The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider Summary and Analysis of Part 0: Prologue & Part 1: Spring


The narrator begins by talking of the ancient days, the time when nature was in full bloom yet still lacking. The sea was rippling with life and the jungles listened to its echoes yet something was missing; all the fish and the forests and fairies were waiting, waiting for the blessing of man to come. Then from the east the canoes came and all of nature felt relieved. Even the giant whales of the sea came up to witness this, and one in particular was to have a deep impact on future’s course. This leviathan sang of hearing the call and responding, while the tattoo shone brightly on its back.

Also on its back was a small dark figure, also tattooed. Though tiny in comparison to the whale, it looked as though it was his strength that was pulling up this leaping whale. Together the two of them were a magnificent site, rising in the air. Floating in space, the rider cast spears towards the distant land. Some became pigeons, others eels but one special spear he cast into the future, to flower in a time of hardship and to be a relief for its people. That spear flew a thousand years and then waited one hundred and fifty more before its time came. And that is the time of our little heroine Kahu.

But first we move to the Valdés Peninsula, whales watch a newborn grow. The whale mothers look after these youngsters, while the old bull whale reminisces about his own birth so many years ago. His mother he had lost to sharks when he was only a few years old; as a young orphan whale he met a human playing a flute. The song was tragic, and it was in harmony with the whale song of comfort. The two became closer than friends and they grew old together. Now he was just a bull whale though, without his rider, and though he led a herd of his own, he would often lose himself in nostalgic remembrances of times now past.

As for Kahu, she is the beginning of Rawiri’s story. She was born as the savior of her people, though they took long enough to realize. Upon her birth, Koro Apirana—her father’s grandfather—called out it disgust that this was just a girl. This girl has broken the male descent of his line, and he blames Nanny Flowers—his wife—and her overpowering female side. Porourangi was the girl’s father and he was Koro’s eldest grandson and the narrator’s elder brother. The narrator’s name is Rawiri, and he recounts how Koro takes a boat out to the deeps in protest of this girl’s birth. Nanny Flowers goes after this paka—her affectionate title for him—and attempts to reason with him but he will have none of that. Remaining stubbornly in the lake, he rows his boat this way and that. But Nanny just as stubbornly chases after him with her own boat and is able to forcefully drag him back to shore because her boat has a motor. Time passed but the contentious point remained aging and growing as Kahu herself aged. The problem was, Rawiri explains, that Koro held beliefs in Maori culture, in which custom dictates that leadership passes from eldest son to eldest son. Koro was the leader of his people and Porourangi was in line, but now Kahu was no eldest son but instead an eldest daughter. That is why he is so bitterly disappointed with Kahu’s birth. Nanny Flowers tries to convince her husband to rejoice but the struggle ends only with her promising to divorce him—as she always does—and citing the example of her female ancestor Muriwai, who was a woman and also the greatest chieftain of her tribe.

The next day the argument was even worse. Porourangi had decided to name the baby Kahu, an event that made Koro furious. He accused Nanny of putting such an idea in her grandson’s head but she denied all such charges (though she was responsible). Again Koro took a boat out—this time wisely choosing the motorboat. Unfortunately for him though, Nanny had siphoned the gas out and he was left in the water, shouting and waving for help. The specific cause of his anger was that Porourangi was naming his child Kahu after Kahutia Te Rangi, the chief ancestor of the village. In Koro’s mind, naming a girl after this hero was an insult to his ancestor. Nanny Flowers does not see it as such and she is in any case ready to step out of line when needed just as her own female ancestor Muriwai from a separate people stepped out of line in order to do a greater good.

Rehua—the girl’s mother—had collaborated with Nanny to pick this name not with ill intention but instead in order to honor Porourangi and Koro and their people. At first though, the benefit of Nanny’s actions was hard to understand. Indeed Koro’s disdain for Kahu only became worse after that incident. When it is time to bury Kahu’s afterbirth, Koro refuses to do so in Whangara—their town—a refusal that goes against her customary right as a child of this people. Nanny takes up the task of burying it herself and she recruits Rawiri and his biker gang friends to help her. So she and Rawiri drive to the airport to pick up Kahu’s afterbirth, delivered from the far off hospital where the little girl was just born.

Auntie—who came to deliver it—greets Nanny with tears. The two comfort each other in this time of anxiety and then auntie returns to her children. Nanny returns with Rawiri to Whangara and there, under the cover of night, they go to the meetinghouse to bury the afterbirth. She chooses a spot right in the sight of Kahutia Te Rangi’s statue. Once they bury it, Nanny reminds them that they are the only ones who know its location, so they are now Kahu’s guardians. Rawiri looks at this spot and just as he does, a ray of moonlight hits the tall ancestral statue and at the same time Rawiri reports seeing resembling a small spear fly through the air. And in the distance the sound of whales booms out.


Witi Ihimaera begins by using two strategies to emphasize importance of nature and its beauty and to elicit passion and respect for it. He starts by focusing on nature, wildlife and the immense beauty of this world. What is immediately evident is that he is anthropomorphizing nature. The animals are excitedly awaiting something. But not just the animals—the plants too, and the mountains and seas—all of nature is awaiting something. This anthropomorphism immediately establishes the imminence and nobility of nature. These are not things, Ihimaera is suggesting, that are just the resources and tools of man. These are noble things because they can think; they can feel. He is forcing the reader to have some respect for nature and not just that, to have some empathy for nature. Nature feels human emotion, which is what enables humans to empathize with it, to put themselves in nature’s shoes. Such would not be possible without this anthropomorphism. And what exactly are they waiting for? They are waiting for mankind. This introduces a key idea of the book: the ideal of a peaceful, beneficial coexistence between man and nature. In this ideal, man is awaited and looked for, not dreaded. He is supposed to take care of nature. He is loved by nature, not hated or feared. Thus, through these two strategies the author begins his book with an emphasis on good treatment of and appreciation for nature.

