2008 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place

The Three Gifts
Susan Yoojin Lee

It is far too easy to take the luxury that is life for granted. No matter how underprivileged an individual may be, the simple fact that he or she is alive and consequently has the opportunity to make his or her life whatever he or she wants it to be warrants a certain level of honor and respect. In “The Three Gifts,” the meaning of life is beautifully explored through the gifts that a dying father leaves for his three sons. “To the eldest, he gave the millstone. To the second, he gave the gourd and the bamboo staff. And to the youngest, he gave the drum. ‘The value of these things is only as good as your own good sense,’ said the man to his sons.” Clearly, no matter how much the father was disappearing physically, his mental presence showed no signs of waning. The circle of life is encapsulated by the disparate journeys that each of the three sons took, as they each have encounters with death but overcome it; this is the perfect juxtaposition in that each of the three sons needed to brush against death in order to truly comprehend the meaning of life.

Though none of the gifts had any monetary value, the sons knew that the items were the insignias of their father’s life. Hence, they decided to stick together until a fork in the path on which they were traveling appeared. This literal and metaphorical separation was necessary because each son’s life had an inherently different purpose, such that although all three could have traveled down the same path, each one chose the path that held some intrinsic value. The oldest son used his millstone to frighten thieves, and his ingenuity in such a heightened state of stress further underscores the significance of his father’s words. If the eldest son had not initially had the sense to climb up the tree, he could very easily have been harmed by the wild animals that stalk inexperienced mountainous visitors. Then, “…the oldest son had an idea. He grabbed the wooden handle of the millstone and started to turn it with all his strength. When the thieves heard the terrible grinding sound above them, they looked around in alarm.” The son engineered a brilliant reversal of roles with his millstone, as he instantly transformed himself from the shocked to the shocker. The sound that the millstone made when ground against the bark of the tree was the physical ramification of the thieves’ worst fears: being struck dead by lightning as punishment for the immoral, petty deeds they were sure to have committed throughout the years.

Next, the middle son was to have his safety tested as well, not by dangerous criminals but through an entity that was not even living, a goblin. Upon his first encounter, the second son was so scared out of his wits that, “…his liver shrunk to the size of a pea.” He outsmarted the goblin with the gourd and bamboo staff and ended up returning the spirit of the young woman the goblin had stolen to its rightful owner, a noble act that was stripped of any pretentious glory by the genuine need the son felt to bring the master’s daughter back to life. “And so the second son married the rick man’s daughter and received half his fortune as a wedding gift, becoming a very rich man himself.”

Perhaps the most important of the three brother’s tales is that of the youngest son, for he is the prime exemplar of the fact that age does not equal knowledge or wisdom. The third son used his drum to overcome his fear of a large tiger and used his actual talent for playing the drum to make money. As opposed to his two elder brothers, the youngest son earned every single nyang he made as a traveling musician, undoubtedly with the equally extraordinary talent of the tiger. Therefore, the youngest son deserves to be, “…the richest of the three brothers” because he did not receive a sudden windfall in order to attain a fortune. He proves that the system of meritocracy, even on such a microcosmic scale as himself and his two older brothers, works, for his drumming and the tiger’s dancing could only be justified through him having more nyang than his brothers do.

“The Three Gifts” is important for not only showing the prominence of life but also for showing how a true brotherhood will overcome even the greatest of obstacles. This particular folktale was created to show that interpersonal relations are just as important as independence. For instance, I have been living with my autistic uncle for my entire life, but it is not as if I am the only individual in my family who is affected by his presence. Because his autism is not severe, he is able to maintain a job as a custodian for a company that only hires mentally disabled individuals. His existence is a testament to the fact that I should never complain about the trivial issues in my life. I will never understand what he has to go through on a daily basis, barely capable of speaking Korean, much less English, and never being able to communicate what he is feeling. Although I used to regard my uncle with a sense of sympathy, I now admire him for being able to appreciate the smallest details of the world. He constantly reminds me through his actions that the simple things really do count and that if he can go about his life with an unquestioning sense of happiness, nothing should be preventing me from doing the same. Thus, through living with my uncle, I have learned how valuable life is and that I should seize every opportunity that comes my way because I never know what will come next, which is, after all, the theme of “The Three Gifts.” He has taught me more through his actions than he ever could with his words.