Many of the Korean fairy tales told by William Elliot Griffis begin rather pedagogically. “Korea is the land of beautiful scenery and lovely flowers”, begins “The King of Flowers”. “No bird is more common in Korea than the magpie”, we are told at the outset of “The Sky Bridge of Birds”. Yet Griffis has a talent for transitioning quickly from these educational openings to quite striking narratives shot through with images that are hard to forget. Here, for example, is how “The Sky Bridge of Birds” continues:
They [the magpies] are numbered by millions. Every day in the year, except the seventh day of the seventh month, the air is full of them. On that date, however, they have a standing engagement every year. They are all expected to be away from streets and houses, for every well-bred magpie is then far up in the sky building a bridge across the River of Stars, called the Milky Way. With their wings for the cables, and their heads to form the floor of the bridge, they make a pathway for lovers on either side of the silver stream.
The two lovers, separated from each other by an edict of the King of Stars, cross over the magpies’ heads and wear away the poor birds’ feathers. This is an explanation for magpies’ partial baldness during their late summer molting, but it also lends an aura of romance to the birds — and to the seventh day of the seven month — that is genuinely enchanting.
The author (or rather adapter) of Korean Fairy Tales, Griffis, was born in Philadelphia in 1843. After fighting in the Civil War, attending Rutgers University, and briefly studying at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, he was invited to Fukui, Japan, in 1870 — partly to help develop a modern school curriculum. The next year, he moved to Tokyo and began teaching at the institution that would later become Tokyo University. Although Griffis returned to the United States in 1874, he continued to take an interest in East Asian culture for the rest of his life. Throughout the final quarter of the nineteenth century, he kept busy as a minister in New York State and Boston, but also as the author of more than fifty books — including The Mikado’s Empire (1876), considered for many years the authoritative text in English on Japanese culture, and several books of folklore and fairy tales from Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea. He also wrote two volumes on Korean history, Korea: Within and Without (1885) and Korea: The Hermit Nation (1882).
Perhaps the pedagogical tone that sneaks into Griffis’ versions of these traditional Korean stories can be attributed to his career in the ministry. He shows a tendency to moralize, and to romanticize, which mark his productions as true “fairy tales”, as opposed to the more authentic transcriptions of the stories told by cultural insiders and typically called “folktales”.
This is not to say all is light and beautiful in Griffis’ tales. In “The Unmannerly Tiger”, the unfortunate animal of the title is outwitted by a priest and a toad before ending up so hungry and frustrated he dashes his own brains out on a rock — to the profit of a wandering hunter who happens on the corpse. A number of other stories introduce readers unfamiliar with Korean folklore to the sprite Tokgabi, a mischievous trickster. In “Tokgabi’s Menagerie”, we are told why there are so few housecats in Korea — and more particularly why they end up classed among the “bad” animals in Tokgabi’s menagerie. The blame falls on a tabby named Mee Yow, whose conceited nature, after an adventure involving a bargain with rats, causes her to lose her master's magic stone (much prized as it had caused the wine-merchant's bottles to forever be renewed).