Reflection: Jan. 20 (lit. analysis)
Witi Ihimaera’s “The Whale Rider” is, in most every regard, a regional-contemporary retelling of the Arthurian legend. This is not a slight. Rather, in the tradition of intellectuals such as Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Carl Jung the story articulates several innate human dramas born from the ‘human condition’ (if that phrase may be used here).
Kahu, the stories protagonist, is continually viewed through a mythic paradigm. Every aspect of her character is introduced as it pertains to the introduction, development, and resolution of her character’s connection to the land. Near the beginning of the story she is tied to the land of her birth when her Grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and Uncle, set-off to bury her umbilical cord in the ground, thus, to paraphrase, ‘grounding Kahu in the land of her forefathers and guaranteeing her return to that land.’ At varying points Kahu is overtly linked to the land of her birth when she senses the whale’s pain (the symbol of her land an people) – during Koro’s story and when the whale pod is beached – and begins to cry, or sing, in accord with the group. And, ultimately, when she is able to, in true Arthurian style, ‘draw’ the stone from the sea.
In this act – the wielding of the stone – Kahu, in the most basic analysis, claims the authority which the author has eluded to being hers from the outset of the story. She is the one who is able to connect, or as Ihimaera often says ‘commune,’ with the earth. The more profound implication of this act however, is that it also gives authority to the land. Kahu, does not draw her authority from her education, or her wealth, or directly from a particular birthright, rather, she is empowered by her ability to claim provenance within – and, perhaps over – nature. Further, that power is affirmed by the actions of the whales; when, during a single night, a pod of whales and a mythic, demi-god, whale beach themselves upon the native Maori shores. The whales have rejected the sea and have sought death on the land. The whale, as Ihimaera often notes, was a primary resource for survival and thus also a primary signifier of the Maori people. A point which is confirmed by Koro, who, during the evening tells his ‘boys’ “if it dies, we die.” Thus, just as Kahu claimed authority from the sea, the whales claimed death on the land. Each act illustrates the Maori cosmology and allows the reader to locate the characters, and particular events, within a comprehensive visual.
Ihimaera, in his telling of “The Whale Rider,” construct a ‘map’ as defined by Albert Wendt. Ihimaera’s fiction helps to construct “grids through which we [they, the Maori] read reality.” (Wendt p. 60) This story, if it can be accepted as, or at least emblematic of, Maori legend reinforces the people’s perspective of existence. Such ‘reinforcement’ has proven itself necessary to all peoples at all times – to the extent that such mythologies have existed for all peoples at all times. Wendt articulates this need of a people to have, and be able to connect to, a particular history-mythology (hierophany/theophany[?]). In his essay “Pacific Maps And Fiction(s)” Wendt testifies to his own rejection of the Christian maps that had been thrust upon he, and his people, by Christian missionaries – maps that he now rejects in favor of his native mythologies – in his effort to articulate the necessity of a persons connection to an ‘authentic’ narrative.
Perhaps then, if we can view Ihimaera and Wendt from the same tradition, it is ironic that Ihimaera chose to portray Kahu as a savior figure, one who’s stature and continued relevance was solidified after she joined the whale and rode off into the sacred (into death) only to return and be found by those who now believed in her authority. Or, perhaps, if we were to revisit Joseph Campbell, though others have drawn the same conclusions, such “hero mythologies” in-which, it is necessary for an individual to venture into and commune with the sacred, and then return to share the fruits of that venture with the community, are common and necessary.
And, perhaps, to continue with my speculations, this is also why