|The Hero’s Quest and Transformational Journey
Spirituality and religion, politics and economy, and culture are important themes in Jumong. However, Jumong’s heroic quest and transformational journey lie at the heart of the drama and are the main source of its appeal. Jumong is far from a hero at the start of the series. In fact, he is pathetic and incompetent, given to harassing palace maids and utterly incapable of protecting himself or anyone else. In the earlier portions of the drama, he shakes off his indolence, disciplines himself, masters the military arts (notably swordsmanship and archery), discovers his true identity (as the son of Haemosu), and commits himself to liberating the suffering migrants, driving out the Han, and restoring Ancient Josun. In the later episodes, he expands his leadership capacity, develops powerful bonds of heart with his men, forgives their shortcomings, wins over would-be enemies, and, in the end, promotes non-violence as an essential component of national unification. These themes as well as the motif of personal and communal transformation resonate strongly with contemporary Korean consciousness.
As stated, Jumong is far from a hero at the beginning of the series. However, there are extenuating circumstances. Basically, both he and his mother, Lady Yuhwa, were forced to “lie low” to survive the wrath of Queen Wonhu and her prince sons who are jealous of them. Jumong’s particular survival strategy was to play the incompetent in order not to be perceived as a threat. His strategy unravels when Haemosu, his true father, re-surfaces after twenty years of confinement and precipitates a chain of events which leads to Jumong’s awakening. Exiled from the palace, Jumong encounters Haemosu whom he regards as his teacher, serves an apprenticeship under him, and discovers his inherent gifts in the military arts. After Haemosu’s death at the hands of his prince “brothers,” Jumong learns his true identity and embarks on a quest to find out what his father did and why. He travels to Hyunto, one of the Han’s major commanderies, where he witnesses the suffering migrants first-hand and determines to take up his father’s mission.
The remainder of the drama follows Jumong’s ups and downs as he works toward and finally accomplishes the ‘great mission” of liberating the migrants, driving out the Han and restoring ancient Josun (in the form of Koguryo). One of his key attributes is his ability to draw a clear line between the “determination to fight to the death,” and recklessness. Perhaps mindful of a Korean penchant for brinkmanship (witness the current standoff on North Korean nuclear weapons), the drama is unrelenting in its criticism of impulsiveness, especially retaliation against others for perceived sleights. Jumong provides a counter-weight to the culture of revenge which otherwise permeates the series. He advises a boy-soldier who lost his parents to the Han to “let go of the hatred inside,” saying that a grudge “can be both a strength and a weakness,” and that revenge can only come “when we feel and know why we must beat the Han.” He holds back his soldiers from revenge following a massacre, telling them to “make their deaths worthwhile by building a nation.” Upon taking the Hyunto commandery, he acknowledges the migrants’ desire to kill prisoners, especially the Han governor, but counsels that they can satisfy their fury or save additional fellow migrants through prisoner exchanges. The migrants admit they were short-sighted and tell Jumong they will follow his will. In one of the series’ most striking reversals, given its seeming celebration of militarism, Jumong determines to unite the disparate and feuding Korean tribes and states by non-violent means. Inspired by a mountain oracle that this is “Heaven’s will,” Jumong allows himself to be put in compromised, even humiliating circumstances to win the natural submission of others including his “brother” Puyo princes. Jumong’s heroic quest and transformational journey finally leads him to become a peacemaker and unifier.
Jumong delivers all of this in highly dramatic fashion which, itself, signals an important shift in the Korean “historical drama” or Sageuk genre. These are a staple of the Korean film and television industry but slumped during the 1990s. One reason for this was that the later Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was mostly mined-out. A second reason was that the dramas had become overly captive to official documents. As one critic put it, “With countless trendy dramas boasting pretty young faces and easily digestible stories, who would sit down to watch old men with fake beards regurgitate lines from complicated historical records18?” The solution, which helped fuel the “Korean wave,” was the “fusion” drama. These allowed for considerably more dramatic license in wrestling with the competing claims of tradition and modern culture relevant to people outside of Korea. They also emphasized more attractive characterization and character development. Hur Jun (2000) followed the hero from humble beginnings to success as the king of Korean traditional medicine. The Jewel in the Palace (2003) dispenses with previous patriarchal models in depicting the inspiring story of Jang Geum, a commoner who became Joseon's first female royal physician. Jumong is only the latest in a line of Sageuk dramas utilizing the genre to deal with contemporary themes. Its focus on personal and communal transformation reflects changes within Korean society more generally.
Jumong is an extraordinarily rich drama of epic proportion which provides a platform for considering a host of modern issues related to religion, politics, economy, and culture. It resonates with a number of themes in Korean culture but finally must be judged on its own merits. The fact that it reached a global audience suggests that it deals with topics of broad significance or, at least, broad appeal. Nevertheless, whatever universality the series possesses is likely less due to any specific theme or even the interplay between tradition and modernity than it is to its core message of personal and communal transformation.