Drama Recaps
Legend / 태왕사신기
by | September 14, 2007 | 39 Comments

So this week saw the start of the LEGEND (태왕사신기) extravaganza, kicking off with four consecutive days of broadcasting — an introductory special, followed by the first three episodes. Boasting perhaps the grandest scale of any drama to date, extensive special effects, two veteran writers of what are widely regarded to be the two best kdramas of all time (Sandglass and Eyes of Dawn), and a cast headlined by well-known and well-regarded names, the series — which started shooting over a year ago, in March 2006 — is already pulling in huge ratings and is likely to keep it up. According to the special, the drama has been three years in the making, going into planning in 2004 and even going so far as to erect an entire sprawling set on Jeju Island.

I wouldn’t call Legend (whose Korean title literally translates to “The Great King’s Four Deities”) a sageuk — it’s more of a fantasy epic. I’ve heard the Lord of the Rings tossed around as a common comparison, with a few mentions of Final Fantasy. Those are pretty apt, although I’d throw another name into the mix: fantasy epic anime Record of Lodoss Wars for its themes of grand-scale warfare mixed with mythical and magical forces.

But, at the core, there’s also a basis in history, and that’s what makes Legend both interesting and daunting (from the perspective of one who has never formally been taught ancient Korean history and lore). (Note: don’t take this post as any kind of an authority, because most if it is cobbled together with recent research, and may contain errors.)

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Honestly, I wasn’t intending to watch Legend — as I’ve mentioned, I don’t favor sageuks; I don’t particularly love LOTR or the fantasy genre, and although the return of megastar Bae Yong Joon to television is a huge draw for many, let’s just say that I’m watching in spite of Yonsama. (Nothing personal — I agree he’s a good-looking man, and he seems to be a talented actor, but there are some actors who just don’t appeal to certain people, and he never took with me.)

But because of the overwhelming interest in the series, I thought I’d pop in and give it a try. My impression after watching the first few installments was of mild interest — I’m not hooked, but I’m intrigued enough to keep going. I’m actually more interested in seeing where fact and fiction bleed into each other, because there are some concrete facts that the story works into its foundation, and then a lot of mythical elements that get built on top. I’m taking this as an opportunity to do some research and self-educate about Korean history and lore, to get a fuller appreciation for how Legend balances the two.

The main story takes place in the Goguryeo era — its terrain is marked on the map as the largest, central swath of land. While the entire era spans from its founding in 37 BC by Jumong to its end in the early tenth century, it experienced its golden age under the rule of King Gwanggaeto, who reigned from 391 to 413. Gwanggaeto (given name Damdeok) is the character played by Bae Yong Joon — Legend starts in the year 384 when he’s ten years old (although it backtracks to his birth in 375), and goes through his adult years.

In the drama, Damdeok is depicted as the “true king of Jushin” — Jushin being the entire highlighted area on the map, which includes the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje (which make up what is the modern-day Korean peninsula), and extends deep into Manchuria. His “true king” status derives from the fact that he is the descendent of the “Son of God,” Hwanung (pictured below).

 

This is obviously where fact meets fiction, because Gwanggaeto/Damdeok is a true historical figure, as is his father Dangun, who is known as the founder of the Korean nation. But deity Hwanung, who figures prominently in the Dangun mythology, obviously constitutes legend.

 

So. Let’s delve into Episode 1, which mostly focuses on illustrating the founding myths that the “present-day” (Damdeok-era) portions will be based on. The importance of establishing these legends is because its main mythical characters will later be “reborn” into the primary characters of the drama.

 

 

The Mythology

There was once a fierce ancient tribe called the Hojok (or Tiger clan), who taps into the power of the earth and extracts fire. Of them, one woman is able to wield the power of fire most strongly, the savage KAJIN (played by Moon Sori, who’s awesome, and who’s later to be “reborn” as Kiha, Damdeok’s first love). Geographically, their territory is in the south.

 
HWANUNG, the son of god, comes down to earth to unite the people, bringing with him the Three Deities — Blue Dragon, White Tiger, and Black Turtle. (The turtle is actually a turtle-snake hybrid, but let’s call him Turtle.)

 
Blue Dragon is sent to guard the East as the God of the Clouds:

 
White Tiger is sent to govern the West as the God of Wind.

 
And Black Turtle is to protect the North, as God of Rain.

 

Some people accept Hwanung as their leader, while others, like the Tiger clan, see him as a conquerer who’d come to steal their land. They wage war against him, which is where we meet SEOH (pronounced say-o), a member of the Bear clan who fights for Hwanung. She will later be reborn as Sujini, another love of Damdeok.

