For the Love of Lee Seo Jin: A Look Into Gye Baek and Eun Go

This is a personal take on the sad love story between General Gye Baek and Royal Consort/Queen Eun Go. First, let me say that all statements here are based on my impressions on the 2011 sageuk (S. Korean historical drama) series Gye Baek, which has my favorites Lee Seo Jin and Song Ji Hyo. Because normally I avoid delving into love stories (where I would say the plots are more often than not “nonsensical” and “mushy”), I won’t focus on the “mushy” side of their relationship. Instead I would try my best to look at the dynamics of how Gye Baek and Eun Go separated. The factual historical information on this great general’s life is said to be very little. I will be paying attention to their story as portrayed by the actors, looking at their faces while in dialogue, while keeping in mind also what little information available to me. (“Gye Baek” can also be presented as “Gye-baek” or “Gyebaek”, and is likewise with the Romanization of Korean names.)

As of March 2013 Wikipedia has this information on Gye Baek:   “The Baekje Dynasty flourished for six centuries from 18 BCE until it was defeated by Silla in 660. Baekje was established in the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula, close to the site of present-day Seoul by Onjo, the third son of King Dongmyeong, the first king of Goguryeo. It expanded southward and set up a trading relationship with China. …  In 660, Baekje was invaded by a force of 50,000 from Silla, supported by 144,000 Tang soldiers. Gyebaek, with only 5,000 troops under his command, met them in the battlefield of Hwangsanbeol. Before entering departing to the battlefield, Gyebaek reportedly killed his wife and children to boost the fallen morale and patriotism of his army, and to prevent the thought of them to influence his actions or to cause him to falter in battle.

His forces won four initial battles, causing severe casualties to Silla forces. However, in the end, exhausted and surrounded, Gyebaek’s army would be outnumbered and overwhelmed. Baekje’s forces would be all annihilated in battle, alongside with their leader Gyebaek.  … Baekje was destroyed after 678 years of rule, shortly after Gyebaek’s defeat and death at Hwangsanbeol.

As Neo-Confucian philosophy became more influential in the later Korean Dynasties, Gyebaek was recognized by historians and scholars are exemplifying the Confucian ideals of patriotism and devotion to his King and praised as such. Although not much else is known about Gyebaek’s life, his actions leading up to his last battle are well known to many Koreans.”

Yesterday I had a post on Gye Baek, looking a bit at how the happy days between Gye Baek and Eun Go were. This series is 36 episodes, which makes it 36 hours. I haven’t seen all the episodes but what I did was to hunt for those that will inform on my favorite characters’ story. So far I feel I have seen enough to make a statement on it—which basically is this: now I understand how they must separate, with Gye Baek having a wife, with Eun Go going the dark path.

The main point of the entire series is that Gye Baek has to be presented as a great and honorable hero. He must be protected from blemishes in the face that he is a man with lots of blood in his hands. Next, Eun Go must be portrayed as evil (I can’t retrieve now where I got this idea from, but somewhere in the net I read that history remembers her as someone evil. Chincha.) Finally, Gye Baek has to have a wife and children, because history says he killed them before going to his final battle. Also, since Gye Baek has to be “honorable”, it has to be portrayed so that he had valued his family despite what he did to them—and hence, jumping to the end episode here, it was portrayed that it was his wife who pressured him into such a grimy decision.

When I saw General Lee Seung Gye in “The Great Seer” I understood that a military man, very indispensable as he is to the monarchy, is nothing but a servant—meaning, he doesn’t own his life, his thoughts, his actions. He is not expected to be educated, is assumed to be rough-mannered, and is distanced from politics. Eun Go and Gye Baek had to be separated because she is the king’s wife, so the angle of them staying together is out—Gye Baek can’t be a criminal by way of taking for himself the king’s consort. King Ui Ja had always wanted her—when I saw “Dae Jang Geum” I understood that, as Min Jung Ho said, no-one can separate a king from the woman he wants (though Ui Ja was just the Crown Prince here). On the aside, Gye Baek did decide to take Eun Go away from the palace. Hand in hand they left Eun Go’s prison cell and it would have been possible for them to happily live ever after, hidden in the hills, had not Eun Go fainted and was found out to be with child assumed to be the future king’s.

