Peter Gossage – Maui and Other Maori Legends

Feature Review

Gossage has interpreted the distinctive nature of the Maori story-world with an immediacy that readers, young or old, will find unforgettable …

Maui and Other Maori Legends by Peter Gossage.
Auckland: Penguin Random House (2016).
RRP: $ 40.
JHb, full colour, 208pp.
ISBN: 978-0-14-330929-1

Reviewed by Anna Smith.

Children who first listened to stories by Peter Gossage are now in their early 40’s. Peter began publishing his versions of Maori myths and legends in 1975 with How Maui-tiki-tiki-a-Taranga Found His Mother. Before the Renaissance of Maori art and writing in the 1970’s, many children would have encountered these stories of local heroes, gods and tricksters in the School Journal. They would have been versions of A W Reed’s 1946 classic Myths and Legends of Maoriland. Providing the cultural context was Elsdon Best’s Maori Religion and Mythology, (Part 1, 1924), which in turn appealed to other early sources such as those by William Taylor (1855), Sir George Grey (1885), John White (1887) and S. P. Smith (1913; 1915). I remember listening to a classroom broadcast version of ‘Hatupatu and the Bird Woman’ in the early 1960’s, likely an adaptation from Reed. Illustrated by Dennis Turner, the Reed version has long been in print and for generations of older New Zealanders, provided their first contact with written Maori stories.

This newly issued Gossage collection is striking in its simplicity, its dazzling parade of designs evoking kowhaiwhai and tukutuku, its contrasting swirls of blues and greens settling the story into the natural world of sea, land and sky. Here is the intense drama of a martial society: characters wear expressive moko; the ancestors on the lintels and timber slabs of whares are intimidating and in ‘How Maui Slowed the Sun,’ which was awarded the Storylines Gaelyn Gordan Award for a Much-loved Book in 2013, the sun himself is huge in his rage. Even when in the same story Gossage has crowded the night sky with white painted blobs instead of the formal cross-stitch pattern of purapura whetu (myriads of stars), a clever balance is worked between formal and informal with the five warrior brothers carrying coils of flax, the upright strokes of the fortified pa and the black moko of the watchful moon.

These illustrations which can take up nearly the whole of a two-page spread show strong black edges and a riotous abutment of pattern. Trained in graphic and scenic design as well as curatorial display, Gossage has interpreted the distinctive nature of the Maori story-world with an immediacy that readers, young or old, will find unforgettable. Yet as is the case with cultures who maintain a strong investment in oral history, his stories work best when they are read aloud. For an excellent illustration and perfect for classroom work, consult the following sample:

Children reading today in Aotearoa are spoilt for choice because Maui and Other Legends is but one among many offerings. Since the late 1970’s schools and families have been exposed to a growing collection of re-workings of Maori myths and legends where Patricia Grace, Robin Kahukiwa, Lisa Rangiaho and Scott Pearson, Robert Sullivan, Gavin Bishop and Tina Makereti with Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa (2010) for older readers, are some of the authors and illustrators working and re-working this space. All the same, if you’re looking for just one collection, Peter Gossage’s comes highly recommended.

Anna Smith (b. 1952) teaches mostly children’s and young adult literature in the English programme at the University of Canterbury. She has written on New Zealand artists and writers as well as publishing short stories and a work of fiction.

First published takahe 88
December 2016