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Asia - Korean


O’Brien, Anne Sibley. 1993. The princess and the beggar: A Korean folktale. New York: Scholastic Inc.


Rating: ♥♥♥♥1/2 (out of  ♥♥♥♥♥).  (No cover photograph available at Amazon or B& N).


Summary: “A sad princess finds happiness after marrying a beggar” (O’Brien, CIP page). The banished princess teaches her husband to be a warrior, poet, and scholar, and the couple experiences a triumphant return to the palace and the king’s good graces.


Type: realistic tale


Characters: While the supporting characters are all one-dimensional, Ondal (the beggar) and the Princess have some depth. Ondal is poor, self-sufficient, and kind. He learns quickly and is willing to let his wife teach him how to read, write, and ride horses. He also agrees to do his “wife’s bidding” three times (unpaged). Once Ondal proves himself to the king and court, he remains humble, and he never forgets that his greatest happiness comes from his family.  The Princess is a bit more mysterious. Readers are not sure why the Princess weeps so easily – she cries when she sees pain, but she also cries when she makes a mistake. She has a secret life of studying poetry and adventure tales. She refuses to marry a noble suitor, the life for which she has been groomed. Instead, she accepts banishment from the palace and marries Ondal, a stranger. She grows to love him, and later she becomes his teacher and promoter. Even after she wins back the king’s good will, the Princess chooses to remain in her simple country dwelling with her husband and children.


Setting: O’Brien establishes the setting in the subtitle and on the first page. The palace scenes take place in “the ancient walled city of Pyung-yang,” and the pastoral scenes take place on “a craggy mountain….Peony Peak, it is called.” The time frame is “in an ancient kingdom” and “once upon a time” (unpaged).


Plot: The plot is somewhat complex. Part one is about a weeping princess who defies her father and is banished from the palace. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer writes that this story is “written with a strongly feminist slant” (Publishers Weekly, 1993). Part two is both a love story and a Pygmalion tale – the Princess marries a peasant (Ondal), learns to love him, and educates him in the “royal arts,” bringing out his natural talent and nobility. Wanting people to see how they misjudged Ondal, the Princess encourages Ondal to enter two palace competitions. He wins both, the king welcomes him as a son-in-law, and the Princess is happily reunited with her father.


Themes:  Regardless of what people say about a person or how the person appears, the truth may be different. Be willing to look below the surface. In addition, most people can develop undiscovered talents and potential with the right nurturing. Finally, a person finds happiness by listening to the inner self and following his/her own rhythm.


Rating Considerations: The illustrations are lovely, the writing is strong, and the story works well, although it is a little long. However, the author added a few twists, and according to School Library Journal, one addition is unfaithful to Korean culture. “In the original version, the princess reminds her father of his pronouncement out of moral conviction that a king must keep his word, however jocular. Here, her motivation is purely selfish; she wants to maintain her own autonomy. While this driving force is more in keeping with contemporary tastes, it flies in the face of Korean mores in general and this tale in particular”(Philbrook, SLJ, 1993). This change does not bother me as much as it seems to bother Mr. Philbrook.


Illustrations: The realistic watercolor pastels are colorful, appealing, and well-researched. In an author’s note, O’Brien writes that “the pictures and text in this book reflect the clothing, hairstyles, architecture, and customs of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), the basis for what is currently known as ‘traditional’ Korean culture” (unpaged). In her outdoor scenes, O’Brien effectively uses an Impressionist style that makes the countryside seem lush and inviting. The close-ups of people are rich with details and varying facial expressions.