Contemporary Novelists Shed the Past: The Birth of the New Historical Novel

Popular literary novelists Kim Hoon, Kim Young-ha, Kim Byeola, and Lee Jung-myung breathe new life into familiar historical figures.


Historical dramas are so popular that whenever Koreans picture a famous historical figure, the first face that comes to mind is that of the actor who played that person on television. Historical novels as well have inspired the observation that “Koreans are bingeing on history.” Recently, there has been a tendency to view historical novels as a form of healing, in which modern readers find solace in the trials and tribulations of historical figures in novels. By empathizing with the difficulties faced by people of the past, people find the key to unlocking their own struggles.

Historical novels are as educational as they are entertaining. Readers who are not satisfied with what can be gained through textbooks alone learn how to analyze history from their own perspective. The other charm of historical novels is that they offer up not just simple historical facts but enable readers to enjoy the language, customs, and rich cultural details of other times. Given the abundance of historical records in Korea, including the The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, the future of Korean historical novels looks bright. Particularly in this era of one-source multi-use media, the form of storytelling that holds the widest popular appeal is the historical novel. It has taken center stage in this era of infotainment—the compelling combination of information and entertainment. Likewise, in the Korean TV drama industry, historical novels are becoming a very important source of story ideas.

Prior to the 2000s as well, there were many historical novels in Korea. But if they were ordinarily shelved as popular fiction, the current batch of historical novels is blurring the lines between popular and literary fiction. The opening shot fired on this new renaissance of historical novels was Kim Hoon’s Song of the Sword. Based on the life story of Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598), Song of the Sword was recognized for its simultaneous popular appeal and literary value. Kim Hoon’s signature meditative prose style, combined with the first-person narrative told from General Yi Sun-shin’s point of view, received an enthusiastic response from readers.

The next title to receive a positive response was Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower, which infused old historical subject matter with a refined sensibility. Black Flower tells the story of the first Korean emigrants to Mexico, who were sold to Henequen (agave cactus) plantations a hundred years ago. Korean audiences were already familiar with their story because of the movie Henequen, but when combined with Kim Young-ha’s unique imagination, their story has taken on a new tone. Black Flower showed that historical novels do not just stop at being old stories. Kim Young-ha cast off the antiquated speaking style associated with historical dramas and vividly depicted historical figures by reinterpreting them through a modern frame.

Novels can create synergy with TV dramas, even when they are not directly related to each other, simply by virtue of sharing the same central characters. That was the case with the TV show “The Great Queen Seondeok.” The script was written specifically for television and was not based on a novel. But the runaway popularity of the show helped draw attention to the novel Mishil by Kim Byeola, in which the title character is depicted as Queen Seondeok’s foe. It was a rare case in the Korean publishing world of a successful television show making a novel successful, rather than the other way around.

When a historical novel is widely loved by the public, it increases the numbers of writers who specialize solely in writing historical novels. One such success story is Lee Jung-myung. Through such works as The Deep-rooted Tree and The Painter of Wind, Lee succeeded at grafting the strengths of the historical novel with the strengths of the mystery novel. The Painter of Wind was based on modern speculation over whether the famous Korean genre painter, Shin Yun-bok, was a woman. Also, The Deep-rooted Tree, was made into a television show that became wildly popular. By grafting onto mass media, Korean historical novels are successfully reinventing themselves.

1. Song of the Sword
Kim Hoon, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2012, 398p, ISBN 9788954617246
2. Mishil
Kim Byeola, Hainaim Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 504p, ISBN9788965743323
3. Black Flower
Kim Young-ha, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2011, 367p, ISBN 9788954610131
4. The Deep-rooted Tree (2 vols.)
Lee Jung-myung, Millionhouse Publishing Inc.
2004, 305p, ISBN 9788991643154 (Vol.1)

Kim Hoon, Song of the Sword

There are many reasons why Koreans are crazy about Yi Sun-shin. He was not only an extraordinary naval commander but a charming person as well. The courage he showed in defeating hordes of Japanese invaders with a ridiculously small fleet when the country was on the verge of being lost gave immense hope to the Korean people.
      Based on a variety of sources, including the The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and Yi Sun-shin’s own War Diary, and infused with the writer’s modern imagination, Song of the Sword opened a new era for historical nove...