Friday, January 10, 2020

[Review Part 2] Jeon Nokdu – The Hero of a Thousand Faces

Story can mend, and story can heal (J. Campbell)

Until the last episode I just suspected and had hoped for it, but the second half of it closed the story beautifully and in line with almost every great myth of a hero – he came back to the point of his beginning. After that, all elements fell into their right places and the story achieved its goal and its closure, although a little bittersweet. 

Even the name of our hero is a word play. He was raised as Jeon Nokdu, but the title is a reversal, which creates a tale of Nokdu. As if he wasn’t even a real person, rather a parable. A cautionary tale of someone caught between the giants, trying – and failing – to change the main history. And yet, creating another branch of his own. He might not have changed the outcome for a royal history, but he did cause a change for many more people around.

The story made sense to me as yet another incarnation, an endless repeat of the same tale as old as time, a myth that we need and maybe this is why it resonated so much with people (apart from other things, the cute be damned). We live in a myth-less time and we need stories bigger than life to draw up from. Because as Jung states it clearly: “[anyone] who has lost the historical symbols and cannot be satisfied with substitutes is certainly in a very difficult position today: before him there yawns the void, and he turns away from it in horror.”[1] This is why we are trying to fill that void with stories, with tales and images and maybe this is why the grand narratives resonate so much within us. We love to watch/read/listen about the hero who conquers any difficulty, who braves the dangers and is awarded for it. We want to see bad people punished (especially politicians) and we feel deep draining exasperation if our good guys (or slightly better ones sometimes) cannot do it, fighting against the unsurmountable wall of obstacles. In this sense Tale of Nokdu is a disfigured story – it ends up with the beginning of repetition of another cycle of future violence, misery and trauma. One world was destroyed so that a new could be born, but not a better one, not for everyone anyway. The Kali Yuga is in full sway so we cannot expect better things from ether rulers or relationships. 

With this part of the review I will try to present how the story we watched falls into the stages of a journey of every mythical hero, as presented by Joseph Campbell[2]. It was not just a fragmented story focusing on one or two themes, because those as engaging as they are, cannot transport us to that timeless realm where everything exists at once. Campbell writes that “[though] heroic stories may also contain sexual themes and other motifs of death, evil, and extinction, they are also only one part of a larger universal rondo of stories, which includes themes of spirit overriding matter, of entropy, of glory in rebirth, and more.” (from the introduction of 2004 edition) 

Now, one thing needs to be said first – some parts of his description of the elements all stories need, can also be found in Propp’s most famous work regarding the morphology of the magic tale[3]. I will not, however, use it because even though the narrative has some similar motifs to one or several among the 31 enumerated by Propp, it is by no means a magic tale nor a folktale. 

According to Campbell, the circle that illustrates a hero’s journey has several crucial points:
I. Departure

1.      The Call to Adventure

2.      Refusal of the Call

3.      Supernatural Aid

4.      The Crossing of the first Threshold

5.      The Belly of the Whale

II. Initiation

1.      The Road of Trials

2.      The Meeting with the Goddess

3.      Woman as the Temptress

4.      Atonement with the Father

5.      Apotheosis

6.      The Ultimate Boon

III. Return

1.      Refusal of the Return

2.      The Magic Flight

3.      Rescue from Without

4.      The Crossing of the Return Threshold

5.      Master of the Two Worlds

6.      Freedom to Live

Some stories focus on merely few of the above, and some create cycles of those, connected only by the character of the main hero giving him trials and tribulations before he can complete the main task. It is not necessary for a tale to have all of them to convey the basic truths. The elements in bold are those visible in Tale of Nokdu. I would also argue that even though some elements have fixed positions in the story (like thresholds), others are more or less interchangeable. Especially with stories that do not rely heavily on supernatural elements but weave the story into the history. And yet, they still follow the same never-ending monomyth of a brave person stepping out of their comfort zone and doing something that would shake the world. The hero wins in some aspects, but in others they lose, and it is a primordial rule governing the myth. The hero can be victorious or can fail, but the most important aspect of the whole myth is that a hero TRIES[4]. Taken from the grand perspective, the historical one – Nokdu failed in his quest. But looking at the whole story from Jungian perspective of conquering the shadow and unconscious – he was a victor.