 
During one battle, Kajin (the wielder of fire) is victorious in slaying all her adversaries, but is shot in the back with an arrow, and staggers into a cave. There she meets Hwanung, and he heals her. From that moment of his kindness, she finds herself unable to defy him — weakened in both body and spirit — and refuses to continue battling against him. But her clan won’t stop fighting, and as the keeper of fire, she eventually has to go return to the wargrounds.

Hwanung, watching over his ravaged people, sees in particular how the good and faithful Seoh suffers, shedding tears over her fallen people, and he determines that he has to stop the war. He goes to Kajin, and when she attacks him, he takes away her power over fire, and captures it in a ruby amulet, calling it the Phoenix Heart.

He gives the Phoenix Heart to Seoh to guard — and although he had initially only intended for her to keep it safe, he finds with some surprise that she is able to command fire as well. He teaches her how to control the fire, as long as she wears the Phoenix Heart — keeping one hand over the amulet while the other hand channels the fire to its desired destination.

 

 
Meanwhile, Kajin’s people are still enraged over losing not only their land but their fire as well. The clan wants to keep fighting Hwanung, but because she’d fallen in love with him, Kajin defies her people and kills them all, and runs to Hwanung — in time to see that he’d fallen in love with Seoh.

Seoh bears him a son, Dangun, the future King of Goguryeo. But almost immediately after giving birth, a jealous and angry Kajin, left with nothing after having forsaken her own tribe, decides that if she can’t have Hwanung in this lifetime, they’ll all die and move on to the next. Since he’d stolen the most precious thing — fire — she would steal the most precious thing of his, his baby.

Kajin wages a battle against Seoh’s people and steals the baby, and Seoh desperately follows to beg the return of her child. Kajin demands the return of the Phoenix Heart — and Seoh hesitates, knowing that Hwanung had entrusted her to guard the fire to help their people. But Kajin bitterly laughs that the fire belonged to her people in the first place, and, never having intended on returning the child, drops it over a cliff into the jagged depths below.

Seoh is overcome by grief and fury at seeing her baby plunge to his death, and the ruby necklace’s power unleashes a wrathful Black Phoenix, a malignant form of the normal, controllable Red Phoenix. Hwanung arrives with the baby, saving it from its fall, but by that point, it’s too late and Seoh is too far gone in her rage — the Black Phoenix soars over the land and rains down fire on innocent people, destroying everything in its path.

Hwanung calls upon Blue Dragon, Black Turtle and White Tiger to stop the Black Phoenix, causing a huge clash of deities in the sky, but they’re unable to stop Black Phoenix. It cannot be defeated without the defeat of its originator…

 
So with tears in his eyes, Hwanung shoots Seoh through the heart with an arrow, and Black Phoenix crumbles.

 

 
Hwanung laments that he was unable to govern his people peacefully, and returns to the heavens. Before he goes, he takes four artifacts, each of which represents the power of the Four Deities (Phoenix joins the other three), and scatters them throughout Jushin, saying that one day, the “true king of Jushin” will be born. On that day, Jushin’s star will shine in the sky to let mankind know, and the four sacred artifacts will be “activated.” With that, he leaves the earth, and in his absence, the Jushin land once again scatters into various kingdoms and territories with no one to unite them.

 

 
Over the next two thousand years, everyone awaits the star of Jushin, in particular the people of the Tiger clan, now called the Hwacheon (who are poised to become our resident baddies; but maybe that’s oversimplifying). The Hwacheon are keen on recovering the four sacred artifacts (they’ll be able to find them once they’ve been “activated”), probably to possess their powers for some nefarious ends. But again, possibly oversimplifying there. They’ve built their temple over the former site of the Sacred Tree.

 
Finally, in the year 375 AD, the star of Jushin shines in the sky. The chief of Hwacheon smiles evilly, prepared to start the search for the four powers of the deities.

And ten years later, in the year 384 AD, we arrive in the village of Geomul, which is somewhere in the North, as it’s the domain of the Black Turtle. The Geomul villagers have kept close watch, knowing that the star of Jushin had signaled the future King of Jushin, and that he’s somewhere close by. Here we meet HYUN GO, the newly appointed village chief, whose first instructions are to go to the capital city to guard YEON HOGAE. (We don’t know this yet, but Hogae is commonly believed to be future King of Jushin, because he was born on the day the star shined. He was raised to be king, but most people don’t know that on that day, another boy was born — Damdeok, the true king.)

