70 pages 2 hours read

Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


The Whale Rider is a 1987 novel by New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera. A film adaptation was made in 2002 that would go on to win several awards. Throughout the novel, Ihimaera juxtaposes the migration of a herd of whales with the Maori tribe’s search for a male heir. The Whale Rider comprises four major sections, as well as a prologue, epilogue, and glossary. Each section of text is named after one of the seasons and has a subtitle. Man’s relationship to nature is a significant theme in the novel, specifically the idea that it was man who destroyed the union with animals. The inclusion of women and the belief that women are suitable for authoritative roles also forms the bulk of the novel, as Koro Apirana struggles with the destruction of his male lineage. The restoration of oneness through Kahu, as the incarnated final spear, drives the plot.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with the legend of the Maori tribe. The sea is discovered by the ancients who live in complete oneness with the gods and nature. This story specifically addresses the life of Kahutia Te Rangi, the ancestor of the Maori tribe. He is the first whale rider who uses spears to create life on the island, which he later names Whangara. One spear is cast into the future and eventually incarnated in Kahu, the novel’s protagonist. The narrator of the modern sections of the novel is Rawiri, Kahu’s uncle. The Maori tribe traditionally traces the lineage of Kahutia Te Rangi through his male descendants, yet Kahu disrupts this lineage as the eldest granddaughter. Koro Apirana becomes obsessed with locating a male heir to become chief, neglecting Kahu. In Koro Apirana’s mind, women cannot be chief, and he attempts to preserve tradition throughout the novel.

Kahu routinely sneaks into Maori culture lessons, which angers her grandfather. While the boys struggle to complete the tasks Koro Apirana sets out before them, Kahu completes them with ease. For example, she effortlessly fetches a carved stone cast into the water. Koro Apirana’s ignorance is further displayed when he refuses to attend Kahu’s break-out ceremony. If he had attended, he would have seen Kahu lead a traditional ceremony and give a speech in the Maori language. Kahu tries desperately to have her grandfather love her, but her efforts continuously go unnoticed.

Each section of the novel begins from the perspective of the whale herd. The leader, the ancient bull whale, remembers the days of the whale rider. He laments his lost master, which drives him into a deep depression. The whale innately understands that the modern world has rejected him, and he cannot live separated from the oneness man and beast once shared. This oneness is also connected to the preservation of Maori tradition, which is intimately linked with the whales’ survival. The elderly female whales worry about their leader’s growing nostalgia as they begin to realize they are being led toward the dangerous islands of the south-west. The ancient bull whale eventually leads the herd to New Zealand.

A different herd of whales washes up on the beaches of Whangara. While many locals attempt to save them, the whales refuse all rescue attempts. Each whale eventually perishes. Koro Apirana interprets the arrival of the whales as a sign of man’s transgressions against nature. Later on, the bull whale beaches himself, apparently waiting to die. Koro Apirana believes that if they can successfully return the whales to sea, it will show God and the beasts that man still believes in oneness. Kahu—distraught by the thought that if the whale dies, so too will her grandfather—decides to swim out and communicate with the bull whale. She remembers how to ride the ancient bull whale and mounts him. The ancient bull whale is overfilled with joy, as he believes Kahu to be his original master, Kahutia Te Rangi. Kahu sacrifices herself so that her people may continue to thrive, deciding to remain with the herd. However, the older mother whale understands Kahu is not Kahutia Te Rangi but the final spear. She relays this information to her husband, who realizes that Kahu must be returned to land to fulfill her purpose of restoring oneness. Koro Apirana realizes his ignorance, and the ancient bull whale finally feels closure, proclaiming that man and nature will live on as one.