CAUTION: This post is longer than usual. Make sure you had a good night's rest before proceeding.
I'm currently on this knowledge binge where I'm trying to edify myself about the language and culture of the Motherland (more than just watching 미수다). I bought a couple of books at Kyobo last week, but I've been distracted by Hana Yori Dango, so I've only recently cracked open the books. As a supplement to my hagwon studies, I've decided to read Once Upon a Time in Korea: An Elementary Reader on my own. I chose the book for a couple of reasons. 1) The book is a good way to familiarize myself with Korean folk stories and fables. 2) The book is simple in grammar and sentence structure, but will help me to build up my sorely lacking vocabulary. Each story is well footnoted and includes a glossary as well as cultural notes.
For further exercise, I'm going to post my own translation of each story.
I had considered trying to jazz up each tale with my own storytelling, but I've decided to translate the stories as closely as possible, as it will allow me to compare and contrast the English and Korean way of writing.
I will follow each story with my own amateur analysis. Heng has warned me that most of the stories in the reader are simply stories without much of a moral, but I've decided to examine each story anyway and try to discover my own take-way-point or two.
Anyhoo, today's story is:
바보 온달과 평강공주*
Stupid Ondal and Princess Pyeon-Gang
Long ago in the kingdom of Goguryeo, there was a young man who lived with his mother. His name was Ondal. His neighbors called him “Stupid On-Dal.” At that time, in the palace there lived a princess. This princess’ name was Pyeong-Gang. Ever since she was a young girl, Pyeong-Gang cried often. Thus, in order to get Pyeong-Gang to stop crying, the king would always say this: “If you cry like this, I will have to marry you off to Stupid Ondal.”
Pyeong-Gang grew up well. It was now the time for her to get married. The king introduced her to good men. But, this is what Princess Pyeong-Gang said: “I am going to marry Stupid Ondal.”
The king became infuriated.
“If you marry Stupid Ondal you must immediately leave the palace. I don’t want to see you!”
Princess Pyeong-Gang packed her bags. She then left to search for Stupid Ondal’s house. Princess Pyeong-Gang explained everything to Stupid Ondal. Princess Pyeong-Gang and Ondal got married. After that, Ondal learned many things from Princess Pyeong-Gang. He learned how to read and write as well as archery and horseback riding.
One day, enemies attacked the country. Everyone started to flee. That’s when Ondal said to people, “Please don’t run away. Let’s chase these enemies out together!”
Ondal received a sword and armor from Princess Pyeong-Gang. Ondal and his soldier fought [the enemy]. Ondal and his soliders and the enemy forces confronted each other on a battlefield. However, no one made the first move. That’s when Ondal stepped forward and started fighting with the enemy soldiers. Then, the general of the enemy army came out. Ondal killed the general with one stroke. The enemy soldiers were so afraid that all of them ran away.
Everyone praised Ondal. The king summoned Ondal to the palace. The king asked, “What is your name?”
“My name is Ondal.”
The king was very surprised.
“Are you really Ondal?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
Ondal received a large reward from the king. Afterwards, Ondal became a general. Additionally, he did a lot of work (service) on behalf of the country. Unfortunately, Ondal died while fighting the Silla.
- The end -
* I was initially going to type out the entire story in Korean, but given how long it took me to type out the title, you'll just have to settle for my translation or go out and buy the book for yourself.
Firstly, this translation exercise has given me insight into the writing of my native Korean students. Many of my students were good at constructing sentences in English, but could not seem to grasp the idea of transitions or flow in writing essays and paragraphs. It often seemed like they were writing in stream of consciousness. I realize that as an elementary reader, this book may not be the best representative of Korean writing, however, I think from what I've managed to read in magazines or internet articles, Koreans are not as strict about transitions. Organization in writing is more about relevancy than segue ways. This may come as a surprise, but this notion is very freeing, yet hard for me to get used to.
As for the story of Ondal and Princess Pyeong-Gang, whether a specific moral was intended or not, the fact that the story has been passed on for generations suggest that the story reflects intrinsic Korean values. I will totally admit that I am unqualified in making any serious claims as to what we can learn about the Motherland through this story, but I will go ahead and offer my own cheeky thoughts anyway.
Let's start with the fact that Princess Pyeong-Gang took her father's threat literally and married Stupid Ondal. Was this just a tool of irony or is this a caution to parents everywhere? Lesson #1: Be careful of your threats, Moms & Pops. Reminds me of how my friend Isabel used to threaten to become a lesbian whenever her protective Mexican father wouldn't let her within three feet of the opposite sex. Or, maybe this story is suggesting that Korean women like their men dumb and pretty?
What are we to make of the fact that a man labeled "Stupid Ondal" was able to win the admiration of a king and country because of one highly visible act of courage? This story reminds me of a very well-known American folk hero named "W." Good ol' "W" was ridiculed throughout the land for his ignorance and bumbling ways, but through his strong stance against enemies on homeland turf, he was momentarily able to win the favor of the entire country.
I'm curious about how Ondal became known as "Stupid Ondal." Did he have a slow manner of speech? Did he once walk into a wall and was never able to live the incident down? Did one mean kid label him as stupid and the rest of the kingdom just follow suit? Also, does the fact that Pyeong-Chang taught Ondal everything he knew underline the idea that behind every man is an even cooler woman?
Unfortunately, these answers are not available through my Elementary Reader, so you'll just have to conjecture on your own.
I'll leave you one more question to ponder. How would you update this tale? If I were to update this story to reflect modern times, I'd probably change the main character to "Ugly Ondal" who eventually gets plastic surgery and becomes the most sought after actor in all the land.