[Italian] The Pleasure of Getting Lost in the Maze: Samguk Yusa by Iryeon

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byMarco Del Corona
Samguk Yusa
Tr. Maurizio Riotto

The first king – Hyokkose – sneaks out of a purple egg of heavenly origins while a white horse ascends to the sky. Mysterious soldiers, whose ears are adorned with bamboo leaves, are crucial to disband an enemy army. And again, a magic flute, obtained from a magic bamboo on the top of a magic mountain, helps a king to dominate the power of nature while a painter is granted a royal pardon because he proves he can portray people that appear in the king’s dreams. Dragons, ominous fog, temples erected to appease deities, mountains, rumbling rivers, seas filled with bizarre creatures, and so on . . . Samguk Yusa, the “history of three kingdoms”, written by the Buddhist monk Iryeon (1206–1289), is considered one of the masterpieces of ancient Korean literature. Indeed, it is perhaps more a valuable piece of literature than of history because, despite being meant as an account of the events of the Silla era (668–935), it is actually a fascinating mixture of legends and stories.

The distinguished Koreanist Maurizio Riotto must be credited with the first translation in Italian of Samguk Yusa in its entirety (five books, eight sections, one hundred and thirty eight chapters) from the original text in ancient Chinese (the earliest extant version written in 1512), complete with a preface, chronologies, glossaries and other information. An interesting detail: the publishing house Carocci has included the book in its Biblioteca Medievale (Middle Age Collection); it signifies that this landmark work of Korean culture is rightly perceived as a precious tile in the vast mosaic of world culture. Even a book unknown to the general public (aside from specialists of Korea) is entitled to enter the canon of shared global culture. 

We are in a maze. Riotto writes that in the Samguk Yusa the boundaries between legend and history are blurred and, when it comes to language and style, Iryeon’s “prose is often cryptic and tends to suggest different interpretations”. Academics might disagree, but the reader with no previous knowledge of Iryeon is easily captured by this labyrinth: we enjoy wandering through the chapters with no compass at all. The historical, critical framework of Samguk Yusa, with its succession of kings and the detailed sequence of their names (always quoted in this Italian edition along with their Chinese characters) is essential, of course, but the pleasure of reading can “strand” off the path: single pages or episodes may stand alone as short stories or tales or myths or moral anecdotes.

Samguk Yusa is not only within the realm of prose. As the curator explains, the book contains fourteen hyangga poems, the “indigenous poems” of the Silla kingdom, the only ones which have survived so far. The lines, which span from ethics to lyrical details, show the reader how the work of Iryeon is a world, maybe even beyond the very aim of the author. Like ambitious, powerful novels, Samguk Yusa is a book which strives to be epic, to paint a world, to be a world, with all the values, transformations, inconsistences, complexities of our world.

As we learn from Riotto’s preface, Iryeon’s work was “the work of a Korean for the Koreans when the national identity was badly outraged”, but this matter of fact doesn’t prevent anybody from appreciating the poetic strength of the text. Religion and spirituality are deeply rooted in Korean culture, and across the pages of the Samguk Yusa we learn to recognize the peculiar blend of Buddhism which Iryeon embraces, well balanced among the several schools and doctrines of his time. In the background, easily detectable even by the curious but not necessarily familiar reader, shades of Shamanism and the grip of Confucianism are evident (a poem included in the book remarks that “the king is a father, the ministers are attentive mothers / the citizen innocent children” . . .). Monks and holy men are everywhere in the Samguk Yusa and so are supernatural forces. Earth and heaven are interconnected, boundaries – again – are blurred, the world is interwoven by forces that sometimes drive human actions and sometimes are driven by humans. Never can the last world be told, often a last chance is given. The order of the universe wants us to be part of it, whoever we are – kings or not. That is the reason why the Samguk Yusa talks to all of us – even today – and deserves to be known and appreciated around the world. The Italian translation by Riotto is here to witness that.


Marco Del Corona
Deputy Editor, Cultural Pages,
il Corriere della Sera