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Korea Blog: A Star Trek Writer Pays Novelistic Tribute to the Korean Alphabet’s Creator, King Sejong the Great

Apart from the pop music, television dramas, and movies that have made so many international fans in the 21st century, no aspect of Korean culture has fascinated Westerners as much as the Korean alphabet. In fact, if Westerners know only one thing about Korea, they tend to know that its language uses an alphabet, not a set of complex logographic characters of the kind seen in written Chinese and Japanese. If they know only two things about Korea, the second is often that this alphabet was invented by one man, a Korean king of centuries ago. This piques enough of a fascination in some Westerners to get them looking up who he was, when he lived, and what else he accomplished, knowledge that can inspire feelings of admiration. But only one such Westerner has been inspired enough to write a novel: Joe Menosky, author of King Sejong the Great.

Here the book was published in both English and Korean translation last October 9th: Hangeul Day, the holiday in honor of the Korean alphabet whose name literally means “Korean writing.” This as opposed to classical Chinese writing, which until the invention of hangul in the 1440s all Koreans used — or rather, all literate Koreans used, literacy having been limited to a small upper class consisting mainly of aristocratic scholars and government officials. History remembers King Sejong the Great (whom a Korean in a language-exchange group cautioned me years ago never to refer to as simply “King Sejong” in Korean, lest I give offense) as the quintessential benevolent monarch, overseer of a host of scientific, military, economic, and cultural advances of which hangul is the best-known and most enduring. For nearly all their reading and writing today, Koreans use an only slightly reduced version of the same alphabet Sejong invented.

Whether or not the king invented hangul by himself remains a matter of debate. Some sources describe him has having led a kind of committee to its creation, while others frame it as a practically individual accomplishment. In the novel’s prologue, Menosky writes that he deliberately opted to tell the latter version of the hangul story: surely the one with greater potential dramatic intensity, but also the one that would more closely have aligned with his own feelings about Sejong, which by his own admission approach “hero worship.” This alongside his disbelief that “this story was not universally known. If a European ruler had invented an alphabet for his or her people, everybody in the world would have heard about it.” Indeed, such an equivalent is difficult even to imagine: “Leonardo da Vinci as rule of Florence? Isaac Newton as the King of England?”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.