The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider Summary and Analysis of Part 4: Winter, Chapters 16-18


Rawiri begins by saying that the terrible events of that night were only a prelude to what would happen the night after. For this second, greater event there were no radios, no televisions, no broadcasts; only the Maori locals witnessed it. That was how it was, and perhaps that is for the best, Rawiri notes. Kahu, Rawiri and Nanny welcome Porourangi and Koro back home. Their flight had to go through the thunder storms that were gathering around Whangara. As they gather the luggage and head back home, the looming clouds boom on and Koro notes that something is going on—he does not know what, but something is happening.

On the way back home, Koro tells them to stop by the beach so he can see the dead whales. He gets out of the car and staggers over the one of the whales as the winds rage on. Nanny says to give him some time, as he needs to mourn. Rawiri also gets out of the car to comfort him, only to hear him ask who is to blame for this? They return to the car and Koro again says that this is a sign for them. Then they head home and still the clouds thunder; to Rawiri it seems as though the very center of the storm lies right over the village. They reach home and begin to unload the bags, but then Kahu looks out to the sea, her face showing complete calm and acceptance. They all stop and turn to see what she is looking at, and in that moment something momentous happens.

A boom echoes throughout the village, as if a giant door has opened underneath the sea and lightning strikes from the sea upwards like missiles and Rawiri thinks he also sees some object go flying through the air and landing in the center of the village. Then one shadow first, then another and more and more start to emerge from the depths of the sea. Finally a whale breaks the water’s surface; Koro gasps out, because it is clear to all of them that this is no ordinary whale but a creature from the past, calling out with its singing. On its head was a shining mystical tattoo. One by one, the whale’s companions surface. Koro orders an emergency meeting of the Maori men of the village, and at the same time Nanny organizes her own meeting with the women. She tells her husband that she will be like her Muriwai if she has to be, and the women want to help just like the men. Kahu wants to help too she tells him. Koro tells her to keep Kahu away, as he has no use for her.

Prior to the meeting, Koro and Rawiri had witnessed the giant leading whale heave itself onto the beach and then roll over onto its side, ready to die. This is the bull whale whose story has been narrated in every section. Near to it are several female whales, comforting it and singing to it, trying to encourage it to come back to sea where all the other whales remained. Koro ran to the beach and called out to the whale asking if it has come to live or die. The whale in response raises its giant fin, and in their hearts, Rawiri and Koro realize that it is telling them that the decision of life and death is in their hands. So Koro calls that meeting together.

Koro begins with prayers and then prepares to address and unify the men. There are twenty-seven of them all together. He begins by telling them the Maori stories of the whales. Man used to be able to communicate with the whales, as was exemplified by their ancestor Paikea But then man became arrogant and they defied the natural order of things. They divided the world into two: things they believe in and things they reject. The past and the present. The real and unreal. The fantastical and the scientific. They took one part and left the other, and their actions lead to the disruption of the original purity of the world. But this whale herd here, clearly supernatural, is a bridge between those two worlds and it is a lifeline for the Maori belief. It is a sign for them and a proof; if they can save the whale the Maori way of life is saved, and if they cannot then it is dead.

So Porourangi orders the men to take every available vehicle to the shore. Their plan is to tie ropes around the tail of the giant whale so they can pull it about to face the sea. Two men must go out to sea to tie the rope around its tail, and Rawiri and Billy his friend are selected for the task. They reluctantly carry out this task, keeping in mind the potential of being squashed by the smallest movement of the whale and of drowning in the dangerous waters. But they successfully accomplish this goal and return to shore. They wait until the tide rises, and then attempt to pull the whale about with their tractors.

The tide comes quickly and the whale, lying on its side, is in danger of drowning if they do not act quickly. The plan to use pull it about proceeds smoothly until the ropes snap and all progress halts. Koro despairs and tells Rawiri to let Nanny know that the men have failed and that it is time for the women to act the part of men. So Nanny and the women come right down to the beach, although she does not let Kahu accompany them. The young girl instead must remain in the house. All together they attempt to pull and push the whale back to water. Further and further it moved until it was almost saved, but then a ripple went down its spine and it started to move itself in the wrong direction. It crashed its tail about to scare away those near it and then moved back to the shore, lying on its side again in water in order to drown itself. Kahu comes down and asks why the whale is doing this, and Koro’s reply is that it wants to die. The world is not hospitable anymore so it wants to die and when it dies, Koro says, so do I.

Kahu decides she must do something. She dives out to sea before anyone can stop her. Rawiri dives in after her but too late. She moves along the massive body of the whale, fighting against the crashing waves. Then she starts singing to the whale. She tells it that she is coming to it, and that she is Kahu, Ko Kahutia Te Rangi—which is the same name as her ancient ancestor, the whale rider. She starts to climb the back of the whale and when she reaches the top and as she does so the whale becomes extremely joyful. She hears it greeting her as its lord, and then handholds appear and then she finds a natural saddle and so she sits there. Rawiri sees all this as he calls out in desperation, attempting to bring Kahu back. But then the narrative structure shifts to a third person description focused on Kahu. Kahu, on the back of the whale, weeps out of fear, and loneliness, and weeps because she misses her family and weeps for her people. But in the end, she builds up her courage and then signals to the whale to move out to sea and leave the island behind. She leads her whale and thus all the other whales back and to sea, and she commands that they let her people live.

