The Whale Rider

Witi Ihimaera.  The Whale Rider.  NZ ePenguin, 2008 (orig. 1987).  Kindle ed.

Rating:  5 out of 5 spears of destiny thrown across a thousand years.

I listed this one in my 2013 year-end review, but never got around to reviewing it.  I just let it percolate and percolate in my head, until now, two re-reads later, I’ve finally decided it’s time.

This story has so many things I love:  magical realism, oceanic folklore, girl power, and it’s seriously setting off my Ocean Girl radar with its talk of a time when people could speak with whales!


The language and imagery are gorgeous, the plot is well structured, and it’s not like other Chosen One stories I’ve read (though, if I had one complaint, it would be that Kahu is a bit too perfect; she’s more a symbol than a 3-dimensional character…which, then again, isn’t such a bad thing if you look at The Whale Rider as a fairy tale).

The story

The story begins one spring, when a girl is born into the line of men descended from Kahutia te Rangi, the ancient ancestor of the Whangara Maori tribe who rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale.  The current leader of the tribe, Koro Apirana, is disgusted by this break in the male line of descent, but he is even more furious when his grandson names the girl after the Whale Rider.  As for Kahu, she falls in love with her great-grandfather at first sight, and as she grows up, she keeps trying to gain his love, and he keeps pushing her away.

Meanwhile, not having a great-grandson to whom he can pass on his knowledge, Koro keeps looking among the other boys of the tribe for the one who will lead the tribe in the future, all the while missing the signs pointing to Kahu as that person.  But one night, when Kahu is eight, a disaster happens that gives her the opportunity to finally get Koro’s attention.

Not another Chosen One story (or is it?)

Well, on the one hand, this is the Chosen One-iest story I’ve ever read.  Kahu has ALL THE SIGNS pointing to her as The One meant to lead the tribe and save their connection to the sea.  Her parents controversially name her after the famous Whale Rider who founded the tribe.  As a baby, Kahu only likes Maori food.  She’s obsessed with Koro Apirana – who himself is known as “Super Maori” among the younger generation – no matter how much he pushes her away.  She sneaks into Koro’s cultural lessons all the time.  She’s the only one who cries while listening to stories about whale hunting.  She makes whale sounds while staring off into the sea, and the whales seem to listen to her.  She’s at the top of her class and leader of the culture group at school.  And on.  And on.  And on.

Koro must be seriously stubborn in his misogyny to not see all these giant neon signs pointing to the future leader he’s been looking for.

But it’s not the kind of Chosen One story I’ve gotten used to.  Two cases in point:

  • It’s not one of those stories in which the Chosen One is an outsider who sweeps in to save and/or revolutionize an indigenous community (looking at you, Avatar and The Road to El Dorado).

Kahu is part of the community, and though she does challenge the traditional attitude toward females, she’s not the first to do so.  Her great-grandmother, Nanny Flowers, is a descendant of Muriwai, a woman who took charge in a dangerous situation while the male leaders were away and saved her people from being drowned at sea.  Nanny Flowers calls her “the greatest chief of [her] tribe.”

There was also Mihi Kotukutuku, Nanny Flowers’ aunt, who once stood on sacred ground – something women were not supposed to do – and challenged the chief when he yelled for her to sit down.

‘No you sit down! I am a senior line to yours!’ Not only that, but Mihi had then turned her back to him, bent over, lifted up her petticoats and said, ‘Anyway, here is the place where you come from!’ In this way Mihi had emphasized that all men are born of women.  (pg. 81)

Kahu follows in Mihi and Muriwai’s footsteps by sneaking into the young men’s cultural lessons, and just showing all those signs that she, and not one of the young men, is meant to be the one to whom Koro passes the mantle.

  • The story is told from the p.o.v. of a member of the community, rather than focusing entirely on Kahu.

This isn’t just Kahu’s story.  It’s the Whangara community’s story.  In particular, it’s told from the point of view of her uncle Rawiri, who’s sixteen when Kahu is born.  Throughout the story, Rawiri does focus on his experiences with Kahu, but there’s also an interlude in which he describes his four years abroad in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and how they shaped him as a Maori.  The story is as much about his understanding of himself and his community’s destiny as it is about watching the Chosen One fulfill that destiny.

On a side note, some of my favorite parts of Rawiri’s narration were his descriptions of Nanny Flowers and her fights with Koro.

‘He isn’t any chief. I’m his chief,’ she emphasized to me and, then, over her shoulder to Koro Apirana, ‘and don’t you forget it either.’ Squelch, went her fingers as she dug them into the dough.

‘Te mea te mea,’ Koro Apirana said. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
‘Don’t you mock me,’ Nanny Flowers responded. Ouch, went the bread as she flattened it with her arms. She looked at me grimly and said, ‘He knows I’m right. He knows I’m a descendant of old Muriwai, and she was the greatest chief of my tribe. Yeah,’ and Help, said the dough as she pummelled it and prodded it and stretched it and strangled it…

No sooner was I out the door when the battle began. You coward, said the dough as I ducked.  (pgs. 16-17)

Fairy tale and magical realism

The Whale Rider feels like a new legend, a continuation of the original legend of Kahutia te Rangi.  At several points in the story, the narrator repeats the ritual line:

Hui e, haumi e, taiki e.
Let it be done.

This serves to emphasize that the events in Kahu’s life are part of the tribe’s destiny, that they are meant to be.

As a character, Kahu at times seems more like a symbol than a dynamic person, with just how good and kind and dutiful she is – just like the female protagonists in some fairy tales.  She’s devoted to the leader of her tribe, and doesn’t let his rejections discourage her.  She’s a model Maori child, only drinking water and eating Maori food, rather than junk food and soda like other children.  All this serves to mark her not only as the Chosen One, but as a mythical figure in her tribe’s history.

Also enhancing the story’s mythic quality are the elements of magical realism.  According to Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, magical realism serves as a form of “political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective…”  In The Whale Rider, magical realism signals a turning point in the tribe’s history, a time of great change to the status quo.

It starts with the founding of the tribe by Kahutia te Rangi, who made his entrance in the most unusual way – on the back of a whale.  Kahutia was so in sync with the whale that he taught the whale to contract his muscles to make handholds, stirrups and a saddle, as well as a breathing hole for when they dove deep.  And as he approached the new land, Kahutia threw small spears; some became birds and sea creatures, but the last one was meant to land a thousand years later, when the tribe needed it most.

At several points in the present day story, Rawiri thinks he sees a spear flying through the air and landing nearby.  This signals the coming of another great change, this one to the status quo as Koro Apirana sees it.


The Whale Rider is a tribute to Maori mythology and traditions, and a celebration of powerful women like Muriwai, Nanny Flowers, and Kahu herself.  It’s a beautiful work of magical realism, full of poetic language and imagery, and a unique Chosen One story.

The movie is also pretty neat, but the book goes into much more depth about Maori history and beliefs, and how Kahu fits into it all.


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