This story comes from Saem Toh Publishing Co.’s 1995 collection of Korean Children’s Folk Tales and opens in an underwater palace where the Dragon King, after writhing in pain all night, summons together his physicians. He has tried every medicine known to the kingdom, with no success – it is now up to them to find a way to save his life. A cuttlefish, possibly noticing an implied ‘or else’ in this demand, confidently suggests the boiled liver of a hare. The Dragon King then chooses from several eager volunteers for this delicate task, for in order to obtain the best possible liver he is determined to have the hare brought in alive. When several candidates have already been discarded, the timid turtle offers his services. The king accepts him, recollecting an incident involving the turtle’s grandfather, a hare, and a rather famous marathon (some Aesop cross-referencing on the part of the authors or universal storytelling? I’d love to think this is a fable told by turtles everywhere…). He orders a painting be made of the hare so as the turtle can make no mistake in his search and duly prepared, the turtle sets forth.
Across ocean and mountain the turtle journeys. It’s the perfect time of year for a walk on land, through charming springtime woods, and the turtle is quite enjoying himself, but there is an angry dying king at home waiting for his miracle medicine and no hare to be found. At last the turtle sees her – a living image of the portrait he has carried with him all the way, a beautiful creature dancing happily in the fresh green grass. A little enchanted, the turtle nevertheless approaches. Their first exchange is not propitious. He tells her she is ‘fragrant’, she tells him he looks like a wooden bowl. The turtle’s first crush wears off quite fast. He is all politeness, though, waxing lyrical on the wonders of the Dragon King’s underwater lands, and how adored she would be there if only she would accompany him on his return. He excites her curiosity. She accepts his offer, and in a deep dive that she somehow survives with ease (the magical properties of amphibians, perhaps?) they reach the palace.
No sooner has the hare arrived than she is seized and bound by the king’s guards, then carried into the Dragon King’s presence as helpless as it is possible to be. What she sees seated upon the throne makes the turtle look positively pretty – a giant crowned with coral horns, his huge mouth grinning with teeth like spears. His thundering voice translated for the hare by a herald, he announces himself as the King of the Sea and explains her role in events. Yes, she’s going to die, BUT when she is dead his servants will wrap her body in embroidered brocade and bury her in a beautiful garden, so that’s all right. Overcome with his own generosity, the king throws in a monument to her memory. “You are more fortunate to die a noble death that to become the prey of a tiger or the game of a hunter on the hill,” he expands. “I promise you all these high honours which are reserved for a princess of the blood. You have every reason to be thankful instead of resentful. Now get ready to die with a happy look.”
YES, REALLY. I quote.
With that, the Dragon King orders for his servants to slit open the belly of the hare to extract this miraculous liver. The same soldiers who bound her up now race forward with swords drawn. The time has come for some very quick thinking. The hare cries out, claiming a farewell address. However delighted she would be to sacrifice herself for such a magnificent king’s continued good health, and however grateful she might be for such thoughtful funeral arrangements, there is a snag – she forgot to pack her liver! Its virtues are, after all, widely known, the result of a mystical conception and clean living. To defend herself from constant pleas for her liver she plucked both it and her heart from her body to be concealed safely inside the hill. Silly turtle, not to warn her, or she would have brought them with her!
Her composure unsettles the Dragon King. He tries to probe her story, wanting to know how she can remove her liver and replace it so easily; she glibly replies, were not all creatures brought forth into the world during the hour of the hare? Of course she can perform such easy magic! The king is no longer sure what to do. He may be a dazzlingly insensitive individual, but he does not want to kill so lovely a creature for no reason, and besides that wouldn’t help him get to her liver, now would it? He buys her story and even presents her with a gift of two hundred pearls before commanding the turtle to return her to land, so she can fetch out her hidden liver.
This the turtle does. Leaping to land, the hare dances with the sheer joy of her escape. When the turtle insists she stop that straight away and get the liver, she bursts out laughing, but her reply has all the force of a manifesto. “The malady of your Dragon King has nothing to do with me,” she retorts. “You kidnapped me with a fine trick in order to live yourself more happily at the cost of my life. So I feel very much like killing you, but considering your good service in carrying me to and from the water palace through winds and waves, I pardon your crime and spare your remaining life.” She tells him to pass on a message to the Dragon King: that no medicine can guarantee immortal life or constantly keep away death, for death claims prince and peasant alike whenever their hour may come. With that, she laughs again and bounds into the forest, where the turtle cannot follow. Oh, and yeah, she’s keeping those pearls.
This is a story about consequences and what we will do to each other to survive – and how sometimes there is a no win situation, even in the world of fairy tales, when no matter what you do someone has to suffer. It is implicit in the story that the king, denied the hare’s miraculous liver, will inevitably die. But he was quite happy to kill an innocent to prolong his own life. Personally, I take the hare’s side. She may be rude and snobbish, but she deserves to live EVERY BIT as much as the Dragon King.
Also, wherever you are in the world, it is never a good idea to mess with a member of the rabbit family. Forget the magic liver, it’s the silver tongue you need to watch out for.