Origins of the Korean Fantasy Novel: Dragon Raja (8 Vols.) by Lee Young-do

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byJang Eunsu
Dragon Raja (8 Vols.)

In the history of Korean novels, Dragon Raja is classified as a unique work. As showcased by the first-ever Korean novel, The Story of Hong Gil-dong, readers can easily find Korean authors who use their imagination to create a world of reality and fantasy filled with exotic adventures and characters brandishing words and magical powers.


Traditionally, friendship, love, struggle etc. with imaginary creatures such as Dokkaebi(Korea hobgoblins), Golden Pig, and the Dragon King of the Sea have been infused into a rich repertoire in Korean novels. Lee Young-do, who wrote Dragon Raja, departed from this tradition and adopted the fantasy genre largely created by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to pursue his own style, resulting in a thrilling and truly new novel for Korean literary circles.


Dragon Raja was first serialized on an online community through Hitel in 1996. Lee had never published before; he had never stepped out of his hometown of Masan, a southern coastal city, since studying Korean literature and graduating from a college in the provinces. Once the novel’s serialization got off to a start on the online network, its popularity soared. The number of views exceeded a record one million, while thousands of users rushed to log on to read the latest installment at midnight when it was available. Whenever there was a delay with the latest installment, hundreds of readers posted vigorous complaints on the community message board.Encouraged by the huge online success of the novel, GoldenBough, a unit of one of the country’s largest publishers Minumsa Publishing Group, decided to publish the series as a print edition. This turned out to be a blockbuster hit at local bookstores. The series sold a million copies when it made its formal debut and set many records, establishing itself in the history of Korean novels.


About 10 years have passed since the publication of Dragon Raja, but the novel remains in the top 10 list of popular books at college libraries. This “on-line to off-line literary phenomenon” is now commonplace across the globe, but the origin of this trend in Korea was kicked off by Dragon Raja. Further evidence that the novel is its own phenomenon is that it has been included in high school textbooks. The novel has also been adapted into an on-line game; users in Japan, China, the U.S., and Taiwan have been enjoying the game for over a decade. There are comics and radio drama versions as well offering a primary example of OSMU (one source multi-use) for Korean publishers. Translated versions are also popular. The Japanese version sold some 700,000 copies and the Chinese version in Taiwan ran up sales of 200,000 copies. The debut of the Chinese version in mainland China is also planned.


The greatest charm of the novel is that author Lee almost perfectly replaced Tolkien’s romantic knight archetype with his own world of Korean humor. Throughout the novel, Lee pokes fun at those who pursue power and control, and mocks moral hypocrisy with the help of tantalizing sexual deviations. This is, in fact, part of a longstanding tradition found in Korean pansori, an epic operatic genre. The adventure of Hoochie and his friends generates plenty of humor, a source of great pleasure for readers and a critical reminder for the misplaced and misguided rules and norms plaguing the reality.


The adoption of a Western fantasy format and its cultural modification and innovation is the hallmark of Dragon Raja, Korea’s pioneer fantasy novel. This transformative endeavor has been the key mission of Lee Young-do. In The Bird That Drinks Tears, another novel by Lee Young-do, the world stemming from Tolkien’s fantasy platform has been reduced to a minimal, new worldview based on the infusion of Korean myths and other legends emerges. Lee successfully incorporates a Western genre into his work and goes a step further by crafting a unique literary world in The Bird That Drinks Tears. This is why the novel has been widely read and loved by readers in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.