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.)
(Random) SONG OF THE DAY
Sorea – “바람에 실어 (Blow By Wind)” Another group fusing traditional instruments into their music.
[ Download ]
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.
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.