In the beginning, Peter Russell

Peter Russell looks at his childhood reading through the eyes of Ovid.

At the time when the story opens, a little boy named Maui … was playing on the sea-shore. He was so happy, picking up shells and watching the seagulls, that he wandered far away from his home. When evening came on, he saw that he was lost, and he sat down on the sand and wept.

Rangi, the god who rules the sky, took pity on his loneliness; and, flying to earth in the form of a bird, took him up to Sky-land, where he found a most beautiful home. He ran about the sky in the sunshine, jumping from one fleecy cloud to another. Whenever he asked them, the great birds would take him for long rides through the air on their backs.


In a high dark cupboard are the childhood books I couldn’t part with. The plainest are three Whitcombes Story Books. One still bears its pencilled 1/3d. Cheap: half of the half-crown which in the 1950s bought our family a meal for six at the fish-and-chip shop.

Stapled in dun-coloured paper covers, 60 to 80 pages each, black-and-white illustrations. Titles listed on the back: everything from Milly-Molly-Mandy to Stories from Andersen, The Swiss Family Robinson and Bennie the Bandicoot. The Whitcombes series began early in the century, was sold throughout Australasia, ran to about 450 titles, and at its height in the late 1930s and early 1940s was the biggest series of children’s books in the world. At the age probably of eight I was given Nos 423, 428 and 435. I think my enthusiasm for the first prompted my parents to buy me the other two. For I was quickly intoxicated by Legends of the Maori, Tales of Maori Magic and More Tales of Maori Magic – the first without author, the other two by Edith Howes.

I did know about Maoris. They were associated with a different species of intoxication: they came annually to man the freezing works, drove into town to “throw away” their money on beer, were “undesirable”, disappeared again. But of the enchanting world of Maori myth I had known nothing. I absorbed it with the child’s spontaneous appetite for every well-told story. The Bible stories we learnt at Sunday School enthralled me too.

What has revived the memory of this early enrichment is a late enrichment: a reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which this year has its 2000th anniversary. Ovid’s long poem is a compendium of Graeco-Roman myth, on which for two millennia Western literature, art and music have repeatedly drawn: no single work apart from the Bible has had such a fertile influence on the European imagination. It’s also a book of individual genius, whose author’s imaginative zest anticipates famous later story-tellers: Boccaccio, Chaucer, Cervantes, Joyce.

From the first pages I was back in Maoridom. When Ovid’s creation myth evokes primeval darkness, then, through a forced separation of the earth from the sky, the advent of light and growth, how could I not think of Tane, Rangi and Papa? Then again and again salient features in Ovid recalled Polynesian myth: an animistic universe; gods who behave like humans; and a vividly physical world which is also peopled by supernatural spirits such as dryads or forest fairies. The two worlds also share priests, rituals and sacred places; and an underworld to which living mortals can, but only perilously, gain access (Orpheus and Eurydice, Hutu and Pare). In both agriculture is important, and so are kinship ties. Both extol male strength but also cunning; in both eros is an irresistible force. And both are rich in the metamorphoses which gave Ovid’s masterpiece its name.

In the Roman poet, metamorphosis is constant. Gods may assume the form of an animal or bird in order to carry out a plan (usually rape), or humans are changed into an animal, bird, plant or mineral, either to rescue them (as Daphne is from the pursuing Apollo), or as a punishment for mortal presumption. Maori myth too is full of metamorphoses: Rangi flies to earth in the form of a bird; Rupe changes himself into a wild pigeon; when it suits his purpose, Maui turns himself into a fantail; his brother-in-law Irawaru is changed by him into a dog. In both worlds, features of landscapes, birds or animals are given comic explanations. Why does the pukeko have such a red nose? – because it was pinched so hard by Tawhaki, to stop it giving warning of his presence to the fairies. Why do magpies sit in trees saying Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle? They are sisters who challenged the Heliconian Muses to a singing contest, and as a punishment were turned into those raucously chattering birds.

I’m saying nothing new. Such parallels are the province of professional folklorists, who know it all. But here’s a reflection of a different kind. In both Ovid and Maori myth a dominant theme is vengeance. Almost every story is a tale of misdemeanour and revenge, and their dire consequences. But at precisely the time Ovid completed his poem, in a carpenter’s home in Nazareth a boy was growing up whose startling message to the world would be: don’t seek revenge, but turn the other cheek. The influence on Europe of his teachings would be as powerful as that of the Roman Empire. Thus Metamorphoses, the culminating masterpiece of a pagan culture, coincided with the birth of a new spirituality. Out of their collision and interplay grew that incomparable richness of European culture.

That confrontation was to repeat itself 1800 years later, when British missionaries and settlers brought their Christian morality to pagan peoples in a land at the furthermost end of the earth. Ever since, Pakeha and Maori have struggled to find the best way of co-existing. How much more complicated that has been than when, in my child’s imagination, the newcomer Maui so easily and naturally made friends with Winnie the Pooh, Hansel and Gretel, and Brer Rabbit. Yet out of our cultural symbiosis what riches may yet evolve?


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