❤ Here are some snapshots leading to this “separation”, after the bullet-ed quasi-descriptions to the events comprising them. This is in Episode 24, which at the start looks like the wedding night of Eun Go and Ui Ja. Eun Go had frozen in bed and Ui Ja had given up forcing her, otherwise it would have been rape.

  • Eun Go leaves the palace and seeks out Gye Baek. They share their anguish at Eun Go’s wedding. Eun Go asks him why he’s so heartbroken.
  • Gye Baek speaks to her of his heart.
  • She tries to give him a reason for keeping on. At this point both actually believed that Ui Ja was a savior. At the earlier episodes Eun Go had been caught in a situation involving her relatives and she’s expected to receive the death sentence. Ui Ja supposedly “saves” her by claiming that she’s carrying his child, and so becomes “immune” to punishment, so to speak.
  • The main point in their dialogue is that Baekje is more important than both their personal problems. Eun Go has no choice but to capitulate to Ui Ja’s plan if she has to stay alive. She hopes to stay alive until the day she can be with Gye Baek again.
  • He protests, saying he’s not strong enough…
  • It seems that Eun Go sleeps over because we see on Gye Baek’s waking up he is covered with Eun Go’s robe and Eun Go has left him with hot food. We see here Gye Baek still holding Eun Go’s white robe as he rushes to the door to look for her outside. We see also the breakfast Eun Go has lovingly prepared for him.
  • He’s disheartened that she’s left, she’s nowhere to be seen. Unknown to him she’s crying her heart out behind a tree.
  • She goes back to her husband, the ever jealous Ui Ja.

Picture galleries zoom in, and thumbnails enlarge, when clicked on. Thank you to the makers of Gye Baek.

 

Gye Baek Eun Go ep24_11  The king has Eun Go imprisoned at the Crown Princess’ instigation, that her pregnancy was just a made-up story (indeed). Gye Baek is enraged. He breaks her out of her cell, and she calmly lets him take her by the hand. Gye Baek Eun Go ep24_12But Ui Ja is there, alas.

I’m not sure if Eun Go here has decided to sacrifice herself so as not to jeopardize Gye Baek’s safety, and so proceeded to “faint” (Sa Taek Bi did this trick on everyone). Gye Baek Eun Go ep24_13She falls down while still holding Gye Baek’s hand. He’s surprised, throws off his sword, goes down and holds her. Or, that she did faint, because the next scene shows the doctor assuring both her “men” that she’s pregnant (the real thing now).

♦  ♦        ♦  ♦        ♦  ♦

The next captures show how the couple said goodbye to each other right before Gye Baek rides off. Immediately after that is a fading away of Eun Go’s face, followed by the scenes of their meeting again after the 7 years they were apart.

  • Both accept the separation while in full belief that Ui Ja has done his best in looking out for them.  Gye Baek leaves the castle. Eun Go appears and pays her respects to him as he was riding out. She solemnly bows. They communicate without speaking, giving each other tiny smiles of assurances. He goes out to the open world, among the mountains and fields, and the rough men of the ranks. She is left behind in the closed world of political machinations.
  • Eun Go’s face fades out and is slowly replaced by the next scene, which is a jump to 7 years later.
  • Gye Baek, who has grown in stature in front of the men’s eyes, projects an indifference to Eun Go when they meet again. Eun Go in turn has presumably grown more “calloused” amidst the power struggle in the palace. However, both still love each other as strongly as ever. This is Episode 25 now. Eun Go and Gye Baek meet by chance. By this time both still believe that Ui Ja has always been straight with them. As Eun Go hurries to leave the tent Gye Baek softly asks her if she’s happy.
  • She is sarcastic of her situation, and so musters an honest answer, that she’s still alive, at least.
  • He, however, laments her answer. He tells her that she should be happy, and that as for him he has forgotten “everything”…
  • It hurts her to hear him say that he has “forgotten everything”. But she rationalizes things, and tells him that he’s right…
  • However, he had only been fooling himself, because he has not forgotten everything. He staggers in pain as Eun Go leaves the tent.
  • He then sees the yellow parcel on the table, opens it, finds a letter, and reads of Eun Go’s feelings…
  • As he reads her letter we are shown how Eun Go herself made the clothes for him …
  • The letter finishes with “I hope that you’ll be safe in the war. This is my wish for you. (signed) Eun Go”…  The letter devastates him and releases much pent-up emotions. He clutches at his chest and cries…

