The Magic of Poetry and the Poetry of Magic: Poet and Necromancer

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byDonatella Guida
Il poeta e il negromante (Poet and Necromancer)
Tr. Maurizio Riotto

Maurizio Riotto’s recent work Il poeta e il negromante translates and analyzes texts from the Korean literary tradition, tackling the fascinating subject of the fantastic tale. The first part of the work comprises an excursus on the Korean peninsula and its history of external relations with the Chinese Empire as well as with Japan. Riotto demonstrates a profound knowledge of Chinese and Korean cultures while also comparing them to aspects of the Classical Greek and Latin traditions in order not only to bring Italian readers closer to the text, but also to reflect on the surprising similarities between particular figures or beliefs.

Central to his book is the figure of the “poet necromancer” who, through the magic of his poetic art, accomplishes extraordinary feats such as bringing the dead back to life. If this assumption stems from the accurate account of poetry’s intrinsic value which significantly elevated the poet’s status, and if for his abilities the poet in the Greek and Latin traditions was believed to bridge two worlds (consider Homer and Virgil, to name the most obvious examples), then in East Asia the figure of the poet is enriched through a distinctly magical dimension which renders him a powerful creator of spells with a positive impact on his country.

The second part of the book consists of two short novels translated in Italian and suitably chosen to illustrate Riotto’s subject matter. The first, the seventeenth-century Choe Munheon-jeon (The tale of Choe Chi-won), was written by an anonymous author in Chinese. It recounts the story of a well-known character in the Korean tradition, Choe Chi-won, who lived between the ninth and tenth centuries. The novel presents historical events within a fantastic frame: Choe’s mother is kidnapped by a golden pig and taken to a parallel world reminiscent of “The Peach Blossom Spring” by the great Chinese poet Tao Qian (365-427). She is soon freed and gives birth to a child everyone suspects is the son of the magical creature. Her husband, a high-ranking official, decides to throw the newborn into the sea, but then he repents and devises a complex plan for bringing him back without again unleashing malicious rumors. To everyone’s amazement, the child, who has miraculously survived death at sea, knows how to read perfectly and refuses to return home. That the child is extraordinary is confirmed by the descent of celestial figures who appear in succession to teach him their superior knowledge. As a result, using his extraordinary abilities, he solves the mysterious riddle posed by the Chinese Emperor to the sovereign of Silla and composes a poem about it. He then reaches China where he confronts innumerable dangers with courage, overcoming them with the guidance of the immortals. When he arrives in the capital, Choe ironically states: “Fancy that! I can enter without difficulty through the gates of a small country but now my hat smashes into the gates of this great power.” He refuses to proceed any farther. It is easy to understand why China is represented as an arrogant enemy which, because of its immense size, claims the right to swallow up the small kingdom of Silla, and also why Choe is a Korean nationalist hero of sorts.

The second novel, the nineteenth-century Jeon Uchi-jeon (Story of Jeon Uchi), is translated from Korean. Written by an unknown author, it recounts the deeds of a sixteenth-century historical figure, a minor official adept at sorcery and necromancy. His familiarity with the spirit world leads him into various clashes with the established order until he is finally arrested and dies in prison—or at least, that is what he has people believe since his corpse is never recovered. The literary text highlights the magical abilities of the protagonist who comes into the possession of some mysterious writings stolen from a fox with nine tails (an evil spirit found in the Chinese tradition). He then masters these spells and uses them for himself or for those in need.

Fantastic tales do not serve merely as entertainment: they often deliver a moral message as well. It is no accident that the novel dates back to the 1800s, a period in which Korea was afflicted by uprisings, epidemics, and foreign invasions. As Riotto notes, “By now it must be obvious that only magic could have changed if not the country’s destiny, then at least that of the individual.”

The book is of indisputable cultural value for both the general and scholarly public, but what is more, Riotto succeeds in the arduous task of producing a particularly fluent and enjoyable translation which is also philologically accurate and accompanied by ample notes. The volume supplies the original texts of both novels, texts indispensable for the specialized reader and extremely important for the teaching purposes of the author who is a long-time university professor. The book is replete with a rich bibliography, a large number of illustrations, and a useful analytical index. 


by Donatella Guida
Professor, Chinese History University of Naples “L’Orientale”
Editor, Ming Qing yanjiu