Hyun Go takes with him the cheerful, precocious SUJINI, who is the reappearance of the ancient Seoh. Perhaps for this reason, the entire Geomul village has been careful to shield her from the legend of Hwanung — nobody will tell her the details — and Hyun Go is instructed that if Sujini ever turns into the Black Phoenix herself, he must kill her.

 
And there we have it. Legend.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to write recaps for every episode, or even how much longer I will keep watching — I’ve found it’s best to be wary of these things in the beginning. Legend is a series that takes some commitment, and I haven’t yet decided if it’ll be worth it. But the lore is something I’ve found fascinating, and I’m interested in seeing how it ties in to the “present-day” scenarios with the real-life Damdeok, now that the mythology has been firmly set into place.

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39 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. anonymous

    Thank you for the recap. Just one thing… I’m not sure what your color scheme is for this blog, but it’s a little distracting when you highlight names by having them in blue or other colors, because it’s easy to automatically think that those are hyperlinks leading to explanatory websites. The bolded black seems to be a little more standard and doesn’t prompt the unwary reader to click on the blue name and be disappointed when nothing happens :).

  2. ANNIE797

    thank you for you summary, I like this one.

  3. tealeaf

    Whooaa… that was some undertaking to read that, let alone summarize or translate it. Thank you for the recap javabeans (BTW, one image did not load correctly). WITH S2, thank you for shouldering the herculean responsibilities. You all are incredible generous to accept this challenge. For all of our sakes, this ambitious project better be sooo greater than great to be deserving of all your efforts. Where’s the tip jar again?

  4. bethany

    interesting.. if you keep updating, i’ll be excited!

  5. Bamidele

    I hope you keep recapping it, I didn’t plan on watching it but it looks so cool, and I love dramas that mix reality with mythology!!!!!

  6. simi

    Legend looks amazing!!! The scenes definetely remind me of LOTR….amazing and realistic. I hope you’ll enjoy this enough to continue blogging it. Either way, I’ll still be here…

  7. thunderbolt

    “…two veteran writers of what are widely regarded to be the two best kdramas of all time (Sandglass and Eyes of Dawn)…”

    I agree that SG and EOD are the two best kdramas of all time. And… *cough* may I take this (rare) opportunity to shamelessly promote my little forum for these two dramas? If anyone is interested in reading about and discussing Sandglass (the Kwangju Massacre) and Eyes of Dawn (Japanese occupation of Korea, World War 2, etc.), please visit http://www.eyesofdawn.net. New members must be approved by admin before they can start posting (just a safeguard against spambots). (sarah dear, please delete this paragraph if you feel I’m out of place.^^)

    Okay, back to Legend. I’m interested in this drama for several reasons: the same powerhouse PD-writer combo behind Sandglass and Eyes of Dawn (insert high-fives and cartwheels), Park Sang-won (whom I adore to bits in SG and EOD), Choi Min-soo (awesome in SG), Moon So-ri (so amazing in the movie Oasis), and because I like sageuk. I’m not crazy about BYJ as the lead; maybe I’m just not used to seeing him sans glasses. And the long hair… I hope I won’t giggle when I see him on screen because that’s what I did when I watched Untold Scandal (those lascivious smirks!). I have a feeling he’ll be overshadowed by Moon So-ri in Legend, the same way Lee Mi-sook stole his thunder (^^) in Untold Scandal.

    Thanks for the Episode 1 recap, sarahbeans. *muah* I know I’m going to refer to your notes often when I start working on a few of the episodes.

  8. wintergal

    Hmm, from what you wrote and the threads in D-Addicts as well as Soompi, The Legend seems interesting from the start. I’m not a big fan of BYJ, though I’ve watched him in Winter Sonata and Hotelier, but seeing the caps from episodes of this drama makes me want to watch it. Haven’t exactly decide whether I’ll watch this show – maybe I shall wait for another few episodes to be up and I’ll see how. I didn’t even watch any sageuk dramas before, not even Jewel in the Palace. But I hope you’ll do recaps for this drama! =)

  9. jinkzzmec

    Thank you for this recap, Javabeans. I hope you’ll continue to do recaps for this series.
    By chance, I stumbled into their soompi thread and found it very interesting but I didnt want to watch it since nobody was subbing it at that time. Now i am so happy to learn that WITH S2 is actually taking it on as a project.

  10. 10 Mimi

    Thank you soooooooo much for your summary. It is very interesting. That will be great if you keep posting it. But if not, I will be here to read other summaries anyway. Thanks again!!!