Alas eventually Eun Go discovers that Ui Ja manipulated situations years ago to the effect that she will consequently be trapped into choosing to stay with him and leave Gye Baek —this for the sake of Gye Baek also, of course, since Ui Ja knows very well that Gye Baek is her weakness — Eun Go seems to be consistent in looking out for Gye Baek’s welfare till the end, and even her “betrayal” of him was not done in cold blood on her part but was a consequence of palace politics.

In contrast, Gye Baek had actually betrayed Eun Go in not telling her back then about the issue with her blood relatives, which resulted in the annihilation of her clan. She is enraged, nearly killing the witness to the whole thing, and starts to totally freeze her heart towards Ui Ja. (I have skipped the episodes that dwell on this issue and so I don’t have the details to them yet.) She musters her protective powers onto Gye Baek now, in her quest for justice for her relatives and the survival of her little son. The bottom line of the plot that we now find ourselves in is that Ui Ja wants to go to war with Silla, whereas Gye Baek does not. Eun Go has figured out that Gye Baek must go, then proceeds to tell this to him, finishing her rationale with: “and so that I can return to your side”…   …which totally offsets his composure… he believes that he and Eun Go would be betraying the king if they become a couple again for the reason that (aside from the obvious adultery) he thinks Ui Ja once saved Eun Go’s life…   …by this time Gye Baek has no idea at all of what Eun Go has discovered about Ui Ja’s betrayal of them…She carries the burden alone…

King Ui Ja has constantly been making a fool of himself in front of his military officers. The last one was by riding off alone and falling from his horse, hitting his head against a rock, and had to be sneaked back into the palace to prevent public alarm. Eun Go is going desperate with her powerlessness to protect her son, whom the queen wants kicked out of the palace in favor of hers. From “Dong Yi” I learned that this “fight” for the position of Crown Prince can have fatal consequences, and so I can understand Eun Go’s position a bit. She is bitter against Ui Ja, she is heartbroken over Gye Baek, and now the intensely jealous queen is not leaving her and her son alone. How does a woman survive amidst all these? Ahh, Gye Baek, she thinks of him. She encourages him to take the position of “Great General” and so be the commander-in-chief in behalf of the comatose king. However, she also needs to ask for help from him, for the sake of her son’s safety (Prince Hyo). When they meet secretly Eun Go lets out a hint why she is in the middle of all this mess…which makes him seriously go out and find things out for himself…

… Gye Baek finds out the ugly truth, that the reason he and Eun Go got separated was nothing but a big lie … but Ui Ja was still in a coma… Gye Baek could only look at him frustratingly in a silent confrontation…

He next confronts the two hyungnim-advisors (who had already known about the whole thing since forever !!!) and expresses his intense disappointment over their bonding with Ui Ja, which he now sees as a sham… once again he loses the reason for going on with life…     After mulling it over some drinks outside the palace, where he heard common people talking about him, he makes a decision and seeks out Eun Go. (He had already made it clear that he doesn’t want to mess with politics.) He tells her that she can’t leave the king. In effect he says that he can’t help her. He tells her that in order for him to survive he must give himself to the people, to Baekje, just like what Eun Go told him all those many years before, that Gye Baek didn’t lose her to Ui Ja but to Baekje, to the people. Gye Baek Eun Go ep28_03He returns the necklace. She accepts it. She now feels abandoned again. Her defenses rise, and like the fighter that she always has been since a child, she lets anger rise within her—she must help herself and survive or her son will suffer… Gye Baek Eun Go ep28_04From this point onwards Eun Go musters her tactical prowess in her lone struggle for survival, which also entangles her and buries her deep in intrigues. …but he has made his choice… and she’s trapped in the palace life… and they go separate ways…

