2012 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior third place
Jessica Squires, 7th grade
Thorns of a Folktale
As the woodcutter “dies of a broken heart” in the concluding words of the story “The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter,” it is hard not to feel sorry for him. One mistake made and the love of his life is stripped away from him, never to be seen again. Reading this folktale for the first time, I too felt for the separated lovers. The final sentences reminded me of the Chinese folktale “The Silk Weaver and the Cowherd”, in which the two lovers, Vega and Altair, are separated by the Milky Way, much like the separation of the heavenly maiden and the woodcutter. But as I looked back and read through the story again, I realized this folktale was not what it first appeared to be. This folktale is tragic and lovely at first glance, but look too closely and the thorns will start to appear on this seeming rose of a tale.
The woodcutter is revealed to be a generous man, as he shelters a deer from the pursuit of a hunter, saving its life. However, he is only a mere mortal. The deer instructs him to pursue the youngest of the three heavenly maidens, who have come down from the heavens to bathe. The deer tells the eager man to hide her clothes, and to bring her into his home, taking her as his wife. She is to be his reward for saving the life of the deer, but did the deer ever have the right to give her away?
The perspective of the heavenly maiden is never displayed throughout the beginning of the tale, only the fact that “they were happy” referring to the woodcutter and herself. But if she was truly happy, would she “sigh and lament the loss of her clothes” each and every day, whilst knowing that with them she could return to her home in the heavens? The heavenly maiden never displayed ecstasy in becoming a woodcutter’s wife. She is portrayed as weak and helpless; shouldn’t a goddess possess the power to return to heaven without being forced to wed a man she has no feelings for? Or is that power only reserved for a god?
The maiden had come down from the heavens only to bathe with her two sisters, with no intention of staying on earth for more than the night. She did not choose to wed the woodcutter, and it was not the deer’s choice to make, having no consent from her. As the woodcutter’s wife, the maiden is always longing to get her clothes back, as she knows they are her passageway to the heavens. When the woodcutter relents and gives her back her clothes, she is finally given the opportunity to return home, and takes to the heavens, a child in each arm. However, she does not bring the woodcutter to the heavens, though she could have, a sign to him that her love for him was forced, that she did not wish to wed him. A scene once seeming upsetting and unfair now appeared to me as satisfying and redeeming, an end to the maiden’s sad life trapped on earth.
Sadly, the woodcutter is portrayed as the object of pity after the maiden leaves, though the maiden is the one victimized by their love. He is given a second chance to be with the maiden, again without her consent. He now must travel to the heavens by way of a well bucket that the maidens use to carry water up from the pool they once bathed in. They no longer travel to the pool themselves; perhaps for fear that they will be taken as their sister was, to become the wife of a woodcutter, and to avoid further encounters with him. Again the heavenly maiden is forced to live with the woodcutter, and again she is portrayed to be happy living with him, though she made no efforts to reunite with him. Forcing her to be with him for the second time was not enough for the woodcutter though, he wanted to visit his home on earth. She, sadly portrayed again as a helpless woman in love with a man she did not choose, begs him to stay, but in the end grants him one visit to earth.
Upon his return to earth, and not seemingly by mere chance, the woodcutter spills the steaming soup onto the flying horse. As the horse gallops away into the skies, so does his last chance at being loved by the maiden. And so the story ends as it began: the heavenly maiden at home in the heavens, and the woodcutter is wandering through the forest, crippled by his humanity from visiting the heavens. The woodcutter might have convinced himself that he deserved a goddess as a wife, but in truth he was still only a woodcutter. She lived amongst gods, and he was destined to a life of chopping down trees.
To me, this closing scene was a fitting one to the folktale. The maiden was only used as a pawn throughout almost the entirety of the story. She was forced to love the woodcutter; though she might have been unhappy, banished from her home in the heavens; for the happiness of a man who did not matter to her. But playing the classic role of a woman of her era, she only follows along with the woodcutter’s plan for her. Becoming his wife, and falling in love with him though he stole her away from all she knew. This message is not a good one to project, as the heavenly maiden has no say in her marriage, as some girls still do today. Only in the very end of the story comes her redemption, she is finally free from her relationship with the woodcutter. And as for the woodcutter, he is finally given the punishment he deserves, a life alone on earth far away from the maiden.