Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 5. 1964.
N. Z. Culture Needs Polynesia
N. Z. Culture Needs Polynesia
O Te Raki, Legends of the North, by Florence Keene, with drawings by Eric Lee-lohnson; published by Paul's Book Arcade, Auckland and Hamilton, 1963. Price 21/-. 196 pages. Reviewed by P. (Graham) Robb.
New Zealand has shared with the rest of the world so many advances in the last ten years, that the problem of our isolation, once a primary preoccupation, has receded from the centre of interest and urgency.
"here in this far-pitched perilous hostile place
this solitary hard-assaulted spot
fixed at the friendless outer edge of space".
But another of New Zealand's "Problems" is still little alleviated; we share a language with England and America, but we do not share a country and ultimately we cannot completely share a culture. We need our own traditions; indeed the diminished factor of isolation makes this, if anything, more important. Although the English tradition as a whole must continue to be the major influence and guide, there is needed by artists and the people some sense of the vital spark of an indigenous tradition. We have the heritage of a young nation: pioneers, poets, soldiers, the "forgers of myths"; but the ancient history is in other hands.
The sense of depth in our own culture must come from the Polynesian peoples who understood this land earlier and perhaps better than we have. It is the subconscious recognition of this source which has in part influenced the present-day attitude to the Maori; certainly there is prejudice, but very frequently respect has proved more powerful, a respect which does not merely derive from the nature of the first encounters, seeing the Maori as land-owners as fellow-citizens and later as honourable enemies or feared assailants, then as comrades in arms. It does not even come simply from the comparative lightness of the Maori and the summer darkness of the pakeha skin; it is not even from the rapid (though not always successful) adaptations of a not so primitive people to a not so civilised world.
In fact the Maori are the Britons and Vikings to New Zealand, and the Pakeha-Normans must, though grudgingly, have some respect and tolerance for a spirit in another race, that they have desired to cultivate in their own. Thus the fusion and cohesion of a nation comes from a shared past and a loyalty to its values and traditions.
The appearance of an attractive book on Maori legends is the symptom from which may be diagnosed a wider if hardly recognised need. O Te Raki is a testament to the importance of myths and the value of detailed and sympathetic accounts of the concerns of an earlier race, both of which contribute to the overall pattern of a nation; Florence Keene has provided firstly a useful sociological outline likely to serve only to whet the appetite, and later has revealed a wealth of both fantasy and history. The stale and familiar legends are no longer enough; what was needed was such tales as are to be found here, ancient secrets with a new vitality of battles, explorations, supernatural events, and of the domestic run of the day, fishing, planting and feasting.
At times the story-telling is not particularly outstanding; occasionally it lacks the simplicity and uncluttered directness neded for such tales—Tohe's Journey for example, instead of being a stirring legend in the best heroic fashion too often subsides into an inflated foot-note. But more often the book does succeed in capturing the inimitable flavour of true folk-lore, even, as in the Legendary Tale of Tuhuaangi to that occasional touch of laconic understatement and humour often associated with Icelandic sagas.
The best feature is perhaps the writer's ability to give actuality to the stories by placing them in an often familiar setting; and in this she is admirably assisted by the strong characterization of Eric Lee-Johnson's illustrations, which show a quite remarkable appreciation of the Northland scene. That these drawings should be of the present-day is a great contribution to the value of this book, for they provide a vivid link with the traditional just as the stories about place-names and peculiarly New Zealand ideas and objects given an added depth to local and cultural conceptions.
However the book does not entirely fulfil the function for which it is welcomed; it is not perfect, only a sound step in the right direction. In the historical note R. S. Oppenhefm does not go far enough when he states: "The old way of life is now a matter of history. The new Maori, however, will still need the traditions which assure him of his ethnic identity." In a changing world all New Zealanders may need to ensure their national identity.
The Note is nearer an important truth when it concludes: "By reference to one another's traditions they (Maori and Pakeha) may be able to gain a deeper insight into one another's views." For especially in art, there must come a time when the traditions of both races are fused as a shared heritage, the historical context framing a united and individual modernity.