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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Story of Hong Gildong

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To purchase The Story of Hong Gildong

Title: The Story of Hong Gildong
Author: {unknown}
Genre: Novel
Written: (ca. 19th century) (Eng. 2016)
Length: 92 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Story of Hong Gildong - US
The Story of Hong Gildong - UK
The Story of Hong Gildong - Canada
  • Korean title: 홍길동전
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Minsoo Kang
  • Previously translated in various editions

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Our Assessment:

A- : quick and simple, but very enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 18/1/2016 .
The Washington Post . 9/3/2016 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "This engaging, essential tale will interest not only students of classic East Asian literature but enthusiasts of Korean modern culture." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(A) marvel-filled swashbuckler (.....) Besides being half fairy tale, half social protest novel, The Story of Hong Gildong possesses a profound resonance for modern Koreans." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Story of Hong Gildong is a -- indeed, arguably the -- classic Korean tale, translator and editor Minsoo Kang beginning his Introduction:

     The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e. premodern) prose fiction of Korea, in terms not only of its literary achievement but also its influence on larger culture.
       Among the comparisons he suggests to give non-Korean readers an idea of how familiar the figure and name is: both Robin Hood and 'John Doe' (as his name is widely used in similar manner).
       Interestingly, then, there appears to be relatively little certainty even as to what century the work was written in, much less who its original author was. Though it is often ascribed to sixteenth/seventeenth-century poet Heo Gyun, Minsoo Kang makes a compelling case in his Introduction that it only dates to the nineteenth century -- the most convincing evidence being simply:
In fact, there is no evidence of anyone actually having read a work entitled The Story of Hong Gildong until the second half of the nineteenth century.
       [Just how firmly ingrained the idea that Heo Gyun authored the text is is made clear by the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data front-matter in this edition which, despite Minsoo Kang's introductory protestations, nevertheless ascribes the work to: "Ho, Kyun, 1569-1618" -- likely misplacing the work by some two centuries .....]
       In addition, there are also "thirty-four extant manuscripts, most of them featuring textual differences to varying degrees"; the one this translation is based on, the pilsa 89 version, is the longest "and probably the oldest of the surviving manuscripts".
       Even this longest version of the story is short and quick: 77 pages here (though an additional twenty-plus pages of 139 certainly useful end-notes can be counted too, rounding things off at an even 100 pages).
       The story is simple: a high official -- a state minister -- of the Hong family gets carried away, and when his wife won't let him have his way with her he beds a maid, Chunseom, who promptly becomes pregnant. The minister makes her a concubine -- and she quickly earns "the animosity of a senior concubine whose name was Chorang". Chunseom gives birth to a boy, who is given the name Gildong.
       Gildong is an exceptional child, and already at a young age he: "exhibited magnificence in both the strength of his body and the brilliance of his intellect". But, alas, he was born of a concubine, which means he can never rise above a very second-class-standing in this rigid and hierarchical society. And while dad loves him a lot, he won't allow the boy to call him 'Father':
This became a source of great sorrow for Gildong, who constantly lamented that he could not properly acknowledge his own father and brother, and had to endure contemptuous treatment in the household, all because he was lowborn.
       Chorang keeps plotting against the boy, but even isolating him and not allowing him to do much but study only make him more formidable:
He spent much of his time at his reading table and mastered the Juyeok until he gained the power to summon supernatural spirits and control the wind and the rain.
       Nevertheless, he eventually leaves his father's household -- under quite dramatic circumstances -- and joins up with a group of bandits. He quickly becomes their leader and establishes a community -- but insists that they live by certain principles:
We may be outlaws living in a mountainside hideout, but we will not commit acts of treason by stealing property of the common people or inflicting harm on them. Nor will we take treasures being sent to the capital or money and grain being collected by the government.
       To make catching him even harder, Gildong literally creates eight lookalike straw men -- he: "fashioned eight human figures out of straw and cast a magic spell that imbued each of them with a spirit", sending one to each of the eight provinces.
       Naturally, crafty (and supernaturally-endowed) Gildong is impossible to catch -- but a filial sense of duty still compels him to solve the problems he's creating for beloved (if unacknowledgeable) dad and the family. Eventually he sets up his own kingdom on an island -- and also does right by his father.
       It's a quickly-told tale, but in its summary style, with only a few highlights recounted at greater length, is surprisingly effective. From Gildong's conception to his and his band's thieving ways, some of this is morally problematic, and Gildong's embrace of and dedication to tradition at nearly every turn -- including in creating his own kingdom -- seems a bit at odds with the fundamental problem that these traditional ways led to (after all, everything is the fault of him always being considered and treated as a second-rate son, excluded from government service and much else simply because of who his mother was). But the loose presentation also allows a lot to be read into the story, and it can be interpreted -- at a stretch -- in a variety of ways.
       A bit stilted, a bit rough, The Story of Hong Gildong is -- strictly as a work of fiction -- certainly flawed. Yet it is also almost entirely winning -- and a good, fast, and even exciting read.
       Minsoo Kang's useful Introduction and extensive and detailed endnotes also provide all the necessary context, and in this form the novel also serves as a great introduction to (classical) Korean society.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2016

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