The Hero: Korean Literary Perspective on the Timeless Ideal

November 13, 2015

The beauties of humanity have long inspired authors; its paradoxical quiet voracity has provided countless metaphors for authors to pick and pluck from.  Humanity, a cross-cultural motif, thematically and simultaneously globally relates with respect to the “Hero”. Regardless of the cultural perspective, the Hero possesses qualities of strength, perseverance, cleverness, and above all – honor. Social and historical philosophies consign heroism into one major thematic facet: The Idealistic Aspiration of Human Life.  My love of candles is partially because I view them as small symbols of heroes. They persevere through the darkness, grasp their flame despite what wind blows, but when they do blow out, they will never fail to be re-lit and shine just as brightly as they did before.

As an American educator, I have taught the “Hero” and his/her many forms as seen in American and British literature, but through the dedication and kindness of The Korea Society, I was able to first encounter and develop my understanding of the Korean hero; through the extreme generosity of The Academy of Korean Studies, I was able to travel to Korea on the Spring 2010 Fellowship and follow the literary footsteps of the Korean hero.

During the summer session at the Korea Society in the particularly hot August 2009, Dr. Mark Peterson, a respected scholar of Korean studies from Brigham Young University zealously taught a group of American educators about the art of writing Korean sijo poetry. Through hours of dedication and instruction on the syllabic form and poetic structure, I laboriously and ardently struggled to write my first sijo:

Leaving behind diamond dreams in the city that never sleeps.

You journey to the land of Ottomans, while I weep.

Your gifts were all empty promises; my heart remains dust to sweep.

I realize as I write this poetry that the Korean hero is not one who is perfect at first try, but replicates the ancient Greek Odysseus, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and the American Paul Bunyan in that the Korean hero is one who tries, fails, and tries again. The Korean hero would not write perfect sijo in his first attempt, but would instead write 1,000 failures that he folds into paper cranes until he writes one more that pleases him. The Korean hero would simultaneously hold the past, the present, and the future in the palm of his hand.

We find the transcendental hero in the writers of Korean history. Approximately ¾ of a year after having the pleasure of learning from Dr. Peterson, I found myself congenially situated on an extended bus ride with him to the National Museum of Seoul. He turns to the group of American fellows and from memory recites:

Though I die and die again; though I die one hundred deaths

Long after my bones turn to dust, whether my soul exists or not,

My heart, forever loyal to my Lord, will never fade away.

Eternal honor demonstrated by the brave Jeong Mongju embodies all qualities and characteristics that drive and create the hero. Remaining faithful to his king, with the foresight of failure and the knowledge of tainted blood, Jeong Mongju accepts his mortality, spiritually and physically, but never at the cost of loyalty. While Beowulf’s men flee at the sight of a dragon, and Odysseus’ men cause the descent away from Ithaca, Jeong Mongju remains steadfast through his death, and his heart never does fade as a hero and ideal amongst the Korean people, and now the Americans as well.

Korean literary heroes come in all forms – whether as Admiral Yi Sun Shin, Tan’gun, Hwang-jini, or Helie Lee – they all share the commonality that it is the dedication, valor, and honor of the people that create the “Hero.” I was very lucky to encounter true-life Korean heroes as I was devastated with the passing of my grandfather while on the Spring 2010 Fellowship. The heroes who take the form in the Academy of Korean Studies did everything in their power to assure that I had an immediate flight home, on Easter Sunday, to be with my family during our difficult time. As an educator of literature, I read about heroes on a nearly daily basis, but as a human being, I encountered true heroism while in South Korea.

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