The hero’s childhood is usually a period during which their background is established. More often than not there are circumstances separating them from the environment and society – it can be the physical appearance, or provenance. With the former – the reasons for the ostracism is literally visible, with the latter – it is known only as the rumor, gossip or the attitude displayed by the rest of the society. We can only speculate about Nokdu’s childhood, but it did not seem to be any different than other kids’. Only one moment was crucial and at first not understood by him. It was his mother’s death. A parent’s death is traumatizing to any kid (as seen vividly in Dongju’s case), but in this instance, it proved to be a time ticking bomb that came back and nearly unhinged him from his usually logical state of mind. First, in her moment of agony, she did not want to see him but his older brother. Then she spat out that he had ruined everything. Later in the story the exact same words were uttered again – but this time by Nokdu himself, blaming everything whatever had gone wrong on his very existence. Which led to character’s metaphorical death and rebirth as someone not entirely else, but as a changed man.

The call to Adventure was rather a brutal one – an attack on his father and brother. This marked the end of his childhood – the fights will no longer be just a training but a dance with death hanging on a tip of every blade, the people will no longer be familiar but unknown and hostile. The whole world just changed from the well-known scenery of a sea surrounded island to tiled roofs dripping with danger. There is a trope reversal of a kind here. Usually, a hero’s task is to brave the wild, to go and steal some gold from a sleeping dragon in the unconquered mountains, to get the healing water from a spring, to go through the darkest, deepest forest filled with bloodthirsty monsters to save the princess locked in a tower or behind a circle of flames. Here, the hero goes from the wilderness to the civilization. And the latter proves to be even worse than the most dangerous ravines and fiery pits – because, apparently, humans thirsting for power are worse than any fire-breathing dragons and curtains of flames. Slaying a dragon would be easier.

And with the aid of his sword master, he left the island to search for answers to questions he didn’t know he had. The answers soon yield more questions and in no time Nokdu would be swept into the secrets he never knew he was a part of. He crossed the sea protecting him from the world, sheltering him in some kind of an invisibility bubble that burst the moment assassins stepped out of the boat. This marks also a desacralization of a place – up to that moment the world behind the vast waters did not exist, it was maybe dreamed of by the boys, but never present. It came with its bloody force, shattering all the invisible walls protecting the island from the past. With that moment we have the departure – a moment that profoundly changes the hero, his life and everyone he comes in contact with. This sets in motion cogwheels not seen but silently working.

In Han-yang a coincidence worked just like it’s been working for millennia – a blind luck that the mutation appeared in Homo sapiens and not in Homo neanderthalensis so we could develop such highly complicated social systems based on abstract thinking and wipe every enemy out. And such a blind luck can create ripples radiating through time and space, affecting everything and everyone, and “they may be very deep — as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.”[5] In this case, a moment faster than a flutter of a hummingbird’s wings brought together two people who would not have been alive later if it weren’t for that moment. Nokdu involuntary, and by the dumb luck, prevented Dongju from shooting the King. Which had colossal consequences later on – she tried twice more to kill him, and the final attempt ended with a profound moment of earth-shattering proportions: Dongju has shown how strong she really was by rejecting the hollow, blown egg of a revenge. She understood herself to the point of breaking at that moment of ascension. She underwent a period of death and decay just to be reborn and in turn – she was able to keep somebody alive and create a whole world.

I don’t think there are many events in the tale here that don’t appear later connected in one way or the other with occurrences happening further in the story. The jail scene set the whole tapestry of motifs and points that were present later: Dongju having trouble sleeping in the dark, her stubbornness even in the face of a complete fiasco, Nokdu’s prospective thinking and not worrying about the situation he had no control over, his empathy and care about another human being. The jail and subsequent release was one of the trials a hero must undergo before he’s met with the real task. Sometimes that first one is a moment when hero’s mettle is tested – what he’d choose to solve the riddle, to overcome the foe or save a person. In this case Nokdu didn’t use force, no violence, not even a lie – he used plain old critical thinking and his own quick wit to get himself and Dongju out of the accusations. He might not have told the truth, but he did not lie either.[6]
The questions he had when coming to Han-yang led him again to the fringes of wilderness – a mountains enclosed dell with Widows Village. The Village serves as the liminal place – not exactly a wilderness and not the civilization either but a new entity with new qualities, merging those two. As such it has borders and sentry signs – rocks with carved warnings clearly stating that Men Not Allowed. And those who didn’t heed the warning paid the price – as Nokdu did on his first foraging trip into the Village. He noticed there’s something unusual about the place, but his ruminations about the nature of the quaint place were cut short by the beating he was greeted with and thrown out. The unsurmountable impediment was conquered with Nokdu’s own inventive trait and his instinct to help people in need – he saved a runaway woman from a pursuit by pretending to be her and misleading the chasing group. And then the way to cross that first threshold presented itself and Nokdu moved from one world to another in more than one sense. He cheated the guardian rocks and the guarding ladies by shedding his previous face and putting on another. He crossed the threshold to the Widows Village but at the same time he crossed the line that separated him from the island boy who never, in fact, resurfaced again. What is more, he obliterated the wall in his own psyche which allowed him to be more attuned to situations and other people. He was able to move freely between his two incarnations, to reach into the rich waters of both to help him navigate through life and dangers it posed. It was the offering – his pride, his past, nearly his whole life, because as Eliade reminds us that it is “on the threshold that sacrifices to the guardian divinities are offered.”[7]

