The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider Summary and Analysis of Part 4: Winter, Chapters 14-15


Part 3 begins with an ancient memory of the bull whale: he and his rider diving through the oceans in pure harmony. How amazing was their bond! But then the rider was saying that had to take the gifts of life to the new lands, and so the whale brought his rider to the islands, and there the rider remained. The whale remained too, at first, always staying within sight of the land where his master was spending more and more time. The rider married and settled down. Time passed until a day when the rider came and told his dear old friend that this was to be their last ride; despite all the bitterness, anger, sadness and love of the whale, he had to stay on land as his wife was expecting children and that was his place. So at the end of their ride together, they bid farewell to each other, and how sad a farewell it was for them.

Now the bull whale must deal with the problems at hand. He is leading his herd through Antarctica, underneath frozen waters. As they pass through this underwater ice “cathedral” with its inverted ice towers, they sing their own holy songs. All around them other sea creatures swam and sang in this sacred natural beauty. But soon the herd comes to a dead end—a wall of solid ice. The old bull whale stops in confusion and dismay, not knowing what to do. Then he sees a vision of his rider-master directing him and immediately he dives off, leading his herd with him. At the same time the ice all around begins to crack and ice shards start flying through the water. As the ice crashes and falls around them, the bull whale leads them to the surface and in a direction they know only too well: the direction towards his master’s island. They now know that their leader is taking them on their last journey because he still has not given up meeting his old master.

The narrative turns back to Whangara, where a runner describes one day seeing a great herd of whale approach the shore. They kept coming closer and closer until they beached themselves there and their bodies were mostly out of water. This suicidal move they did while singing a haunting song of great tragedy. The news spread quickly by means of radio and television; pictures taken by helicopter of hundreds of beached whales along the shore are broadcast throughout the town. One particular clip remains burned in Rawiri’s memory: the camera zooms in on one whale, around it five men. These men splattered in blood and armed with chainsaws, are hacking away beats of meat from the whale for commercial purposes. They succeed at sawing off the lower jaw of the whale, and as it drops down more blood spurts out. But the whale lives on.

That one clip was enough to trigger massive anger and determination from the people of Whangara. Rawiri contacts first Koro, who is with Porourangi in the South Island. Koro tells him that this is a sign for their people. Rawiri then tells Nanny to keep Kahu home that day, and then he gathers up his biker-gang friends to come to the whales’ rescue. This motorcycle gang goes charging through the roads, taking short cuts here and there, flying like spears—as Rawiri puts it—to reach the shore in time. Finally they arrive to the shore.

The whales are thrashing around, and already the shoreline is reddened by blood. They go from whale to whale, making sure that no human scavengers can come close to the whale. Some other folks are attempting to keep the scavengers—mostly made up of young men—from attacking the whales. The problem though is that these good people are mostly old people, too weak to physically do anything. Some are ignored; the scavengers physically assault others. But the biker gang is able to drive them away, one vicious fistfight at a time. The police and rangers meet them at one point, and although their meeting begins with a tense moment, both sides agree to put aside past differences in order to work together to save the whales. After the two groups drive away the scavengers, they organize a mounted patrol along the shore. The locals were helping at the same time in this momentous effort to save the whales.

Ships come and helicopters and of course the locals do all they can, but despite all that the people are not able to push the whales back to sea. Instead, the whales remain on the beach, unwilling to stop this suicidal action of theirs. In fact, when the people are successful in taking one or two whales back to sea, they just return to their herd and set themselves even more stubbornly on the beach. So the struggle continued. Locals came down and families would stay next to a whale—often dubbing that whale a member of their family. Some would even speak to the whales. But even with all the care and effort the humans were putting in, the whales still continued to die on the shore, one by one.

At one point, they are able to force a group of whales back to sea, but the whales only come back, singing and wailing over the loss of their loved ones. By evening, they all had died. Rawiri returns home to find Kahu awake and aware of what was happening. She is outside, calling out desperately with that strange sound she could make, imitating the sounds of whales. Rawiri tries to comfort her, and as he does so he receives a feeling in his innermost that something even more momentous was about to happen, and that relief would come. As he realizes this, thunder booms in the distance as if a great door of the sea has just opened. And thus ends the chapter.


