The Sagas and Fairy Tales of the South Pacific: Maori Legends, as collected by Sir George Grey (1855) and Alfred Grace (1907)

As a Pakeha New Zealander who spent the majority of his school-level education in the lower North Island in the 1990s, I received a smattering of Maori cultural infusion. I learned how to count to ten in Maori, learned the names of colours, some rudiments of pronunciation from singing Maori-language songs in school, and so on. It’s probably quite sparse compared with what they do these days, but I’m on a much more solid footing than older generations. While I cannot speak Maori beyond basic rudiments, I’ve at least been in a position of telling elderly co-workers at a newspaper that Arohanui means “great love” (it’s the -nui suffix. It means “great” or “big”).

And then there are the Maori myths. Emphasis on myths, not legends, which we shall get to shortly. You encounter the tale of Tane the Forest God separating the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. Maui the mythical folk-hero beating up the Sun so that it does not speed excessively across the sky. Maui fishing up the North Island, and so on. But I was growing up with retold children’s versions of the tales. I was not interacting with the primary sources.

Until now, when I worked my way through a couple of venerable collections of these stories. Note that the Maori language had no written form until the arrival of Europeans (written Maori, for obvious reasons, being a major project of Christian missionaries). But by the mid-nineteenth century, one does find Maori able to write, and texts were appearing. The collections themselves were put together by interested Europeans, as sourced from oral traditions and such Maori texts as were available. The collections in question are those of Sir George Grey (1855) and Alfred Grace (1907).

Sir George Grey is one of those figures that reaffirm how complicated human beings can be. Incredibly racist, his role in nineteenth century New Zealand history is heavily tied-up with use of military force against Maori (the Invasion of the Waikato), and the resulting confiscation of vast tracts of land for the British Crown. Serving as both Governor of New Zealand, and as Premier/Prime Minister, his shadow looms large in this country’s colonial past. My own birthplace of Greymouth, on the West Coast of the South Island, is named after him.

And yet… Grey went to the trouble of learning Maori to fluency, and actually put great effort into collecting Maori traditions, oral and written. It would be rather as if Julius Caesar, in the middle of his Gaul campaign, had taught himself the local language, and decided to channel both Snorri Sturluson and the Brothers Grimm, in terms of committing local tradition into writing. The result was published in Maori as the Deeds of the Ancestors (1854), and then in English as Polynesian Mythology (1855). The version I read was a retitled version of the 1885 second edition. The 1988 reprint in question calls itself Legends of Aotearoa, though it does include Grey’s preface from the 1855 first edition, where Grey goes to great lengths to emphasise how “puerile” Maori mythology actually is. As noted, this was an incredibly complicated man.

But what to make of this early English-language account of Maori traditions? Well, as noted, this is the underlying source-material for the myths I encountered as a child. For me, there was a decent level of nostalgia in reading the material, and one can see Maui as one of those figures who is ubiquitous across human cultures – the brave and somewhat tricksy hero, who performs various great deeds on behalf of his people. He gets them reasonable daylight, he gets them a new land to live in, he gets them fire. He almost gets them immortality, but again in one of those innately human moments, he dies trying. Blame that pesky fantail.

Moving on from the more mythic stories to the legends, however, was something of an eye-opener. These stories I had not encountered before, and reminded me of nothing so much as the Norse Sagas (not the Eddas). The comparison works on multiple levels. First off, there is the framing context. In many cases, the stories are supposed to be traditional accounts of how this seafaring warrior people wound up arriving and settling in a new island home. Just like the Norse. And then there are those stories’ more specific subject-matter. We have bloodthirsty family feuds enduring for multiple generations, brave-yet-amoral protagonists*, and low-level magical elements peering in over the edges. Magic is there, but it’s vaguely sinister, and ought to be left alone. The cherry on top is that the legends in question are told in a terse, straightforward style, lacking character introspection… again, like the Norse Sagas.

*To take one example. Kupe, best known as the legendary figure responsible for the Maori discovery of New Zealand, was actually in the process of doing a runner after kidnapping another man’s wife.

Of course, Grey – in contrast to Grace – seems interested in recording texts without his own artistic flourish, which generates terse storytelling. But when combined with the subject-matter, the result is highly peculiar in the analogies it conjures with Icelandic material. Maori: the Vikings of the South Pacific. The major differences between these stories and the Icelandic ones are that the Maori do not bother with legal disputes, nor inserting poems into the stories, and the Maori place a much greater premium on protagonists achieving military victory via being sneaky and clever. We’re not outsourcing tricksiness to Odin or Loki analogues here, or keeping it to court-room shenanigans, but rather tricksiness is something that every canny warrior ought to resort to, now and again, in order to defeat a stronger enemy. The Greek Odysseus would fit right into these Maori legends, in terms of underhanded battlefield scheming, and one gets a very strong sense that all is fair in love and war. Think more Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon – or at least the associated sneakiness – than Beowulf’s.

