The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider Summary and Analysis of Part 2: Summer


At the beginning of Part I—entitled “Summer”—the story shifts back to the whale herd. The bull whale leads his 60-whale herd into places of refuge as they attempt to avoid their arch-predator: man. The old whale remembers that things were not always like this; once, he had swam alongside a man and held that little creature dearer to him than any other. At first they would just swim but one day the man—as enterprising as any human—leapt on the whale’s back. The whale—lost in joy—dove down to the depths and the man cried out in fear. That day, the whale recalls, he nearly lost his dearest friend. As he reminisces his longing for the past grows; now every time a human appears in the distance, only the combined effort of the whole herd can stop him for dashing off in loving pursuit.

Kahu’s birth comes right before tragedy: within a quarter of a year her mother Rehua dies. At the funeral, Rehua’s mother and family asks permission to raise Kahu and though Nanny objects, Koro and Porourangi decide to let the child go to her. As Rawiri the narrator mentions this, he enters in a discussion of his people’s genealogy. They are the “Te Tai Rahwiti”—“the people of the East Coast”—and their ancestors came from far over the horizon. These ancient ones had come from the east and each became the progenitor of a different people. Kahutia Te Rangi—also known as Paikea--was the progenitor of Rawiri’s people, and legend has it that he came to this land on the back of a whale. He brought with him life-giving spears, which brought bounty and plenty to the previously harsh land. A few generations later came the oft-remembered Porourangi and then with the passage of time and generations, Koro eventually became chieftain, then Porourangi and now his little daughter was the next in line.

So Kahu left to grow up with her mother’s family. Rawiri—then sixteen and in love with his motorcycle—did not see her again until she was almost two years old, when Porourangi temporarily brought her back to her father’s family. She received a joyous welcome from all except one: Koro her great-grandfather. His coldness towards her had not changed, and was not to change for a long time. Rawiri points out that this could have been due to his old age and his larger duties as leader of his people, but mostly, Rawiri says, it was due to Koro’s desire for a male descendent whom he could mentor and prepare for the chieftaincy. He also was beginning other initiatives to preserve Maori culture, like starting a class to teach the Maori language to the males of his people. After one such class of Maori language, Koro began to tell stories of his own instruction so many years ago. One ritual for transferring knowledge was to bite the toe of his instructor; just as he was telling this story he breaks off in shock as little Kahu bites his toe from under the table.

A few months later Kahu comes again with Porourangi, who, this time, is with a woman named Ana. Kahu, as always, is just squirming around out of excitement to see her old paka Koro. But he was too busy with Maori business and too disdainful of her in any case to take much joy from her arrival. In the town of Whangara people looked upon Koro as a sort of hero of Maori culture, Rawiri explains. He was fighting to preserve Maori culture, but too quickly that cultural power was becoming but a memory. In the past, Rawiri says, many humans were able to talk to animals and they especially befriended the whales. Slowly though, humans grew apart from their sacredness, and so the gift of speaking to animals slowly disappeared until only a few had it—among them, Paikea.

One day during Kahu’s visit, Nanny tells Rawiri to look after the girl as she goes off to argue with Koro about his cold treatment. Rawiri decides to take her to the movies and sneaks her in under his leatherjacket. For most of the movie everything proceeded quite well according to Rawiri; however, the final scene was that of a wounded whale bleeding to death. The sounds of the death throes had apparently been recorded from real whales and this had an electrifying effect on Kahu. She could only weep and weep and nothing could cheer her up. Later that night a second strange event occurs; on their way back home, Rawiri and his friends spot orca whales sliding close to shore. Kahu calls out to them, making copying the sounds of the whales she had heard earlier in the movies in a tone of warning. Then the orcas dive away.

The next summer Kahu comes again to her father’s family. This time, Koro warms a little bit towards her, but only by a small, barely discernable margin. Rawiri though grows closer and closer to his little niece, bringing her to work with him and making sure she does not become too bored staying at home with Nanny Flowers. On other occasions, Kahu would sneak up to the boy’s language classes, also eager to learn Maori culture and to be near to her paka. Whenever he would see her though, he would yell at her to go away. Thus she did not get to see when Koro took the boys out to sea to explain to them the sacred nature of their fishing grounds. These grounds, he said, were all known and marked by their ancestors. They try not to enter the grounds of other people and they seek protection for their own grounds from the whales and other sea creatures. As Koro explains this he becomes more and more sad, pointing out that man has become so tempted by commercial gain that he overfishes and maybe even hunt whales. Now, Koro says, their sea has become empty.

That evening, Koro assembles the boys again to recount to them a tale of huge import. He tells them of a time when he was young boy and when whaling was a huge pastime of the people of Whangara. His own uncle would go whaling and one time brought him along. He narrates the tale of that hunt: the beauty of the whales, their prestige, their power and then the harpooning and the struggle and the death and then the skinning and carving of the whale. Kahu, hearing this dark tale after sneaking near to the room, cries out in terror and sadness. Three hours later and her tears have not subsided, nor has Koro’s anger at her curiosity. The next day though, Rawiri finds Kahu outside, standing calmly near the shore while three silver shapes leapt by her in the sea.


