Even though I am familiar with Korean history and politics in general, folklore is my forte. In modern times, we can often see Korean dramas casually incorporating mythological creatures into their storylines throughout multiple genres. And so today I will introduce Korean fairies and compare them to the fairy folk of my home country, Indonesia.
In my country, TV shows are not that creative. We do have movies that are based on ghosts, monsters, and urban legends, but creatures of the night are exclusively reserved for horror. However, in Korea, the entertainment industry often chooses to introduce mythical creatures into romantic comedy, just like Fairy and Woodcutter, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, and of course, the most famous Goblin.
My First Encounter with Korean Faries
I first came across Korean fairies in the drama, Fairy and Woodcutter (2018). As I was watching it, I was like – “Wait…. is this Jaka Tarub?”. It was a slow-burn romantic-comedy drama with a twist, incorporating the fairytale. I remember being quite frustrated with the writing and CGI when I was watching, but overall, it was enjoyable. I don’t want to give away any spoilers. And so, let’s dive into the classic Korean tale.
Korean Fairies: The Fairy and the Woodcutter
To find out more about this particular fairytale, I borrowed some books from my university library. There are 3 books I found that included this tale. Korean Folk and Fairy Tales (Suzanne C. Han) and Korean Folk Tale (James Riordan), both of which include the exact same tale. Han (1991) retold the story as the Woodcutter and the Heavenly Maiden while Riordan (2000) titled it Son-Nyo the Nymph and the Woodcutter. Although the names were different, both presented the same story.
After the woodcutter came across an injured deer and saved him, the deer rewarded his savior by granting him a single wish. The woodcutter had an elderly mother who wished him to marry before she passed. And so, he wished for a bride.
The deer told him that he needed to travel to a lake where fairies bathed and steal one of the fairies’ clothes. However, he warned the woodcutter that he must not return them no matter what happened.
Return to the Heavens
Long story short, the fairy and the woodcutter married with three children. He managed to keep her magical clothes hidden for many years. But one day, she got him drunk and convinced him to give her the clothes back. Once she obtained the clothes, she returned to the heavenly realm with their three children.
Saddened with grief, the Woodcutter tried to find a way to see his family. The deer helped him again. Using the deer’s trick, the Woodcutter ascended to the heavenly realm and spent happily ever after with his fairy wife and three children.
However, after some time, he missed his elderly mother and begged his wife to find a way for him to see her. After persisting for some time, his wife relented and lent him a pegasus from her father. She warned that he must never leave the pegasus’s back, or else he would be banished from the realm of fairies and remain on Earth until the day he died.
Return to Earth
The Woodcutter happily mounted the pegasus to visit his mother. They both shared their own stories and the son told his mother why he could not get off of the pegasus. His mom tried to feed him a bowl of pumpkin soup before he left. Since he could not dismount, he asked her to bring over the bowl of soup.
Needless to say, he dropped the hot bowl of soup on the pegasus. It scared the pegasus and it kicked the Woodcutter off of its back. The Woodcutter could not return to the heavenly realm of the fairies. He could no longer see his wife or children. He died from a broken heart soon afterward. Legend said that he turned into a red-combed cockerel who stretched its neck towards the sky and crowed sadly.
While two of the stories were the same, the third was quite different. Myths and Legends from Korea (James H. Grayson) retold a completely different story. In this story, the Woodcutter met two gray-haired men playing baduk (Korean chess) upon entering the land of fairies. He got engrossed while watching it without realizing that so much time had passed. In some sense, it is like the “Chronicle of Narnia” where the main character got lost in a magical world and stayed there for many years.
Indonesian Fairies: Jaka Tarub & Nawangwulan
The Korean tale of the Fairy and the Woodcutter shares some similarities with Javanese fairytale, titled Jaka Tarub and 7 Fairies.
In the folklore, Jaka Tarub was not a woodcutter, but a hunter who lived with his elderly mother. One day, he dreamt about meeting and marrying a beautiful woman. Coincidentally, his elderly mother also wished him to get married soon and tried to find a match for him. However, she had passed away suddenly before witnessing his son getting married.
Jaka Tarub was devastated and vowed to fulfill his mother’s last wish. Not long after, while he was hunting, he heard girls’ voices at a pond deep in the forest. He curiously approached the source. Sure enough, he saw 7 pretty women and overheard that they were all fairies from the heavens. He recalled his dream and decided to steal one of the fairies’ clothes.
The fairy whose clothes he stole could not get back to heaven. The fairy, called Nawangwulan, vowed in desperation that she would marry any men who found her missing clothes and helped her (if it was a woman, she would make her a sister). Jaka Tarub hid the clothes and returned to help Nawangwulan.
Long story short, they got married and had a daughter. However, one day, Nawangwulan found out that Jaka Tarub had been lying to her by hiding her magic clothes. She angrily decided to leave her husband and their daughter.
The Birth of a Devil
In Javanese folklore, there were two endings for Nawangwulan. In the first version, she returned to the heavens safely. But, in another version, her people rejected her and banished her to the Earth. On Earth, she became a half-devil, half-goddess who haunts the Southern Sea of Java Island: Nyi Roro Kidul.
Tragic Love Story
Both folklores highlighted tragic love stories between the protagonists. Both also have a recurring theme of filial piety. Jaka Tarub wanted to fulfill his mother’s final wish, while the Woodcutter failed to go back to heaven because he wanted to take his mother’s dish to the heavens.
Folklore usually has a moral of the story that we can learn from. Besides the obvious filial piety moral, I’d think that the lesson would also be ‘do not start your relationship based on lies and manipulation.’ Both men roped the fairies into a marriage they did not want by stealing their clothes. Folks nowadays can agree that it is a huge red flag.
Although its difficult to say if this particular fairytale is based on real events, some of the settings of the stories are real places.
Jaka Tarub and Nawang Wulan legend comes from the Central Java. So, there are places that are alleged ‘real meeting places’ where the fairies were spotted. whether it’s true or not, these places are stunning and worth a visit!
For the Fairy and the Woodcutter, the most common local title is Gyeryeong Fairy Tale, after the actual place. So, we can visit Gyeryong National Park to see the magical places where this tale took place. This national park stretches over the three cities of Daejeon, Gongju, and Nonsan. There are several waterfalls (Yongmunpokpo Falls and Eunseonpokpo Falls) in the national park that are allegedly the real place where the fairy met the woodcutter. Legend has it that some still see fairies from time to time.
Since it’s cherry blossom season, Gyeryeong National Park can be one of your choices for bloom viewing! It has a spectacular view of cherry blossoms along the way to Donghaksa Temple.
- Han, Suzanne Crowder. 1953. Korean folk & fairy tales.
- Grayson, James Huntley. Myths and legends from Korea: an annotated compendium of ancient and modern materials. London: Routledge.
- Riordan, James. 1994. Korean folk-tales. New York: Oxford University Press
If you’re interested in Korean mythology, don’t miss this story about the werebears of Gomanaru pine forest. Click Here to read more!