“선녀와 나무꾼(The Fairy and The Woodcutter)” is the title of a well-known Korean folktale that my generation grew up hearing when we were young. The story goes like this; a woodcutter saves a deer running away from a hunter. The deer then thanks the woodcutter and repays him for his kindness by telling him about a magic pond where fairies come down from the sky to take baths. The deer, knowing that the woodcutter is eagerly looking for a wife, also tells him that he can make one of the fairies marry him if he steals one of their wing clothes at the pond. So he then goes to the pond and steals a fairy’s wing clothes. They then get married, have two kids and take care of the woodcutter’s sick mother together until the woodcutter makes the mistake of showing the fairy her wing clothes. As soon as she is reunited with her wing clothes, she flies away with her two kids in her arms. This isn’t the end of the story, but eventually, the woodcutter can never see his wife and kids again.
I only realized the problematic nature of this story quite recently. Even though the story is set during the time when arranged marriages were common, I couldn’t believe the kids of my generation grew up hearing a story that involves stalking and stealing and yet doesn’t raise an issue about any of those. On the other hand, it seems to reinforce ownership South Korean men feel towards women and their bodies, as well as denying women’s agency of their lives.
So I decided to make a different version of the story that I personally would have loved to hear growing up. In my version of “The Fairy and The Woodcutter,” the fairies punish with their magic powers the woodcutter for peeping at their bodies and trying to steal their wing clothes and the deer for encouraging the woodcutter to do so. The violin and the piano exchange themes that represent the characters in this story – the hunter, the deer, the woodcutter and the fairy. Their roles constantly change; not one part is accompanying the other all the time, contributing to the narrative nature of the piece. Writing this piece was an empowering experience for me and I hope listening to this piece is also a satisfying and empowering experience to girls of my age.
선녀와 나무꾼 was premiered by Jae Yee Lee and Sungeun Kim in May 2019 in Oberlin, OH.