  11. 11 Marzy

    i was so pissed when our mbc on cable seemed that it block the regular broadcast of legend. but wow i was amazed when i downloaded it. yes, they have a huge huge budget.. but the outcome so nice the graphics effects were so good, the storyline interesting too. im not the enitrely big BYJ fan, but upon seeing the first few eps of this wow. its like LOTR meets Harry Potter. hehehe the script is good too. although, the legend behind it isnt all too familiar i want to see how it goes. the love story is also nice. considering the young BYJ is played by Yu Seung Ho (from king and i also), such a cutie pie. i cant wait to watch more hope they continue. im glad withs2 is taking this on, cause its a bit tough watching without. :)

  12. 12 nani

    yeah … it does sound interesting since they put a lot of effort in the intro of the drama..

  13. 13 teokong

    Mersmerised by your recap. Hope you’ll continue with the recap of this drama (keeping my fingers cross). Thank you very much, Javabeans

  14. 14 Iranian Espresso

    Thank you dear Javabeans.

  15. 15 varms

    Thank you javabeans for that summary on the Legend… I thought it was fascinating… But I’ve always been a sucker for fantasy and folklore… The effects has the Final Fantasy sort of touch to it but i like it a lot more than normal special effects… I thought this drama was too overhyped and another one of those sageuk dramas but i’m enchanted with the plot… It looks promising but that’s just the view of a person who hasn’t watched it yet. BYJ looks like Gandalf with the long white hair and white clothes, or maybe Saruman! Hahahha… Was the dragon borrowed from D-Wars? It’ll be interesting to see a Korean mythical/history drama… Korean dramas are always the best at expressing emotions to the viewer, I find. Love your site!

  16. 16 foxbit

    Thanks for your recap and hope that you could continue with the recaps of this series. Your recap makes me understand much better especially with mythology and perhaps, many mythological ancient figures in place. Your narration could throw sight and make me understand much better. Thanks for your kind effort and keep up the good work.

  17. 17 LYNda

    Okay this series reminds me of X-men when Jane becomes possessed by the phoenix alien goddess. I don’t know. It sounds corny so far.

  18. 18 yakatoo

    hmmm, the story of legend seemed rather confusing at first (i mean seriously, did anybody actually understand LOTR or even any other epic movie in its first twenty mins?!?) but as i read your summary, i was surprisingly drawn in. agree that saeguks such as this do require a certain degree of commitment (we all know it’ll be much longer and much more complex than the typical slice of life dramas we are used to). but i always find that these saeguks do have a certain deeply moving quality that keep me hooked (God knows what about cooking the jang geum way can keep me glued to my tv ’til the wee hours of the morning) . i’m note sure what exactly but maybe it’s just how the very same human realities and truths are translated in the grandeur of legend and history — seeing real people of days gone live common themes of love, evil, pain, joy. i guess it just makes me feel the richness of human experience not just in the everyday but in historically significant shapes and forms. but then again maybe i just think too much. hehehe. lovely summry javabeans. do let us know if you’ll be watching this one all the way through. :)

  19. 19 LW

    javabeans, thank you for the recaps/summary. I’m never a fan of BYJ but woah! this drama really looks interesting. Furthermore, I like those fantasy stories. And I have to agree with LYNda on the X-Men reference…it is very similar (but not the same) to the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix storyline (as in turning evil that part).

    yakatoo, the first 20 mins actually was meant to introduce the people who hasn’t read the book some very important background information – it explains what is the ONE ring (and how it came to Bilbo Baggins’ hands), who is Sauron, how many rings he forged/given, who are the Nazguls, the intro of the Baggins’, etc.

  20. 20 yakatoo

    hey LW, thanks for the explanation, but on your comment – you’re either being sarcastic with the point i made (which ouch, i think i’m a bit embarrassed) or i seriously must’ve sounded a bit of a “duh” or clueless with what i’ve written above. assuming it’s the latter, i was just only trying to make a point that epic movies aren’t really meant to be understood in the first go. that’s the beauty of it, it’s not something you can crack in the first twenty mins (or anytime until you’ve savored it up to the last minute). i love LOTR, despite the whole 20 minute confusion. anyway, useless point. let’s all just enjoy legend and see how it plays out. :)

  21. 21 glo

    i was hoping youd get into this drama.

    it looks like it has a lot of potential, hopefully you’ll stick with it?

