2022 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior first place
Folktale: The Grateful Tiger

Title: “The Grateful Tiger” Through a Contemporary Lens

In modern day, the past has only dreamt of what we take for granted. From electric cars to touchscreens, we may look back at history and find their lack of technology appalling. A needed wake-up call was given with the Covid-19 pandemic and made us realize how much opportunity we’re given every day. Through smaller interactions, it’s given us the ability to express our thankfulness on a lesser scale. Praising essential workers, reminiscing of times with
friends, and valuing safety more are all objects of thought being brought to light, making us question, “What else don’t we value enough?”. Showing gratitude is something that we all need right now, and the Korean folktale “The Grateful Tiger” speaks volumes of this importance on a person-to-person basis.

Retold by Kim So-Un, this story tells of a character, simply named the young student, finding a tiger with a bone stuck in her throat. Seeing she’s in pain, he dislodges it for worry of further suffering. That same night, he dreamt of a mystical woman saying that she was the tiger he had saved, soon to reward him with kindness for his service. Years farther into his life, the same student wants to earn a job in the government but doesn’t pass the entrance exam.
Distraught, he falls asleep, again dreaming of the strange woman from his childhood. The self-proclaimed tiger woman now realizes that her life is coming to a close. Unprompted except by the pulling of heartstrings within her, she tells him she’s willing to sacrifice herself so he can be hailed as a hero and get the job he wants. Put off by it at first, the student eventually accepts the request and receives the tiger’s reciprocation. Albeit put simply, this folktale teaches individuals that helping others can oftentimes reward you in the end.

Although at surface it may seem an incomplex tale, this story truly made me self-reflect. I found on first reading that the moral being spread was ultimately superficial; it gave the appearance that you should only help others if you receive something in return. In spite of that initial response, when reading it several more times, I lost the feeling of a transactional arrangement and emerged with my newly formed opinion. The idea of a folktale is to teach a lesson; even when I was younger I found myself following the principles taught within them. The whole idea of the story is to be exemplary, not taken word for word and rather just something to ponder on. Helping others is the overarching theme
and the device used to tell that happens to be the student’s reward.

Still, for this message to strike and for people to follow in the appropriate footsteps, the story was meant to relate to the reader. The protagonist is the student and clearly meant to be who we’re supposed to sympathize with; however, many of us, including me, seem to resonate with the tiger more. Some people have compassionate hearts naturally, and those like myself feel the need to reward those who show care for us. This is exactly what the tiger aims to do as a response to the student’s random act of kindness, resulting in sacrificing herself for him in the end. I also find the tiger more relatable not just because of her sentiment, but also because of her way of carrying out her plans. When the tiger brings up the idea of sacrificing herself, the student denies the request. The tiger then goes on to say that he was essentially disrespecting her wishes and, “…rejecting [her] sincere feelings of gratitude.” When trying to honor others’ goodwill, I often find them denying the gift which then results in me forcing them to accept it, parallel to the tiger.

However, telling people to be less humble is something uncommon in today’s world. As people grow more self- centered and conceited, texts such as this are valuable and serve as reminders of how to be more amiable to others. With further contemplation on the effects this tale has had on readers, we can hypothesize why it was written. The message must’ve been important enough for the author to feel the need to spread the word via literature, but why use that outlet? As aforementioned, folktales, passed down from generation to generation, all were created to serve some purpose, that usually being trying to teach the young foundational respect. For all we know, this could’ve just been a story a mother would tell her children to help them realize why kindness was key. Even so, we can dive deeper than that.

Looking out into the world, we all observe those who are stereotypically good and bad, right and wrong, benevolent and malicious, but what do we do to address that? Expanding the subject, how would everyday Koreans back then be able to spread such a message? As I find, this ideology of gratefulness can be brought into the modern-world conversation, serving as a possible trifecta answer to the author’s intent: creating a timeless piece of work that all can aspire to in a way accessible to them.

Without a doubt, even I as a more analytical reader was forced to confront how pressing this moral was, mirrored in my gestures. Watching the deaths and illnesses of those around me, Covid included, has molded the clay that is how I view gratefulness. Although melancholy, it’s crucial to realize how viewing life with a grateful heart will manifest itself into everything else you do. It is unrighteous to think that your actions will never have consequences and not affect other individuals; it’s better to gain an affable disposition for you never know the dominos that may fall later. If that lesson being told to so many has made at least one person realize the wrongness in being prudent, then I believe that the story of “The Grateful Tiger” has served its true purpose of instilling good in others.