Another central purpose of this story is to empower young women. Ihimaera himself notes in the “Author’s Note” that the inspiration for the story came from his two young daughters who, upon watching many movies, asked their father why it is that boys are always the heroes while girls are always helplessly crying out to be saved. This story, in conscious contrast, is about a heroine who does not need any boys to save her. Thus a feature of this book, established early in this section, is the presence of strong female characters, including Nanny Flowers, Rehua and Kahu. For example, when Nanny Flowers drags her husband back to shore, she is demonstrating her strength and her resolution to stand against her husband’s wishes. Her constant threats to divorce him are also telling. But there is some complexity here. The story is not about women rebels without a cause, so to speak; instead, these are principled women standing up for what they believe to be right, which goes along with the purpose of the author to empower women. So Nanny Flowers is going against her husband so strongly because she wants him to appreciate the beautiful birth of their great-grandchild. Similarly, the story of Muriwai is one where the female steps out of line and oversteps the cultural authority yet she does so to save her people. Rehua too is like that: she defies tradition in naming her daughter by a male name, Kahu. But she does so with noble intentions, as an act of love and kindness; she does so to show her in-laws respect for their symbols and heroes. Finally there is the figure of Kahu. While by this section we have not seen too much for her as a strong female character since she is too young, we know through the constant foreshadowing that this girl is to do something very special for her people—she saves them according to Rawiri’s thoughts. And that is despite all the disdain her great-grandfather has for her. So this section introduces the central theme is about female characters standing up for what is right, despite what society, or custom tells them.

However, there is yet another nuance here. The female characters are not leaving behind the culture of their society. Even though that culture in its current iteration might seem to favor men over women, they still respect it, still abide by it and still love it and take it as their own. By their rebelling against customary norms, they are not rejecting those cultures. The author makes this quite clear, and one wonders what is his purpose in doing so. Perhaps it is to suggest that women do not need to change their culture, they do not need to adopt a so–called modern liberal culture to be brave, upright and free people and to preserve their rights. They can do all that within the existing framework of culture, out of love and loyalty (for the most part, with bits of disdain for specific ideas) towards their culture. In this way, Nanny still holds to tradition. She still prays, she still seeks forgiveness for giving potential offence to the ancestors; she still tries to show some respect. She even buries Kahu’s birth cord near the statue of Paikea out of respect and awe of the statue. Another example is Rehua, who wants to show respect to the male family’s tradition so she names her daughter Kahu. Then there is Kahu, again, who shows immense loyalty to Maori culture and tradition, even though the upholder of that in her time—Koro—disdains her so much and pushes her away so much and even though she has to defy some rules of that culture.

As this is the first section of the book, much of its literary purpose is to introduce key themes of the story. Beyond the two mentioned above, another central theme is the conflict between ancient culture and modern lifestyle. The book, as mentioned above, begins with nature, with the past, with animal life abounding and so on. But then the book quickly transitions to Rawiri and his biker gang: the Headhunters. Such a quick move along with such a huge contrast between nature and then modern technology and lifestyle emphasizes this conflict. This question is to be a huge conflict within the story: how do ancient cultures live and thrive in modern times alongside things like motor gangs and globalization and modernization and all the other products of modernity. Indeed, Koro’s main concern is to preserve his tradition in changing times. Kahu is born right in the middle of such a conflict, and indeed she is born as a balance point between the two. She is a girl of modern times, born into modernity and raised in it. Yet she is extremely dedicated to her people’s culture. She is a child, and children are the future. Yet Ihimaera has set up this conflict where she is to preserve her culture but not in the way that Koro is initially comfortable with. Koro does not respect her because of her gender, nor does he accept that women can be leaders. Ihimaera is thus suggesting that perhaps the answer to this idea of preserving culture in modern age is that the upholders of that culture have to be alright with some minor changes, like in gender roles or in other questions, in order to preserve the general spirit of their culture.

In this first section, a recurring literary technique is the use of foreshadowing. This foreshadowing tells of the future greatness of Kahu. There are symbols and events scattered through the story that suggest a great, heroic future for the little girl. The narrator Rawiri himself plays a large part in that, often interjecting his own thoughts from the present as he looks back to the past, talking of how Kahu had such a huge role, of how he still remembers her birth, of how he always had this nagging feeling that he should not forget Kahu. A telling example of this is the burial of her birth cord. The imagery of the passage emphasizes the charged atmosphere around this matter and thus the great nature of Kahu. The moonlight strikes the tall statue, then Rawiri reports seeing s spear flying—the spear being an important symbol in Maori culture—while in the distance whales sound in commemoration of this momentous event. All of this acts as foreshadowing for Kahu’s future. Other features also emphasize Kahu’s heroic nature, like the birth following complications and the death of her mother early on in childhood, her being raised by other than her parents, and all common features in the archetype of the hero in Western literature.