folklore Society, aiming to collect and preserve folklore traditions for future generations. The tales in the book were gathered after World War II, and the author, being a linguist and literary scholar, translated them into English himself. 
In the introduction the author praises Korean culture, history, language, and inventions; he holds all of these in world-class high esteem, including the storytelling tradition. While he lists many international parallels for the tales, he points out that they are still essentially Korean. The introduction delves into the types of myths and tales in Korean tradition, as well as Korean Buddhism, shamanism, and folk belief. In the end, he mentions the partition of North and South Korea, and wonders if it will appear in folk stories in the future.


Naturally my favorite tale in the book was The story spirits (which is well known to storytellers worldwide). It is about a boy who loves listening to stories, but never passes them on, so the spirits of the tales plot to take revenge on him, and he is barely rescued by his old teacher.
The best origin myth claimed that in ancient times people sometimes randomly turned into oxen, and then accidentally ate each other (that is, humans ate the oxen). A man discovered that if one ate onions they never turned into an ox again - and that ended both shapeshifting and cannibalism among the people.
The tale of Yoni and her stepmother was a beautiful love story where a girl was chased into the woods in the winter to find fruit. She met a boy named Willow, who gave her fruit, and they fell in love. When the evil stepmother killed Willow, Yoni managed to revive him with a magic potion - and her turned out to be the deity of rain himself. He married Yoni and took her up to the heavens.
Another love story featured a Tiger girl. She took on human form and fell in love with a man, but because of this, she had to die. She wished to die by her lover's hands, and she made it happen by attacking the king's daughter. Her lover then got to marry the princess he rescued, as a last gift from the tiger girl. The most unique love story, however, was that of the Centipede girl, who also took on human form, and lived with a man (who helped break her curse). It was especially interesting because the man already had a family, and he met the girl after he tried to drown himself in the river. The centipede sent money to support the family, and eventually returned to heaven. 
I liked the tale in which all men in a family were cursed to be devoured by a tiger very young. One cursed son was rescued from the tiger by two clever girls, and he ended up marrying both of them. 
The legend of the nine-tailed fox was both exciting and very dark. The fox spirit disguised herself as a girl, and killed ninety-nine men with her kiss, aiming to rise to heaven. The hundredth man, however, outsmarted her, and stole her jewel that contained all the wisdom in the world. In another exciting tale a fox witch took over a mountain goddess' realm, and a mortal man had to fight her with the aid of the Dragon King.


The legend about the birth of the Sun and the Moon resembled the story of the seven kids; a tiger in disguise tried to trick two children, but they ran away from him and climbed up into the sky, where they were turned into celestial bodies. There was also a flood myth, combined with the folktale motif of the grateful animals.
The tale of the woodcutter and the heavenly maiden was a bird bride story, where the husband followed his wife into the sky after she managed to get her stolen wings back. Eventually he returned to earth to visit his mother, fell off the heavenly horse (á la Oisín), and turned into a rooster. The story of why dogs and cats hate each other was an Aladdin type magic ring (magic mortar) tale; the legend of Lake Zangze belonged to that type where a greedy man is punished by water flooding his house, turning the village into a lake.
The two brothers and the magistrate belonged to my favorite "detective" folktale type, where two men solved mysteries with keen observation. The "gift of the little people" tale type here featured goblins, who gave the kind man a magic mallet, and stretched the unkind man's tongue so long he used it as a bridge. Eventually, the kind person helped him reduce his tongue to its normal size. The man and the tiger was an entertaining version of the Brementown musicians; here the hero saved a girl from a tiger by hiding his friends around her house. The extraoridnary helpers tale here presented four sworn brothers who all had their own supernatural ability - for example, one of the could pee a whole river...
I was reminded of Mediterranean stories by The fox girl and her brother, where once again a girl turned out to be a man-eating demon, and after she ate the whole village, it was her brother who managed to kill her.
The trickster in residence was the rabbit, who managed to trick a hungry tiger multiple times (e.g. with the tail-fishing trick). The ungrateful animal sprung from a trap was a tiger, who was tricked back in by a wise toad. The story of Zibong put an interesting twist on trickster tales: he was a clever servant who tricked his master multiple times, and in the end made him jump into the river with his family so he could marry his daughter. The daughter, however, did not want a trickster husband, and jumped after her parents.

Where to next?

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