An Inquiry Into the Heroic Nature of Bang Hakjung
Bang Hakjung, a popular figure in Korean folk tales, is called by many names. He is known as a rogue and a scamp, and also more recently as a trickster figure. Due to his fondness for deceiving those above him on the social ladder and knocking them down a few rungs, he may appear to be a hero of the downtrodden as well. It is the goal of this paper to determine just what sort of hero Bang Hakjung really is. A "hero," as the idea is traditionally understood, is one who performs great deeds with exceptional skills and abilities, and who is recognized for these deeds by society at large. A look at some folktales regarding Bang Hakjung's birth shows that the tellers of these tales consider him an extraordinary individual, one destined for great things, but his life does not follow the path to greatness. An examination of other tales will show how fitting the title of hero is for Bang Hakjung.
In the tales where Bang Hakjung deceives and humiliates his master, he would indeed seem to be a hero of the little people, yet he deceives not only his master but pitiable and sympathetic figures such as blind and lame men―and these to their deaths! In the tales that deal with Bang Hakjung's theft of a sticky barley cake, he places an innocent child in danger and brings about the downfall of passersby whose only sin is to ask Bang Hakjung how he came to possess such a delicious treat. There are many other tales in which he plays with language, either communicating his message in such a way to cause the listener to misunderstand, or deliberately misunderstanding a message communicated to him in good faith. What all of these tales have in common is that they are expressions of Bang Hakjung's liminal nature. Being a liminal figure, he is free from the constraints of society's norms and conventions, allowing him to attack the social structure at will.
The hero is one who rather protects the social structure, so it is clear that Bang Hakjung is far from being a hero in the traditional sense. Instead he is a hero in Northrop Frye's ironic mode: an antihero. Unlike the hero, the antihero seeks out the cracks in the social structure and takes advantage of them in an attempt to bring that structure down. Because he stands on the limen, on the border, he is able to see possibilities beyond the existing order, and from that limen he can launch his attacks. Just when we become comfortable with the status quo, antiheroes like Bang Hakjung will appear to open our eyes to the limitless possibilities beyond our sight.