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Fabulous characters entertain pandemic-weary readers

A scene from Walt Disney's 1998 animated action film Mulan. The box office-hit was based on the Chinese folk tale of the female warrior Hua Mulan. / Korea Times file
A scene from Walt Disney's 1998 animated action film Mulan. The box office-hit was based on the Chinese folk tale of the female warrior Hua Mulan. / Korea Times file

'Folk Tale Characters' ushers readers to literary creatures

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Shin Dong-hun's new book "Folk Tale Characters" is a readable literary analysis that compares characters of Korean and international folk tales to draw their fascinating, yet unrealistic common nature.

These exuberant characters are ordinary people born with extraordinary capabilities, entertaining coronavirus pandemic-weary readers and further ushering them to exciting adventures.

Shin, a professor of Korean literature at Konkuk University in Seoul, said he hopes the characters he revisited in his book can inspire readers stressed out amid the lingering pandemic to regain hope and energy in their lives.

His new book is also for himself.

In the foreword, the author describes himself as a person having lived a life for others while forgoing happiness and personal gain to lead an ethical life.

"Regarding an ethical life, I don't mean that I am an ethical person," he said. "It would be more accurate that I've lived my whole life under pressure that I need to be ethical. I was a good boy for my parents and tried not to disappoint them. I was a good student at school and a responsible breadwinner for my wife and children. As a professor, I also had to be reliable."

Because of that pressure, he said, his life was neither fun nor happy. After three decades of teaching at university, he said he wanted to find a life that could entertain him with fun experiences.

According to Shin, characters in "Mulan," "The Lion King," "Tom and Jerry" and "Aladdin" are all from folk tales.

He said his journey to discover oral literature from around the world for this book was such a fulfilling, refreshing experience.

The author finds a striking characteristic of folklore characters around the world that distinguishes them from those in mythology or fiction novels. Folk-tale characters are "tricksters," whereas mythology revolves around heroes. For fiction novels, timid individuals in distress are the main characters.

Tricksters are usually born with a great deal of intellect or secret knowledge and play tricks and oftentimes break existing rules or customs to fulfill their own satisfaction.

"Tricksters are doers. They are simple-minded and fearless and do whatever is needed to fulfill their desire," Shin said.

He compares a little tailor in the German fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor" by the Brothers Grimm, and a Korean character Jung Man-seo in the namesake tale based on a true story to draw their common nature.

The two are odd geeks and their stories are surreal. But they are optimists who lead their own lives not being bound by cultural restrictions.

The little tailor realizes he is a talented warrior after killing seven flies with one blow of his hand. He embarks on a journey, becomes a giant killer and finally becomes a king. Compared to the German character, Jung Man-seo, who is believed to be a real man living in the southeastern city of Gyeongju during the Joseon Kingdom of the 19th century, is rather a character displaying Koreans' sense of humor.

"Folk Tale Characters" by Shin Dong-hun
Jung is an explorer and wanderer traveling from his hometown back and forth to other cities. He is eloquent and beloved by others for his timely, witty comments and outgoing tendency. To a saddened family member while in his sick bed, Jung consoles him, saying, "Don't cry for me."

He never loses a sense of humor in the face of death, saying death is near him but he's not sad at all because he doesn't know what death is like.

"People who are stuck in agony and mourning helplessly, without thinking about finding a way out from that lingering desperation, I call people like them fiction novel characters because we see figures like them in novels," the book says.

"They find themselves helpless and hopeless in the face of brutal reality, full of insanity and violence, and choose to give up without trying to make things happen. I know the reality is more similar to fiction novels rather than folklore.

"Bad things happen and sometimes they show no signs of ending. From time to time, good things happen, too. In most cases, however, they are short-lived. But such imbalance doesn't always exist. There are times in which we become giant killers. Sometimes we achieve come-from-behind victories like the folklore characters do."

Shin is author of the best-seller "Korean Mythology Alive," a book adapted from the mega-hit "Along with the Gods" movie sequel. He has collected folklore for the past 30 years and has released many books about Korean folk tales.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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