In this section Rawiri explains more about the history of his ancestors and the genealogy of his people, thus giving greater characterization to the Maori people as a whole. Rawiri’s explanation emphasizes the importance of genealogy and lineage in the Maori’s people’s way of life. For them, lineage is a living link to the past, it is how tradition and culture is passed on—most importantly it is how chieftaincy and leadership is passed on. Thus the central conflict of the book, Koro’s inability to accept Kahu’s right to leadership despite her noble lineage, is a question of pedigree. He is caught between the cultural ideal of male leadership and the practical reality of only having female descendants; thus there are two elements of the culture seemingly coming to a conflict, and this is what weighs so heavily on Koro and what eventually forces him to make a choice and develop and mature. This importance of lineage is exemplified elsewhere as well. Nanny still remembers the names and stories of her famous ancestors like Muriwai, and the blood from those lines, they believe to still have an effect on modern outcomes, like the birth of the child as a girl and not a boy being due to the “strength” of the Muriwai blood flowing in her veins. Thus through the emphasis placed on genealogy, the reader learns more about the general thought process of this people, and the conflicts which weigh on them because they see lineage as a living connection to their past.

But to return to Koro’s specific conflict, in this section the reader finds a deeper characterization of this old man. He becomes more than just a stubborn mean old great-grandfather. Instead the reader can start to see a man weighed down by worries in an almost tragic way. Although he is not unambiguously heroic, through the deeper characterization he does begin to show some characteristics of the literary archetype of the tragic hero. He is the leader of his people; he is weighed down by huge worries and responsibilities. He is doing all he can to solve those and to preserve what he has learned from his own teachers by teaching and striving. He wants to preserve man’s bond with nature and he has--deep down--a compassion heart for living things, as is exemplified in his regret over the whaling incident so many years ago. And most importantly--in terms of this literary archetype--he has a fatal flaw, which is his unwillingness to break the rules of his tradition at all, even in order to preserve that tradition. Specifically that means that he is blind to the fact that Kahu has many traits of a good leader and that she has these signs around her birth and growth—loving Maori food, biting his toe, share Kahu’s name—hat would mark her out by fate as the savior of her people. Yet he is unable to accept any of that because he cannot break the rule of patriarchal leadership—even though breaking that single rule would likely lead to a better outcome for his people. Nanny Flowers succinctly articulates this fatal flaw when she says, in response to Koro, “Rules are meant to be broken.” Koro cannot see that.

At the same time as the reader sees more of Koro’s struggles, the reader also sees Kahu’s characterization deepen as she grows from a little baby to a young child. The author slowly builds up the different signs of her greatness and the plot begins to gather pace as step-by-step Kahu comes closer to her fate. We get a feeling of this not just in Rawiri’s words, although those do much to push along that sense of impending conflict. This, then, is the part of the story that is the rising conflict. Specifically, we see Kahu’s connection to nature develop. So when she cries in the movies after watching the whale dies, we began to think that something is up, a sense only multiplied later that evening when we see Kahu mimicking the sound of whales and the distant whales at sea seemingly responding. Something, the author is subtly suggesting, is supernatural about this girl. Next we see Kahu become inconsolably upset when she hears about the whaling incident, a reaction perhaps understandable in an innocent child. Less understandable are her actions the next day, when she seems to be in communication with dolphins as she stands along the seashore. The author gives these events in bits and pieces and does not make a clear and firm demonstration of some supernatural aspect afoot. This is to give the reader a taste of this idea and then leave the reader wandering what will happen; it is a way to force the reader to keep reading to learn what exactly is going up and how all these strange things will play out.

This section also includes another developing conflict, which is the conflict between man and nature. While in the previous section it seemed like nature was awaiting man and that man was to fulfill nature now it seems that over time the dynamic has shifted. The author points out subtly that nature has become afraid of man. In fact he opens and closes this section with this conflict as a way of emphasizing its importance. So in the very beginning of the section, the whales are patrolling and moving in formation not to be protected from sea predators but instead for protection against man. The section ends with Koro recounting his tale of the whaling expedition, and the butchery of the majestic whales. The tale expresses both huge awe for the whales and then huge regret for having killed them. It also tells the story of how things got to such a low point, and forces the reader to sympathize with the otherwise harsh character of Koro and to support his struggle to preserve man’s bond with nature.

Not only does the tale elicit emotion, it also gives vocalization to a deep-rooted cultural understanding of the fall of man. This is an archetype where mankind used to be noble and high but over time moral corruption increased until things came to the present day. Man used to be involved with the sacred but through his own failings and arrogance he turned back on that and thus he became lowered. Islam, Christian and other major religions all share a comparable understanding of corruption and moral decay over time, and it seems the author is suggesting that the Maori people too share in this perhaps universal understanding of the human condition during the passage of time. In this way he is showing the reader that this culture, though outwardly it may seem foreign in the names, language, beliefs and so on, has inward elements which the typical English reader can understand to which he or she can relate.