A maiden finds help from seven quirky dwarfs after she flees from a jealous and wicked Queen who is after her life.
Hungry Jack swaps his cow for magic beans only to find himself fleeing for his life when he disrupts a sleeping giant.
Do these stories sound familiar? Fairy and folktales existed even before the written word. People told them from person to person, from one new generation to the next, all over the world for thousands of years. Eventually people preserved these stories by writing them down.
Each country has their own beloved tales. Popular ones cross borders and oceans for all to enjoy. The above familiar-sounding stories, while they originated in other countries, have become very much American fairy and folktales.
Fairy and folktales from a country or region share a common history and highlight traditions and values, making them ideal for exploring cultures not our own. So to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) in the month of May, I translated into English a few Korean folktales to share.
As you read these stories, keep in mind that a few common themes in Korean folklore are (1) Virtue is rewarded and vice punished – poetic justice, and (2) After the bitter comes the sweet, filial piety. See if you can guess the main theme of each story. Then, check out Eeyagi Tales for other Korean folktales.
Long ago, a woodcutter was cutting wood near a pond and — kerplunk — accidentally dropped his ax into the water. He was at a loss as to what do, so he paced around and around the deep pond.
Just then the water rippled and gurgled and a gray-bearded spirit appeared. The spirit held a shiny gold ax in his hand and asked the woodcutter, “Is this your ax?” The woodcutter replied, “No, it is not.” The spirit disappeared into the water and came out with a shiny silver ax and asked, “Is this your ax?” “No, that is not mine either.” Again, the spirit went away and reappeared with a worn iron ax, and asked, “Is this your ax?”
The woodcutter replied, “Yes! That one is mine.”
“You sure are an honest person. To reward you for your integrity, I will give you all the axes including the gold and silver one.” So the woodcutter happily came away with three axes and lived well.
Upon hearing how the honest woodcutter obtained axes of high value, a greedy woodcutter ran to the pond, flung his ax into the water, and wailed loudly, “My ax, my ax!” Just then, the water rippled and gurgled and a bearded figure appeared. The figure held both a shiny gold ax and a shiny silver one in his hands and asked, “Are these your axes?”
The greedy man eagerly nodded and replied, “Yes, they are both mine!” The silver-haired figure said, “You liar!” and disappeared into the water.
No matter how long the greedy woodcutter waited, the spirit did not reappear. Sulk sulk. “I lost the one ax I had through greed,” and the woodcutter regretted what he had done and cried all the way home.
If you guessed that the theme of Gold Ax and Silver Ax story is virtue is rewarded and vice punished, then you are right. Good job. Next, let’s read a more familiar one, often dubbed the Cinderella of Korea.
A long time ago, a widower lived with his daughter, Kong Jwi, who was a very kind girl.
Kong Jwi’s father met Pat Jwi’s mother and married her but the woman was unkind, and she disliked her stepdaughter, Kong Jwi. Like her mother, Pat Jwi, was mean-spirited and frowned upon Kong Jwi.
Pat Jwi’s mother assigned Kong Jwi a lot of chores, which were difficult for Kong Jwi to complete. One day, the stepmother assigned Kong Jwi the task of plowing the vast field. An ox saw Kong Jwi’s struggle and helped her with her chore. Together, the ox and Kong Jwi completed all the plowing.
Next, the stepmother ordered Kong Jwi to mill rice. This time, a sparrow helped her so she was able to finish.
Another time, the stepmother made her fill an urn with water, which was impossible because the urn had a hole in it. Fortunately, a toad saw her predicament and helped her by climbing into the urn and plugging the hole with his toad body!
One day, the stepmother commanded Kong Jwi to work the loom and left for a grand party at the magistrate’s home with her daughter, Pat Jwi. Kong Jwi lamented her predicament but a fairy appeared and not only helped finish her work, but also gave her silk clothing and shoes decorated with flower designs.
Kong Jwi finished looming, put on her silk clothing and flower shoes, and went to the magistrate’s party. However, she lost one of her shoes on the way. The magistrate came across the shoe in the street and searched for its owner. Of course, Pat Jwi was one of the first to try on the shoe but it was too small. But when Kong Jwi put it on, it fit perfectly!
The magistrate punished Pat Jwi and her mother, married Kong Jwi, and they lived happily ever after.
You may have guessed the main theme of this story is that after the bitter comes the sweet, filial piety.
Representations of Animals and Objects in Korean Folktales
Because mountains cover over 70% of Korea, stories set in the forest and of woodcutters make up much of its folklore. Known to be of a humbler class, any amount gold or silver to a woodcutter was a huge windfall. In The Gold Ax and the Silver Ax, the honest worker is rewarded with riches while the cunning one is outwitted by the Spirit.
Back in the olden days when Korea was an agricultural society, oxen represented an important part of livelihoods since people used them to plow the fields. The ox represents physical strength as well as hard and honest work. In Kong Jwi and Pat Jwi, this symbol of reliability helps the distressed maiden.
Fairy, Celestial Maiden
The above illustrations of fairies are how Korean folklore typically portrays these benevolent female spirits — little different than the plump fairy godmother wielding a magic wand. In most picture book folktales, the fairy is wearing a celestial robe with wide sleeves that allows her to descend to the human world and ascend back to her land. Two circular braids are another notable feature. These fairies appear to rescue the main character when he/she is in desperate need of help.
Male figures that perform similar benevolent, god-like deeds usually appear as gray-bearded grandfathers. In the previous story, The Gold Ax and Silver Ax, the male god spirit is a hunched-back, gray-bearded fellow. Click here for illustration.
Before industrialization, sparrows were ubiquitous in Korea. People heard them chirping everywhere, making them part of daily life, and the bird most familiar to Koreans. Sparrows are present in many proverbs, idioms, novels, folk paintings, and stories.
In some Korean folktales, the frog or toad represents the peasant class. Stories that juxtapose toads against nobility expose the rigid class system of Korean society. This shows the power the aristocrats can wield against its lower-class counterparts. In Kong Jwi and Pat Jwi, the toad is the hero who keeps water from running out of the urn.
Because one staple of the Korean diet is rice, several proverbs, idioms, and stories relate to rice milling and storage. Scarcity of food during those times made rice a valued commodity.
Tales from another country can bring us close to its history and culture. I hope you enjoyed a cultural tour of Korea through these stories. In the month of May enjoy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) with these and other folktales. Check out the www.eeyagitales.com for more tales and other goodies.
Folktale stories and artwork are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.