2016 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior second place
second place, junior essay division
A Man's World?
Most people do not have to fend for their lives in near-death situations, but all of us would hope to have the mental discipline to endure such a challenge. In the Korean folktale, The Rabbit’s Liver, as retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl, a Rabbit is approached by a Turtle who invites him to visit a Dragon King’s palace under the sea. When they arrive, the Dragon King, who is sick, demands that the Rabbit give up his liver to cure him. The Rabbit thinks fast and explains that he left his liver hidden in the woods back on land, because it is so valuable. The Dragon King believes him, and so the Turtle takes him back to get the liver, but the Rabbit runs away and never comes back.
Thus, the lowly Rabbit uses his wits to outsmart the powerful Dragon King. The character of the Rabbit is significant to me, because it reminds me of the iconic rabbit character in American folklore, Brer Rabbit, who is also a clever trickster. I relate to these characters as an African-American especially, because my ancestors came from slavery, and these folktales were part of an oral tradition that fortified the morale of the slaves. The Rabbit character teaches that powerless people can prevail over their oppressors by using their natural intelligence.
The Rabbit character uses his wits as a trickster to outsmart the Dragon King and escape from his near-death situation. The Rabbit shows his trickster attitude, by realizing that he must use his quick thinking to get away. “At first the rabbit was terribly scared, but he was clever, and he thought quickly.” (Rabbit, Fenkl). Because he is not a predator who can fight, the Rabbit must outwit the Dragon King, by pretending to cooperate. “The Dragon King was very impressed by the rabbit’s devotion.” (Rabbit, Fenkl). When he escapes back to the land, he can gloat. ‘“Did you think I was really going to let your stupid Dragon King cut me open and take my liver? Ha!” (Rabbit, Fenkl). The Rabbit has proven his superior intelligence, when he finds his way back to safety.
The Rabbit character belongs to the folklore archetype of the “trickster,” who is a clever hero representing the weak in their dealings with more powerful adversaries. “Almost every oral tradition in the world has trickster figures . . . . Tricksters achieve their objectives through indirection and mask-wearing, through playing upon the gullibility of their opponents.” (Harris). In American folklore, Brer Rabbit is the most famous trickster, who symbolizes the Black slaves outsmarting their white slave masters. Like the Korean Rabbit who lies to the Dragon King, Brer Rabbit also survives in desperate situations through deception. “Part of Brer Rabbit’s legacy as an archetypal trickster is that he is also an amoral boundary-crosser. He is not above reneging on an agreement with other animals.” (Prahlad, 1047). Brer Rabbit is also like the Korean Rabbit in wanting to experience what the rich and powerful possess. “And beyond mere survival, Brer Rabbit reflects the desire on the part of the enslaved for advancement; that is, acquiring more wealth, status and power.” (Prahlad, 1045-46). The Korean Rabbit takes a risk by going to the underwater palace, which puts him in danger, but “Of course, the rabbit was excited to see all of the magnificent sights.” (Rabbit, Fenkl). The trickster is not just a victim; he also is someone who is trying to gain access to the wonderful riches of the powerful.
The trickster rabbit story depends on the powerful adversary having character flaws or poor judgment. This serves to illustrate that the adversary is not a true superior, but rather a mental foe who can be vanquished. In the case of Brer Rabbit, the enemy is the white slave master. In the case of the Korean Rabbit, the Dragon King also represents someone who is powerful. The Rabbit escapes because the Dragon King is so vain and prideful that he believes the Rabbit when he says: “‘It will be an honor to sacrifice myself for you.’” (Rabbit, Fenkl). However, unlike the slave master in American culture, the Dragon King is not viewed as evil in Korean culture. According to Fenkl, although “the dragon was considered a creature of evil in the West, the folklore of the East, however, the dragon was viewed as auspicious and usually was depicted as a magical creature of unsurpassed power and vitality.” (Dragon, Fenkl). Also, Fenkl tells us that the Dragon King was said to be “generous and welcoming to a fault.” (Dragon, Fenkl). Thus, the Korean story seems more complicated because the Dragon King is a virtuous figure in Korean folklore, but here he is selfish and guilty of the character faults of the powerful. In both cultures, the Rabbit is pitted against the rich and powerful, and these trickster stories enable “group members experience a sense of psychic relief and a vicarious pleasure in listening to exploits that reflect some of their own desires.” (Prahlad, 1301). The Rabbit represents the hope of powerless people to escape adversity and become rich themselves.
In conclusion, the trickster Rabbit in Korean folklore, along with his counterpart in African-American folklore, is an important symbol of how powerless people have always battled their oppressors to seek freedom. I am intrigued by the Rabbit character, as it leads me to wonder about the Korean social history that led to this story. While power dynamics may change over time, the Rabbit trickster continues in modern culture. We have the Korean Rabbit and Brer Rabbit to thank for clever Bugs Bunny of cartoon fame. In closing, if I were the Rabbit, I would certainly have tricked the Dragon King to save my life. Would I have taken the trip to the underwater palace in the first place? That is harder to say. I might not have risked it, which is why the story expresses our desire to break away from reality and accomplish something truly heroic.
Fenkl, Heinz Insu, “The Rabbit’s Liver.” The Sejong Cultural Society. N.d. Web. January 5, 2016.
Fenkl, Heinz Insu, “The Meaning of Dragons in Korean Folklore.” Audio blog post. Korea Society, February 2, 2005. Web. February 10, 2016.
Harris, Trudier, “The Trickster in African American Literature.” National Humanities Center. Web. February 14, 2016.
Prahlad, Anand, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, Volume 3. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006. Print.