About a week ago I began introducing my seven-year-old students to a few Maori legends. We started with Te Ika A Maui ("The Fish of Maui"), in which the many-counselled trickster Maui fishes the North Island of New Zealand up out of the sea on his magical fishhook. Τhen I told them how Maui took fire from the toenail of the Fire Goddess Mahuika and imprisoned it in the kaikomako tree, where it lies ready to burst into flame whenever it is needed. Today I'll be telling them about how Chief Rata wanted to build a canoe but neglected to sacrifice to Tane, the God of the Forests, before cutting his timber.
I started on the Maori legends mainly because I wanted to take advantage of my students' fascination with New Zealand. (They've never been there, but they have heard about tuataras, and that's enough.) We must talk about something in our lessons, after all, and Maori legends are as good a conversation-starter as anything else.
But I did have other reasons for wanting to incorporate legends -- not just from the Maori tradition, but legends generally -- into our lessons. For one thing, I think my students ought to know what people who live in different places think, and what they have thought over the centuries. They ought to begin to see patterns, or at least be offered a chance to see them. They ought to see that nearly everyone has a flood myth, for example, and that we all take warning from the arrogance or imprudence of our heroes, and that most "just-so" explanations are far stranger and more convoluted than they need to be.
This is partly because they live in the world and should know something of what it is, and what it has been. We have it on good authority that there is one fairly simple way to placate the harpies who guard the gates at the Camp of the Dead, and that is to tell them stories. The idea (as I understand it) is that stories stand proof of the life that generates them, and a soul that has lived deserves free passage through the Camp of the Dead and into the sparkling, particulate cosmos that lies beyond it.
But it is also because knowing these things will help them know other things. Stories represent not just a kind of learning, but a way of learning. If a lifelong accumulation of stories is the hallmark of our respect for what John Updike calls "the marvel of being alive" -- evidence to show the harpies that we have not wasted our days -- it is also a mechanism of that respect. We learn stories as we learn language, because stories are language. They tap a primeval convergence of all knowledge and experience, a time when all learning was magical to one degree or another, and might be fittingly be called "gramarye" -- a time when, as Updike puts it, "history was geography and giants engendered races."
When my students first heard about Maui, they thought of the Hawai'ian island that shares his name, where their parents had taken them for a vacation the year before. Now they know of a person called Maui, and a place called Maui, and great fish that is both the name of a place and the story behind that name. As their understanding of the world becomes more richly textured, they develop a multivalent sense of language. They begin to net words together, names and stories and allusions that ricochet from pole to pole.
A few days ago, thinking to take a break from the Maori stories for a bit, I showed them a map of the world and pointed first to New Zealand and then to the British Isles.
“Look down here,” I said. “Here is the North Island of New Zealand, where the tuataras live and which Maui fished up out of the sea. Now look up here. This is Britain, the countries of England and Scotland and Wales, and now I will tell you a story about a boy named Arthur Pendragon and the sword he pulled from a stone.”
You would think that they’d balk a little at the old-fashioned lexicon. I mean, come on, they’re seven. They’re also still pretty much beginners at English. Advanced beginners at this point, but still not even close to proficient. But by the time I got to Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightwise King born of all England, they were hanging on every word.
And, of course, they now have a new island to place amidst the others in their interior landscapes – Avalon, the island of the apple trees, ringed about with moonlight at the back of the North Wind. Since it has the same compass bearing as Tir Na Nog, the Irish Isles of the Blessed, I reckon they will have to be our next stop.