Monday, August 3, 2009

The Boy, the Rope, the Dead Horse, and the Slave Girl

I've been reading Korean folktales lately, and they are quite a mixed bag. The Korean tiger appears a goodly number of tales, though the tiger itself hasn't appeared in Korea since early in the twentieth century. Some of them have a pretty clear moral, but others seem confusing, at least to this Western mind.

Here is my summary of "The Story of the Boy and the Piece of Rope" which I found here. It starts off pretty well, then gets, well, odd:
A small boy twists together some straw into a rope, then creates the rope into a loop, which he shows to his mother. 'Mother, look at this long piece of rope I have made. It is so long, I cannot even measure to the end of it.'
The mother chastises him for being foolish, and the boy runs away. Along the way, he meets a travelling potter who needs a new rope to fasten the wares he carries around on his back. He trades the boy a pot for his rope. Later, the boy meets up with a woman carrying a pot of water on her head. When she turns around, the pot falls and breaks. She trades the boy a bag of barley for his pot, and the boy travels on his way.
That night, he stays at an inn, and his bag of barley is stolen. The innkeeper has no barley, but instead replaces it with a bag of rice. The next night, his rice is stolen while he is staying at the next inn along his way. The innkeeper had no rice, so (here's where it starts getting really weird) he offers him the carcass of a horse that died during the night.
At the next inn, his dead horse is stolen; having no dead horses, the innkeeper replaces his loss with a slave girl who had died that morning. Later, the boy comes to a well, and while resting, placed the dead body of the girl in a sitting position with her back against the well.
A slave from a neighboring house stumbles against the body while trying to draw water, and knocks it into the well. The boy pretends that the girl has drowned on account of this, and demands a replacement from the householder.
He is given a new slave girl--this one alive; he takes her home, marries her, and they live happily ever after.

First of all, Korean inns in the olden days were remarkably disreputable places, but ones whose owners seemingly felt a personal responsibility for the illegal behavior of their patrons.

Secondly, the story starts out well, with the lad managing to trade up incrementally on his loop of rope, but it veers to the illogical (not to mention macabre) with the dead horse: a) who wants a dead horse?--it's the epitome of useless, there's no point in even kicking it; b) how is he going to carry it around, as he has traded away his piece of rope earlier? and c) is a dead slave girl actually equivalent to a dead horse? I mean, you can eat horse meat, but ...

Thirdly, what is the moral of this tale? Yes, I am assuming it is supposed to have one, just because they usually do. Well, more than that, that is their function: to illuminate cultural history, to instruct proper behavior, to reinforce cultural norms.

Anyway, Korea has quite a supply of folktales, as you might expect from any sufficiently ancient culture. In addition to the file above, here are a few other places to look, if you are interested:


1 comment:

N Jill Marsh said...

I think it's just a funny story about trading up.

Sometimes a dead horse is just a dead horse.

This is a great blog, by the way.