(Oh, and one other thing: Norse Sagas don’t have their characters engage in the occasional bit of ritual cannibalism. But that is a can of worms I am not really going to touch).

Alfred Grace was very a different kettle of fish from Grey. In contrast to the mighty colonial administrator, Grace was a mere journalist and teacher, and the son of a missionary (he was born in Auckland, not in Britain). His brothers also had close connections to Maori, with one becoming a missionary, one a scholar of Maori, and another an interpreter. And just as importantly for our purposes, Grace was a writer as well as a teacher, which meant that he combined his family’s cultural interests with creative endeavours. Grace wanted to write stories exploring the interactions of Maori and Pakeha. In the event, he not only did that via original fiction, but he also collected existing Maori tales with the assistance of a Maori friend (strictly, the friend did the collecting and Grace did the translating, thereby creating Folktales of the Maori (1907), the work I will be considering today).

That is not to say that Grace does not have his own jarring issues. Whereas Grey denigrates Maori tradition as puerile, Grace’s well-meaning enthusiasm for the material means he can come across as a tad patronising. The shadow of the late nineteenth century hangs over him too, with one of his earlier works being called Tales of a Dying Race (1901). Recall that in the aftermath of vicious tribal warfare (now with guns), land confiscation, and introduced diseases, many Pakeha at the time thought that the Maori were destined for extinction – recording traditions was thus seen as a sort of pre-emptive archaeology. And that is quite apart from the underlying ideology of the Noble Savage. Nineteenth century Maori, in contrast to the Australian Aborigines, were a warlike people, with developed agriculture – which rendered them particularly susceptible to Noble Savage notions. But even with all this intellectual baggage, Grace genuinely enjoys his subject, in a way Grey does not.

The real problem, I think, is that this enthusiasm means Grace feels he can impose a particular narrative style on his subject-matter. Grace dedicates Folktales of the Maori to the folklorist, Andrew Lang, and even sent him a copy… so Grace presents these texts very much in a light-hearted fairy-tale tone, with copious jocular or literary narrative impositions for his Pakeha/English audience. One sees references to cricket terminology (“innings”), to classical Greek texts, or explicit in-text references to Samson and Delilah from the Bible. Gone is the terse saga style one encounters with Grey’s collection, and in its place is something much more whimsical, not helped by Grace often translating character-names into their literal meanings (The Earthquake, Eight Freckles, and so on), which I thought detracted from the seriousness of the exercise. For one expecting more Norse-style Sagas of the South Pacific, it is quite the come-down… though there is the occasional darker piece too, such as ‘Fish-hooks’, which revisits the role of the feud.

Of course, Grace wasn’t merely imposing a particular narrative diction. He was also choosing which stories would actually appear in the collection. And rather than the pseudo-historical legends favoured by Grey (which had lent themselves so well to the saga style), Grace selects stories where magic and monsters play a much more prominent role. There are no taniwha in Grey, but taniwha show-up in Grace multiple times. And we get copious material on the patupaiarehe, the malevolent Maori fairies, which in an amusing twist for Pakeha readers happen to be notable for their strange white skin and often-red hair. A later story, set during the colonial period, even has one of these fairies turn up at a gambling table, and is only found out for his cloven-feet, perhaps a sign that by this point Christian ideas of the demonic might have been influencing representations too.

There is also plenty of focus in Grace’s collection on romance, with fairy-tale emphasis on true-love, though sometimes that does not always work out for the characters involved. One continuity from Grey is that these Maori stories strongly emphasise the role of cunning and cleverness, to the point where ‘Moon-Girl’, which Grace identifies as the Maori version of Orpheus and Eurydice, actually has a happy ending. Basically, because our protagonists were both brave and clever, and that will get you a long way in these stories. On the other hand, these stories also delight in the occasional bit of black-comedy, less in the sense that this story is supposed to be a warning, and more in the sense that the story feels like it is supposed to be an extended bad-taste joke, to chuckle at, not to shudder at. One story ends with two young boys eaten by a forest-monster, in the sort of barbed and cynical twist one might see in Lord Dunsany.

So yeah. Maori legends. As a New Zealander, I definitely enjoyed sampling an integral part of my country’s artistic and cultural history – and as a writer of speculative fiction, it is always good to keep up the stockpiles of potential inspiration and source-material. The two collections are quite different, of course, with Grey addressing the mythic and the pseudo-historical in a serious (if unenthused) manner, and Grace presenting Maori fairy tales with enthusiastic (if frustrating) whimsy. There are also other old collections out there too, such as James Cowan’s one from 1925, which I might give a go at some point.

3 thoughts on “The Sagas and Fairy Tales of the South Pacific: Maori Legends, as collected by Sir George Grey (1855) and Alfred Grace (1907)

    • Nothing wrong with light-heartedness. I think it’s more that my expectations were off, and that in this case I think the translator was imposing himself too much at the narrative level..

      Grace might have been better-off giving a short introduction to each story, rather than commenting on developments within the story. On the other hand, we have to be grateful to him for preserving these stories at all.


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