So she is the whale rider. She learns quickly how to remain on the whale as it dives down, and she discovers the natural air bubble that she uses when it dives for extended periods of time. They dive once or twice, and then Kahu realizes that they are preparing to dive for much longer. She knows that this next dive would be forever, but she decides that she is not afraid to die and give everything up. And so they dive all together. Back on the shore, everyone is shocked and grief-stricken with the departure of Kahu. Nanny gives Koro his special stone that Kahu had retrieved; when he asks which of the boys got it back, she replies by pointing out to sea, out to where Kahu was and then Koro understands and he raises his arms to the sky in despair and grief.


The section clearly articulates a theme has been developing over the whole course of the story: namely that the two narratives of Whangara and the whale herd are actually interconnected. The whale herd is a symbol of the Maori people. The struggles of the herd are reflecting the struggles of the people. As was argued before, the bull whale clearly represents Koro. They are facing an increasingly hostile world where their way of life is at risk. They are trying to stick together but they are losing people left and right, just as the calves are being lost left and right. The bull whale is being forced to make decisions he never had to make before, just like Koro. So this connection has been developing over the course of the book, but here Koro himself explicitly articulates it when he says that this herd is a sign for them, and he says if they die we die and if they live we live. Their fates, he thus explicitly connects to each other.

A separate insight from this section is the fact that even though Koro gives a chance to the women to prove their mettle, neither the men nor the women give a chance to Kahu to prove her worth. After the men fail, Koro acknowledges that he needs the help of the women, and so he and Nanny organize together to get everyone to push the bull whale out to sea. Koro thus shows he is capable of modifying his traditional values somewhat in the case of need, thus he is able to accommodate help from the women. However, despite all of this need, Koro still does not allow Kahu to help. Moreover, neither Nanny nor Rawiri allow Kahu to come out and help, instead Nanny confines Kahu to the house. This is despite the fact that Nanny knows Kahu can somehow communicate with sea creatures and that there is something supernatural about this girl. What this demonstrates is that Kahu’s people do not discriminate against her for the mere fact that she is a female, because the other females were called upon to help. Instead, another stimulus for the discrimination against her is her youth. No one takes her seriously because she is not just a girl, but also a young girl. The author thus is not just making a case for women empowerment in general but is making a case for the young heroine; a theme hinted at in the beginning of the book when he talks of his own two young daughters and their providing the initial idea to him to write this book.

Despite all the discrimination against her, Kahu still is able to prove to everyone her high character. This section provides a massive amount of new evidence for her characterization. By swimming out to the whale, she proves herself to be incredibly brave. But refusing to give up and let her people die, she shows herself to be determined. By reacting to the situation with clear, concrete action, she shows herself to be quick on her feet and able to take things in stride. By ordering the whale herd to move off the shore, she shows herself to be capable of command. By understanding that what she is doing will mean she can never go back to her people, she shows herself to be insightful. And by making that decision for the sake of her people, she shows herself to be one who can make huge self-sacrifice. Basically, in this one scene she demonstrates many of the traits of a true leader, and ironically enough, she is the one no one thought would make a good leader, especially not Koro who has been searching for someone like her for so long to replace him.

During much of that scene the author introduces a shift in perspective and narrative style. Instead of Rawiri narrating the story, the story comes in the form of a third person narrative of what is happening to Kahu, as well as insight into her emotions and thoughts. It is from this that the reader learns what she does but also how she feels. By seeing her emotions way, the reader is better able to empathize with her. However, by not being narrated in first person, the reader is forced to give her some respect. She is out there, not in here narrating to us, which sets her a bit higher than Rawiri who was talking directly to the reader. In a way it is a bit of aloofness that reminds us of Kahu’s role as a leader. The shift also captures the attention of the reader, emphasizing the importance of this passage. This is, after all, the culmination of Kahu’s character development; all that comes after is the declension.

In this scene we are told that the whale mistakes Kahu for her ancestor Kahutia Te Rangi. This simple fact articulates one of the key conflicts of the story: that Kahu really is a fit successor for her great ancestor and thus she is worthy to lead her people. This ancient whale was that man’s best friend; they loved each other and lived for years with each other. So of the creatures and humans alive during the time of the story, that whale is the one most familiar with Kahutia and logically the one most able to identify him. So when he mistakenly identifies Kahu as Kahutia, the metaphorical suggestion is that she is so alike to him in terms of bravery, determination and strength that she could be mistaken for him. This marks her as a true successor of Kahutia, and thus foreshadows the ultimate resolution of the conflict of the story, which has Kahu accepted into her role as future leader of her people.