  22. 22 Haezi

    I was also a little wary of this drama and found the first episode, while interesting, kind of unpolished considering they had 3 years to craft a strong 1st episode. The 2nd epi was better, although there were still some elements that seemed borrowed and the plot was, again, not very tight. I have to say, however, that the 3rd episode was, by far, the best, mainly because the actor who plays little Damdeok holds his own against the veteran actress (musical actress?) who plays Hojae’s mother. I hope you keep the summaries up for at least the first couple eps before you decide whether to drop this since the old korean is a little too hard for me.

  23. 23 La Plume

    I wasn’t expecting you to make a review about The Legend… And since it’s the only korean drama I’m interested in for the moment I was gladly surprised ^^ Thanks for your summary it really helped me understand because I really had troubles watching it without subs…

    Unlike you, I love sageuks ^^ But Fantasy stories even more!!! I grew up with Final Fantasy as well so this type of drama which mixes the two… I’m really really really happy WITH S2 decided to take up this project. And I hope you’ll be more satisfied in upcoming episodes so that you’ll keep on doing your wonderful reviews ^^

    Keep up the good work ^^

  24. 24 Emi

    Javabeans,
    Thank you so much for providing detailed summaries for the legend.. I’ve been searching everywhere for a week now, to watch this either in Chinese subtitles or English subtitles (Japanese would be great too. though I doubt it.. :) ) since I don’t speak Korean (although if I did, i’d round up all my languages :D)
    Anyways.. if you could assist me, that would be great.. if not, i’ll keep trying harder.

    Keep up the good work! and regarding your entry about language barriers, I totally understand and sympathize with you since I’m multilingual myself.. :)

  25. 25 lolo

    great recap…
    i never intended to watch it, but after reading this i might give it a try…
    … maybe its your writting, but it did give off a good vibe…
    thankx java

  26. 26 betchay

    Thanks javabeans! At first i have no interest on watching this one coz i though subbing team are not interested. But then i’m so glad that WITHS2 took this drama as their new project plus a special bonus of your summary. I do hope you will continue sharing your points of view and summary coz i really really like all the things you write. During CP time, i’m always excited to read your summaries coz you made everything understandable for us (non-koreans) aja….aja.. fighting! javabeans

  27. 27 hello

    you a welcome
    태왕사신기 다시보기카페 http://cafe.daum.net/rhdqn

  28. 28 johana

    thanks so much they are showing Legend here in LA but mbc is not subbing it for some reason so now i know what’s going on .. i hope u keep writing recaps .. thanks a lot ^_^

  29. 29 DAE

    i haven’t watched this a bit but because its BYJ am looking forward to it. I don’t have any complaint re that young lady who starred as sujini (?) i think she looked well fitted for the role. now i only need to see her act though. thanks for the bit of info.

  30. 30 Evey

    Does anyone know where I can actually find the episodes?

  31. 31 Anonymous

    actually, i dint really plan on watching ‘the legend’ either… it just so happened that my brother and sister are intrested on watching it… and when my bro bought the dvd—well, it kinda intrigued me so we kinda watched everything in like 4 days [starts in the evening, and we usually end it in the morning like 5am on the average] anyway, since we don’t understand korean language and the subtitle’s a bit different, i wuld like to ask help from javabeans regarding the last part… what exactly happened to damdeok, sujini [bae yong joon and lee ji ah look good together!] and the child? what about kiha [i kinda didn’t like the part when she became damdeok’s first lve interest… sorry]? and the other owner of the sacred artifacts?

    i like lee ji ah’s acting—really! and she appeared to be a different person each time she change her hair and clothes— cute! ^-^

  32. 32 fanatica

    oh please provide a review or a recap for tae wang sa shin gi. please!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  33. 33 wing

    This series was the worst load of c**p I’ve seen… it had a lot of potential but they really screwed up the storyline – the ending was complete pants too – it wasn’t touching or sad.. it was just pants!

    Comparing it to LOTR really is insulting LOTR!!

  34. 34 korea lover

    forever korea and ‘Goguryeo’ is korean history not chiniese…

  35. 35 Frolicer

    i don’t know if your male or female, but i like your wry humor and quirps…i am a fan of bae but i was wondering why the long hair. now i guess i know…he grew it for the movie? reads almost like Jumong’s story.. thanks for the witty commentary..

  36. 36 the legend lover

    this is so good but i hope youll finish it

    please i want to read more????

  37. 37 the legend lover

    i really love the legend
    i promise to watch it every episode so i can be like you

  38. 38 Ani

    I love the mention of LoTR, FF, and anime in this post. Le sigh. I will surely put this on my list of things to watch.

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