And then the classic tale hit with an unforeseen result – to be accepted into the inner circle of Muwoldan ladies, our lovely Widow Kim was put on the road of trials. Just like in any story – a task was presented and after finishing it, the decision was to be made. The elephant stealing was not as much about the elephant stealing per se, as the harbinger of things to come – a sneaky attempt to snatch the throne from Gwanghaegun, and a transference of Yulmu losing Dongju as his second most treasured possession. The trials period was not completed because of the sudden reveal of who moves in the shadows. 

In tales and myths, the hero needs to face a Tyrant – a ruler so twisted by their own power that it affects the society, landscape and even the course of celestial bodies. And of course, Gwanghaegun served the purpose of filling the role of such antithesis of our hero, but it quickly became glaringly obvious he is not the only one and in his shadow another shadow grew, feeding on his own resentment and bitter thoughts. Things that grow on toxic elements produce toxic sap[8], and “[we] are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”[9] Both men feared the same thing – when he was a prince, Gwanghaegun feared the throne would overpass him and go to his son, so he ordered him killed. Then he constantly feared an attack – in all of his nightmares he was attacked, under threat or tormented. A clear sign of a guilty subconscious that was never placated.

During such confrontation, the evil King or Queen are usually bloodily removed. Mythologies all over the world teach us this much. A ruler who is not worthy to sit at the center of power is dethroned. Gwanghaegun and Yulmu are, in fact, one and the same and their essential one-ness is stressed out by the true history of their lives – King Injo will repeat all the mistakes of the dethroned Tyrant, effectively becoming one as well – twisted by trauma, poisoned by anxiety. At the point when the hero of the story arrived, Yulmu’s motivation was blurry at best – he wanted to remove an unfit and unstable King. Oh, so very noble! Along with the King, however, he wanted to remove absolutely everyone who would question or undermine his right to the throne. That’s the opposite of noble. Cunning? Yes. Highly practical? Of course. Noble? Hmm… And the hero became trapped between the two forces set out to clash and destroy everything around as collateral. He had to choose between two sides and at first, as all of the answers to questions he didn’t know he had led him to the palace playing a part of a mythological belly of the whale, he chose based on his instinct – to help, to save someone worth saving. He paid for that choice with his metaphorical death. That extinguishing moment, a nadir of his journey, was marked as the lowest point both figuratively and literally – he had to descend into the deepest dungeons to witness the Tyrant, his father seething with hatred towards his own son, and wishing him death. The moment Nokdu heard he was not wanted and feared was the final blow that pushed his psyche to his internal death. This moment led our hero to renounce his biological father later, to harden and to join hands with Yulmu. That was the brief moment he died – when he considered doing things he would normally never do before. Thankfully, in order to be reborn, he wasn’t alone. Because “[it] is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic (…) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation.”[10] Dongju was there to comfort him and offer him a safe space to sort out all of his feelings. She became his own axis mundi around which he organized his world anew. What is more, he met with the goddess – in this case the Queen, and a token of remembrance united long lost mother and child. And the Goddess helps the hero if he is worthy.[11]
Through his own strength and through other people, he was reborn – in the moment he refused to take the throne during the meeting with his Mother, The Queen. This proved how wise he became after the experience, and how clearly he saw the futility of the coup, but the gears were already in motion so there was nothing else to do than to navigate through the monsters. This marked his own moment of apotheosis, of becoming divine in a sense. He saw a different part of the psyche and reconciled with it. He saw all the ugly parts of himself, lurking under the calm surface and what could have happened if he let them. The moment of agreeing to work with Yulmu was the moment of self-realization. Yulmu was his dark alter-ego, his lowest desires and needs. In the symbolic sense he was him, they were one and the same. This was the moment Nokdu conquered death and decay he saw in the other face of himself and he emerged reborn.