The section begins with a scene of tremendous natural beauty. The author describes the underwater sea palaces in the icy world of Antarctica. He draws a picture of roofs of ice, with great ice spirals coming down from the ocean’s surface to deeper levels. The light plays through the ice and causes all sorts of dazzling patterns. The whales move peacefully through this icy place. The sounds echo momentously and the whales add their own orchestral choir to this sound. The author peppers all this description with Christian religious terminology. The ice world is described as a cathedral; the whales are described as a choir. The whole passage is throbbing with a sacred vein. This is all done to present the view of nature as sacred. Nature is like a cathedral, Ihimaera argues, and we need to see nature as sacred and then we need to treat it as we treat sacred things, which is to show respect, honor, to preserve not to destroy, and ultimately to use for spiritual uplifting rather than material gain.

The peaceful sacred imagery described above contrasts spectacularly with the bloody imagery of the whale butchering. One passage in particular emphasizes this contrast. When Rawiri talks about that first footage being broadcast, he describes in detail the crimes the whale butchers are committing. The butchers are using a chainsaw to take away parts of a whale. The water all around is red. Then the whale’s jaw drops off and blood spurts out. The worst part is that as the butchers proceed with their grisly task, happily smiling, the whale lives on. It is still alive throughout this torture. The disgusting, gory detail of this description is meant to contrast heavily with the image of the whales moving peacefully through the sacred icy world. Just as it elicited an emotional response from Rawiri and the other locals, it is meant to elicit a response from the reader. It has special connection because the idea of whale hunting is not a fantastical element of the story; it is something that happens in the reader’s world as well. Thus the author is using the imagery there to create empathy in the reader for whales and to create disgust with the whale butchers.

Connected to this emotional response mentioned above is the development of Rawiri’s characterization and that of his biker friends. Typically, the image of a biker gang is not associated with the town heroes; if anything, that archetype tends to lean more to the town rascals. But the author complicates the matter and works against the stereotype by telling the story of the heroic biker gang on that day. They become like a mobile task force when they go flying down to the beach to defend the whales. They are not the criminals; the real criminals are those they are fighting and who are torturing the whales. This contrast between stereotype and reality comes to a head when the gang meets the rangers and police. After a tense moment, they realize that in each other is an ally and they work together—despite, as Rawiri notes, past hard feelings towards each other—in order to save the whales. Both groups are able to set aside their differences for the greater good, a trait that shows good character and through which the author develops the heroic side of the biker gang.

Connected to this idea of the biker gang is the ongoing theme of the mix between modern and primordial. This section heavily emphasizes that interaction. The author has tools of modern technology put into direct play with the ancient. So, for example, it is the biker gang who go to save the whales. Part of their purpose in doing so and in showing this respect to the whales comes from their ancient tradition. But their methods of saving the whale is all based on modern technology: they are charging down there on the backs of motorcycles, not anything else. So there is a positive mix of ancient tradition and modern technology in response to this crisis. Similarly, the stimulus which gets everyone to work to save the whales is broadcast by the means of technology: it is through the televisions and the radio and the phone that all these different people hear of this calamity and through these same mediums that help is called in the form of the navy and helicopters and so on. This shows that although the Maori people have adopted all these modern stuff they are still holding on to tradition; in fact they are able to make a peaceful mix between tradition and modernity. This message is mostly positive, but there is a problem that the end of the chapter highlights. For all their technological advancement and efforts put in through these big machines, the people are not able to save the whales. Through this failure, the author suggests that what the humans need is help from a deeper, more powerful, more natural source. As we see in the next section, this help does not come in the form of technology but in the form of ancient power.

That aid, of course, comes in the form of Kahu, as the whole book has been foreshadowing. The deep tragedy emphasized at the end of this section is the Koro still cannot realize this. In fact, no one can realize this. Despite the fact that Nanny and Rawiri know that Kahu can apparently communicate with to sea animals, neither realizes that she can have some benefit in helping the first whale herd to return to sea. This is the central conflict of the story: the inability of Kahu’s people to recognize her as a leader. And as the author shows here with the increasing pace and the emergency in telling the events, that conflict cannot last much longer and is coming to a deciding point. But not yet, the author is suggesting, still not yet can those around her realize. That is to emphasize the depth of the problem she is facing. The author is demonstrating that this un-recognition is not some half-hearted decision, it is instead something very deep-rooted, and so cannot be lifted even in great emergencies like the one described above. So the reader is left to imagine: what worse emergency/test will drive her people to allow Kahu to shine as a leader?