The Song of the Sword

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.2 Winter 2008
  • byKim Hoon
The Song of the Sword

Song of the Sword is a first-person narrative told in the voice of historical hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin. It is an intimate and existential monologue of a man confronted with the harsh realities of war, loss, and indignity. The book begins in the year Jeongyu (1597), five years into the war against Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion. The following is the novel’s first chapter, which opens as Yi arrives back on the southern coast, released after torture and interrogation as a result of intrigue against him in the capital.



Flowers blossomed on each deserted island. The islands billowed like clouds as the evening sun lit the flowering trees. It seemed as if they might slip free of their moorings and drift beyond the darkening horizon. By the time the birds returned from this shore to their roosts on the dimming islands, the sparkling sunset had already hurried off to the horizon and died. At dusk, the remote islands were the first to be drawn into the shallow twilight and at dawn, they were the first to be returned to the world by the rising sun. Out at sea, it was always the most remote islands that died first and came back first.

As the setting sun scraped the shimmering scales of light off the water, the sea blackened and surged with the tide, crashing against the cliffs, the rumble of the surf tossing in the darkness. My sight line extended no further than the blackened bluff. This was the moment when the enemy fleet would swoop in once again on the dark crest of waves from the other side of the murmurous horizon, wings spread wide, bearing a mountain of guns and swords. I could not fathom the source of the enemy’s rancor and the enemy had no way of knowing the quivering depths of my own rancor. The sea was taut, swollen with a rancor that neither side could hope to penetrate. But that was all I had for the time being—no fleet, only my rancor.

The Royal Prosecutors Office had released me on the first day of the fourth lunar month in the year Jeongyu. The interrogation consisted of empty questions. The prosecutors, ultimately, asked nothing. They were chasing a phantom.

I pitied their language. They prattled on, meticulously assembling an illusion of loyalty and justice. But the prosecutors knew nothing of the truth of the sea. In the interrogation chair I sat face to face with a ghost. The ghost lashed my body, the pain piercing me to the marrow. I lost consciousness many times, reeling back and forth between the phantom void and the splintering pain that crashed into my body like a cliff. Upon my release, I stayed for a time at a house outside South Gate. The High State Councilor, the Inspector-General and honorary ministers no longer called on me, for I had been accused of a grave offense. They sent servants in their place, servants sent to simply show their faces as a gesture to console me, as if consolation was possible in this world. Soon I began my journey south, passing my nights in the homes of the various town clerks who allowed me to soothe my aching, nearly broken back against the warmth of the heated floor in their servants’ quarters. One month later I arrived at Marshal Governor Gwon Ryul’s office in Suncheon to begin my sentence—to serve in the war stripped of rank and gear, wearing the white garb of a commoner.

The east wind, blowing in from Hanseong, Geoje and Goseong, carried the stench of rotting human flesh, along with the scent of flowering trees. The sea air was laden with the acrid odor of rotting bodies and tinged with the fragrance of the damp forests, and the wind that drove the stench away from the shore carried floral scents on its tail. The coastline of Gyeongsang Province was blanketed with corpses, some with the head cut off, others the nose.

Behind enemy lines, beyond the battleground where shells and arrows rained down like hailstones, Joseon naval forces were busy chopping off the heads of their enemies while Japanese soldiers sliced off Joseon noses. The severed heads and noses were salted then presented to the superior officers, as a means of keeping score. Since it was no longer possible to discern whether a given head or nose had belonged to an enemy or an ally, out at sea, all forces cut off the heads or noses of the dead. Local magistrates abandoned their villages long before the fortresses were destroyed. Enemy forces swarmed the inlets and killed the villagers who had taken refuge in the mountains, even women and children. The villagers were killed for no other reason than that they had noses in the middle of their faces.

I knew this because I had seen it. Joseon forces used hooks to fish out the floating corpses of their own soldiers then decapitated them on the decks of their ships. Some kept a scythe on board specifically for removing heads. The beheaded bodies were tossed back into the water. Commanders on both sides received promotions based on the number of heads or noses they delivered and were commended in carefully crafted messages from their respective king. The headless bodies washed down from the Gyeongsang coastline as far west as Suncheon and the Gulf of Boseong, and were shoved into the mud flats by the rising tide. The corpses seemed alive, squirming and twitching with the ebb and flow of the tides, but a closer look revealed swarms of maggots. Crabs and clams dug into the gash of each beheaded neck and vultures descended upon them from the cliff tops with great speed.

During that month of travel back south, I was ill from exhaustion, drenched in a cold sweat each night, lodging in the guest rooms of rundown town halls abandoned by local chiefs or in the dirt-floored rooms of the servants who had stayed behind. In each village there were zinnias blooming magnificently between the weed-covered roofs and the few villagers still breathing killed their children and ate their flesh. From time to time I came across ghosts poking their heads out from under aster vines at the clanking of my horse's bell, light flashing from their hollow eyes.

I had taken the horse at Gurye and he died on a hill en route to Suncheon. He was a starved and mangy packhorse from the beginning, but I began to notice a limp in his forelegs at the foot of the hill. The horse staggered as if he were about to collapse, but in the end, he made it to the top before he died. His death was as serene as any natural death. He stretched his four legs, his hooves studded with worn-out horseshoes, and died with his eyes open. The horse stared at me and I gazed into his dead eyes, into the reflection of my disheveled, tangled hair. I abandoned the carcass at the side of the road and proceeded to Suncheon on foot. As I approached the sea, a viscid wind blew along the shore and the hot rotting smell of salted mackerel hung heavy in the air. The day I reached Suncheon I reported to Governor Gwon Ryul’s office as ordered, then made my way to the eastern shore, toward Yeosu. The sea that I re-confronted that day was utterly ungraspable in its immensity and I no longer had even a single ship under my command. I turned and saw a few dead bodies trapped by reeds in the mud flats. The half-spoiled uniform on one corpse revealed him to be a Joseon naval soldier, still his head had been cut off. That head would have been transmitted through the Governor’s Office all the way to the king’s court where it must have been counted as an accomplishment of the Joseon navy. Looking into the open wound where his head had been, I saw again my reflection in the dead horse’s eyes.

Wherever war may have taken this head seemed to make no difference to the dead in death. If, in the end, this endless war is an empty game, then this world is an empty place. From somewhere deep inside my body, perhaps from the unknowable depths of my bones, I could hear the sword weeping—shup, shup, shup. Rivulets of cold sweat traveled the length of my back. The dark sea churned with phosphorescent light. 


* Translated by Jung Ha-yun and Ahn Jin-hwan.

Author's Profile

Kim Hoon is the author of eight novels, one short story collection, and an extensive range of non-fiction. He received the Dongin Literary Award in 2001 for his breakthrough historical novel Song of the Sword, which was followed by many other honors, including the Daesan Literary Award. His books have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.