After the coup failure there were only two possible roads ahead – to die or to flee. And as Nokdu declared he was never going to die because he had something to live for, the first road was never a solution. With the help from without – mainly from Muwoldan ladies, his sword Master and officers loyal to him and the Queen, he managed to disappear from the palace. And the creators did something I found particularly meaningful, as if they read my mind – they made Nokdu and Dongju cross a literal threshold – a secret passage pointed out by the Queen. This crossing marked the final severing any ties with the underworld, represented here by the palace and politics. The Goddess gave him the last gift she could bestow upon the hero – help. That second threshold signified leaving the profane sphere and moving to the sacred space – a safe grotto where healing can be done and eventually the island. This particular boundary’s importance was explicitly shown, because “[the] threshold is the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds — and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred world becomes possible.”[12] This moment and place held also a significant emotional charge for Dongju – by crossing it, she finally chose a side and decided to be a protective dome over Nokdu. The hero left with the ultimate boon anyone can dream of – an unmovable, unconditional and all-embracing love of another person. And later, on the island his journey ended with an atonement with the man who raised him as his own, the man who proved to be more than his father. This moment was the only one when Nokdu allowed himself to be vulnerable in front of a man he risked his life to save, to purge any residual feelings about the outcome of his journey that ended up not as he hoped for initially. This way, he could start his life again, with people who followed him from the capital fleeing the obvious retribution.

As I discussed earlier, Nokdu can be seen as a traversing character, moving freely between two seemingly hostile worlds, which in turn are revealed to be only two halves of the same circle – Life and Death, Love and Hatred, Hope and Fear, Failure and Victory, Time and Eternity, etc. He endured the period spent in the metaphorical underworld, stripped bare of everything he used to be, like Inanna, before emerging – reincarnated – and conquering death and destruction with a simple and conscious word “No”. He managed to hold both worlds and make them understandable and clear, not eliminating the past but leaving it where it should stay and not dragging it into the future.

With this he managed to acquire what Yulmu denied himself – freedom to live however he wanted with whomever he wanted. At the first glance it might seem like Yulmu has also chosen the throne on his own, working on his free will, but digging deeply into the issue it becomes apparent it wasn’t the case. He has never given up anything that was rightfully his. He might have thought of Dongju like that and when he decided to not pursue her, it might be seen as giving up, but Dongju was never his to begin with. Also, choosing the throne and burning half the world for it is not the outcome of a free will at work. Because how much of an actual free will there is when a person’s life revolves around power? The throne has been singing its siren song and Yulmu never broke free from under its spell. He coveted it and he achieved his goal. Just to be further restricted by rules of the throne hall. From that point of view, the one who met the ultimate failure was him, not Nokdu. The ending – happy for some and in the hindsight not so happy for others – was more than satisfying. Because “[the] happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.”[13] The hero, enduring what normal people cannot, comes back to his community to share the experiences and build a better world. Even the size of an island.

Nokdu departed alone but came back surrounded with people pulled by the gravity of his character. We first met Yulmu surrounded by people, but he ended up all alone.

[1] Jung C.G., THE COLLECTED WORKS OF C. G. JUNG VOLUME 9, PART 1, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 2nd Ed., transl. by Hull R.F.C., Princeton University Press, 1980, p. 79.
[2] Campbell J., The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 2004.
[3] Propp W., Morphology of the Folktale, transl. by Scott L., American Folklore Society and Indiana  University, 1968.
[4] Like Icarus – he failed and yet he remains a role model for many. Even such dumb heroes as Japan’s Yamatotakeru, who ultimately died because he was an idiot, take the risk and challenge the Fates and Furies. Korean mythology tells the story about Seok Talhae, one of the three founders of Silla’s royal families who himself had a supernatural provenance and wasn’t content with his position but wanted a neighbouring country’s throne so he challenged King Suro on a magical tournament. He lost. The history would laugh later as Silla conquered Gaya in the 6th century.
[5] Campbell J., op.cit., p. 46
[6] In countless stories from every nook of the world we have two brothers/sisters/neighbours – one good and one cunning. Then something supernatural happens – a wounded animal appears and makes the wishes come true, or whatnot. A good person doesn’t lie to it – and is met with abundance of riches and fortune. The bad one lies – and is met with horror and ruin. In fact, two people are one and the same – one person standing in front of a choice, letting his personality choose. If the altruistic wins – he wins as well.
[7] Eliade M., The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, transl. by Trask W., Harcourt, Brace & World, 1987, p. 25.
[8] There are species of frogs in the Amazon forest or Madagascar. They produce toxin secreted through skin because they eat toxic ants. The moment the diet is changed, the production of toxin stops. See: Study discovers why poison dart frogs are toxic,, and here: Now We Know Why Poison Frogs Don't Poison Themselves,
[9] Harari Y.N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker, 2014, p. 13
[10] Campbell J., op.cit., p. 120
[11] If not, an offended Goddess can bring death upon the unworthy.
[12] M. Eliade, op.cit., p. 25
[13] Campbell J., op.cit. p. 26