cover image The Story of Hong Gildong

The Story of Hong Gildong

Author unknown, trans. from the Korean by Minsoo Kang. Penguin Classics, $15 (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-310769-9

In this old Korean tale, the illegitimate son of a government minister, barred from civil and military service, becomes the leader of a group of righteous bandits and later king of his own lands. The fast-paced, sometimes fantastical story of the underdog who becomes a hero—which has been adapted into books, films, television shows, video games, and comics—is “arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e., premodern) prose fiction in Korea,” according to translator Kang, associate professor of European history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In his helpful introduction, Kang (Sublime Dreams of Living Machines) challenges modern understandings of the story’s origins and intent, asserting that the work most likely comes from the 19th century—traditional scholarship places the work in the 17th century. Kang also explains the social context of Hong Gildong’s dilemma during the Joseon dynasty of the 16th century and discusses the story’s significance to modern Koreans. Kang has translated the longest and perhaps oldest version of the tale (a shorter manuscript was published in English in 1968 and reprinted in a 1981 anthology). Detailed endnotes provide further information for curious readers. This engaging, essential tale will interest not only students of classic East Asian literature but enthusiasts of Korean modern culture. (Mar.)