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No. 44 (September 1963)
– 16 –

An Introduction

On the opposite page we begin the serialization of the Maori story ‘Ponga Raua Puhihuia’ (Ponga and Puhihuia), which was first published in 1889 in Volume IV of John White's ‘Ancient History of the Maori’. The remaining two parts will appear in our next two issues.

The Maoris who provided the myths, legends and history which appear in White's collection sometimes wrote them down and sometimes told them to him. He usually gives no indication as to the manner in which particular stories were recorded, nor does he give us the names of his informants. But whether or not the teller of this story actually wrote it down, there can be no doubt that in this book it is preserved in substantially the form in which it was originally told. The high literary quality of the story itself assures us of this, despite the occasional misprints and carelessness in White's version of the text. With the original Maori we are publishing a slightly amended version of John White's English translation. No translation can give more than a suggestion of the quality of the original, and White's translation, which is rather free in places, could be considerably improved upon. But it does tell us the events of the story, and it does manage to convey something of the epic spaciousness and richness of ‘Ponga and Puhihuia’.

Stories telling how a young man of humble birth comes to marry a beautiful high-born girl must be almost as old as the human race. Significantly, though, this Maori version of this ancient theme is not concerned merely with the fortunes of the two main protagonists. Behind Ponga, the young man of Awhitu, and Puhihuia, daughter of the chief of the Ngaiwi, stand their respective tribes. The lovers know that their defiance of the established order may lead not only to their own destruction, but to the destruction of both their peoples.

In the old days the Maori were not really ‘individuals’ in the modern sense of this word. They were, before anything else, members of the social group into which they were born, and their whole life—indeed, their very humanity—depended upon this. We may speak now of a person as ‘belonging’ to a family or a community, but we do not mean this in a literal sense. It is hard to imagine how literally, with what inescapable strength and depth of meaning, the ancient Maori ‘belonged’ to his kinsfolk.

Yet, Ponga and Puhihuia love each other: and the fearlessness and resoluteness of their love is presented in the story as being a sign of their nobility of spirit.

The interest of ‘Ponga and Puhihuia’ derives largely from the fact that its characters (the leaders of the two tribes as much as the lovers) are placed in a position where their minds and hearts are divided: where, in circumstances of great danger, they must choose between conflicting loyalties. It is not only their lives which are at stake; it is also their honour. To the ancient Maori, honour was as important as life itself: but in a situation where loyalties are divided, which choice is the honourable one?

‘Ponga and Puhihuia’ in some ways resembles Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but there are some significant differences. Romeo and Juliet are also the children of rival kinship groups. In the Maori story there is a somewhat uneasy peace between the two groups; in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ there is open enmity, though the ruler of the city is trying to force them to live in peace. Romeo and Juliet, like Ponga and Puhihuia, quickly decide that they do not care if their families are enemies. But in Shakespeare's story, the only real problem after this is how to avoid their families' anger. There is an easy solution; Romeo and Juliet can escape to another city. They try to do this, and it is only through bad luck that they die in the end. But Ponga and Puhihuia cannot escape, because there is nowhere to go: for emotional as well as for practical reasons, life outside an individual's own kinship group (in this case, the husband's one) was almost unthinkable for the ancient Maori. Also, this basic feeling of kinship solidarity decreed that the whole tribe should take responsibility for a man's actions, right or wrong, and it was against the whole tribe that any vengeance was directed. But occasionally, if a man behaved in too dangerous and anti-social a way, his tribe would, for their own protection, cause his death.

The intricacy and subtlety of the web of custom and motive which the story reveals, the skill of its telling and the richness of its detail, make it surely the best of all the Maori stories.