Big Folktales, Small World - Korean Folktales
Updated: Jul 13
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. Each country has its own beloved tales. Popular ones cross borders and oceans for all to enjoy. The above familiar stories, while they originated in other countries, have become part of the American fairy tale scene.
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. To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), I am retelling a few, ever popular Korean folktales.
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 the link to watch Korean folktale videos!
The Gold Ax and the Silver Ax
Long ago, a woodcutter was cutting wood near a pond and — kerplunk — he accidentally dropped his ax into the water. At a loss as to what do, 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 and asked the woodcutter, “Is this your ax?” The woodcutter replied, “No, it is not.” The spirit disappeared -- gurgle, ripple -- 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 ones.”
The delighted woodcutter 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. Next, let’s read a more familiar tale, often dubbed the Cinderella of Korea.
Kong Jwi And Pat Jwi
A long time ago, a widower lived with his daughter, Kong Jwi, who was a very kind girl.
Kong Jwi’s father met a woman, who had a daughter named Pat Jwi, and married her. 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.
Then, the stepmother made her fill an urn with water, which was an impossible task 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 furnished her with silk clothing and shoes decorated with flower designs!
Kong Jwi finished looming, put her silk clothing and flower shoes on, 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.
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. :) So hang in there when the going gets tough.
If you enjoyed these stories, check out these and other folktales in video: https://www.eeyagitales.com/resources
This article was first published on the Multicultural Kids Blog site. https://multiculturalkidblogs.com/2020/05/11/big-folktales-small-world-korean-folktales/