Gye Baek Eun Go ep35_02

Gye Baek defends Eun Go

Jumping to the last episodes, 35 and 36, and seeing how their last meetings went…  By this time it has been found out that the queen (Eun Go) herself gave out military tactics to Silla in exchange for Tang’s acknowledgement of hers and her son’s positions. This has resulted into the death of 8,000 soldiers plus the assassination of one of the hyungnim-advisors. She has gone to Silla, on a reason and which is not to flee, but upon knowing of the planned attack against Baekje she hurries back home in order to deliver this crucial information. Only Gye Baek defends her credibility and pushes for the postponement of the queen’s punishment…

The king (Ui Ja) does visit her in prison (not shown here), to ask why she returned. She answers that she wants to die by his hands. She says she didn’t return to ask for pardon but to make it so that her death eases the anger of the people against the royal family, thereby uplifting the overall morale and enabling the people to defend the country against the coming attackers (of hundreds of thousands of troops combined). Ui Ja tells her that he can’t protect her… (whereas Gye Baek will try to!!!)…

The pictures here show Gye Baek visiting her before he goes off to war. This is his second visit after that first one when he came to tell her that her punishment has been postponed. They had a bit of an argument then, because he felt frustrated that she opposes his defense of her against the royal court (with the help of the other hyungnim-advisor), frustrated that she wants to die the soonest possible time, and she’s frustrated that she can’t do it… …Gye Baek actually wants to save her… he hopes that after the war when things have turned out fine (meaning, he hopes to be successful, which is a healthy state of mind all together) he’ll work out for her pardon… and he encourages her to persevere… For the last time Eun Go opens to him her heart… that she wishes that no-one else had to undergo the things she had, and that she has always loved him…

He responds very kindly, but I can’t be sure how much of his love for her is still there… for sure, he is sincerely touched by her words… (on the other hand, making Gye Baek appear kind towards Eun Go like this in spite of her terrible crime could just be a plot-devise to preserve the image of noble-ness of Gye Baek. For me, though, since this couple has been given importance in this story then this last scene of theirs together says that Eun Go has remained important to Gye Baek until the very end, whether he admits it to himself or not… the way he turned around to respond to her for the last time is so pregnant with meaning, and he looks sad, and he is very still like he’s had a shock, which makes me recall how he cried in the tent after reading Eun Go’s letter telling of the clothes she made for him … if it was only pity that he felt for her then that should have been emphasized, but it was not…)     She bows her head to him, just like she had done before their 7 years’ parting, and he slowly turns around, to head for battle…

Gye Baek Eun Go ep36_05    …this is a snapshot of the general in the battlefield, facing the enemy troops, and we’re now very near the end of the story…   …Gye Baek Eun Go ep36_06where we see Eun Go standing alone on a cliff somewhere far from the battlefield, preparing to face death on such a seemingly very fine day … perhaps the panoramic scene is symbolic of the hope she has of leading a suffer-free life in the/her next “lifetime” where no filial duties would trap her, no trusted friend would betray her, and perhaps meet Gye Baek again — and this time at last be with him, “by his side”, living in that idyllic village of the outcasts where they started to really open their hearts to each other… her face is sad but hopeful, not crumpled with bitterness or regret, but merely “accepting”, and she looks at the sky, which seems like she is looking forward to “freedom”…  …whereas, on another scene is a still of Ui Ja sitting on the throne stone shock in the face of his fallen kingdom (ahhh… he deserved that, I thought to myself…)

I find myself crying at the end of my narration here. To think of the deaths Eun Go has caused should disable me to do so. But to look at the face of the woman above, side by side with her smile to Gye Baek telling him how she dreams to live in that ideal village (Episode 14), makes me suspect myself as just being biased towards my favorite pair (Eun Go and Gye Baek). Lady Choi (of “Dae Jang Geum”) also had that “teary-eyed sorry and tired” face in the end but I didn’t feel ambivalent towards her as I do towards Eun Go.

If only Ui Ja didn’t betray the two they would have lived a happy life together. If only their prison-break was successful they could have lived like Jang Geum and Min Jung Ho, on the run but happy. If only history didn’t demand that Gye Baek kills his family then the story could have run just as well without having to marry him off. If he didn’t have a wife then there wouldn’t have been that last scene with his family, implying that he loves Eun Go less. If he didn’t have a wife then the last scene with Eun Go would suffice as a renewed declaration of their living bond (Sujini and Dam Duk of “The Legend” didn’t even talk properly before they parted, but their actions sufficed). If he didn’t have a wife, and he came back safe from the war, Eun Go could have had a chance at pardon, exile maybe, and he could have gone with her… If only Eun Go wasn’t smart to start with in the first place, then she also wouldn’t have dreamt big for Gye Baek…

Gye Baek and Eun Go did dream of living a simple life together. Several times there were chances for them to run away, but it always fails. In her own way Eun Go’s passion for the people of Baekje is just as strong as Gye Baek’s and that’s why she toughens herself up in order to handle politics — even the two hyungnim-advisors agree with her in this. In contrast, Gye Baek’s getting married and living away from the capital has a touch of escapism. He was too much of a general, a subordinate of the crown, that he couldn’t put his faith in Eun Go who consistently puts herself in line at his defense. The character “Eun Go” is a tough one, always caught between damned-if-she-does and damned-if-she-doesn’t.

Now that I have assured myself that there are acceptable justifications as to why/how my favorite pair here separated I can calmly proceed to enjoy the entire story at a later time, when my schedule allows. I have to watch the entire series within a short span of time to get a clearer view of the consequent issues in the story. But I would still find that end part, of him killing his own family, difficult to handle, with the added burden of not wanting him as happy with another woman as he was with Eun Go.

My favorite Jumuchi of “The Legend” is, alas, a villain here, just as he was in “Shadowless Sword”. Jumong’s mom looks too gentle-soft to be a hardcore villain. Song Ji Hyo, though (obviously) looking washed-out in some parts (like Episode 24) looks to all the thinking-angel out to protect, the hurt-villain out to defend her interests, and in the end also the repentant-human who wants rest. Both kings are decidedly pathetic (that’s why the kingdom fell in the first place) but the actors are very convincing. As a military-general-character LeeSeoJin-GyeBaek isn’t as rough-behaving as JiJinHee-LeeSungGye (in The Great Seer)but their characters before their joining the military scene in their respective stories are comparable —they were as convincingly “manly” as anyone can be. The series has successfully projected “General Gye Baek” the historical hero as a very admirable character, upright and true—though I suspect that this is a very tall idealization.

Alas, I don’t get many Lee Seo Jin smiles here, just like in Damo. It doesn’t matter—I still like him to the max.

Thanks a million to the translators.

last edited 1 May 2014

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4 thoughts on “For the Love of Lee Seo Jin: A Look Into Gye Baek and Eun Go

  1. actually i watched this drama bcoz of LSJ and when starting to watched this i find it interesting to continue watching it..at first i thought theres no loves story happening here bcoz it focus only on general gyebaek (thinking he is always on war) but such sad love story exist,on ep24 when eun go got really pregnant i really think that it was gyebaek child,,i thought ”JUMONG” in this part, but then 7 years later, and when gyebaek return to the palace there is no scene that gyebaek and the child been together and it convinced me that he is not his child, bcoz im also hoping for him to live a happily life with Eun Go just like “Dae Jung Geum”.

    -your article is really nice it helps me to understand the plot more…THANK YOU!

    Like

  2. I literally read the whole article:).
    The story between them where so intensifying. I’m currently on ep10 and after reading this, I decided to stop. The article contained every detail and I’m satisfied. Even without watching I’m already crying on how sad…so sad… the protagonists’ story is.
    I also understand your “IF” part. Yes, indeed their story would have been the ‘happily contenting.’
    It would be satisfying if their true complete story would be divulged and researched meticulously.

    The article was nice. Congratulations!

    Like

    • Hello, ImmaJeynn. Thank you for dropping by and for leaving a nice comment. Maybe some time in the future you’ll decide to watch it until the end. Have a fine summer day!

      Like

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