Potiki And The Art Of Telling Stories

Essay, Research Paper

This is an explorative essay on the theme in Patricia Grace?s novel Potiki that ?telling and retelling stories is an important and valuable part of being human?.

An important theme in Potiki is the enduring idea that creating and sharing stories as a central part of being human is important. It is a significant theme because the novel is heavily imbued with Maori culture, in which the stories and spoken teachings are given prominence, and also because it is a popular belief that people need narratives to give meaning, structure and value to their lives. This theme is displayed resolutely and poignantly in Potiki?s plot, characters, setting and symbolism, as the people of a small rural New Zealand community rediscover themselves through stories spoken and found in Maori carvings. The idea that humans need narratives is the core theme in Potiki, and it is used also to link other themes and aspects of the novel; it is in this way that we know the idea of storytelling is an intrinsic part of the novel?s structure.

The idea that ?creating and sharing stories is important as a central part of being human? is shown in Potiki?s plot and characters when the mother of the main family in the book, Roimata, decides to let two of her children learn at home instead of at school. Instead of teaching them herself in the style of a traditional European education system, both Roimata and the children learn naturally from stories and histories which are shown as being part of everyone’s life. For example, Roimata says,

?It was a new discovery to find that these stories were, after all, about our own lives, were not distant, that there was no past or future that all time is now-time, centred in the being.? (Pp39.)

In this way Roimata and the children are essentially learning in a way in which all people learn to some extent: by sharing stories. The idea that the telling and retelling of stories sustains, enlarges and defines our view of the world is shown in Potiki when Roimata continues,

?They were not new stories to us, except that stories are always new, or else there is always something new in stories.? (Pp132.)

The character is emphasising the moral and educational value of stories in human development and understanding by saying that there is always something to learn from stories, even when they are retold repeatedly. Each of the main characters in Potiki has a story to tell, and each story is equally important. Not all the stories are different, for example Roimata and Hemi live and tell similar stories, but nonetheless both are still important as they add understanding and different view points to each other. Roimata says,

?And although the stories all had different voices, and came from different times and places and understandings? each one was like a puzzle piece which tongued and grooved neatly together.? (Pp 41.)

Another way in which the idea that ?creating and sharing stories is a central part of being human? is explored in Potiki is through setting, as the freedom of expression and story-telling can be tied to the land because the landscape contains stories of the people. This idea is expressed later,

?The land and the sea and the shores are a book too, and we found ourselves there.? (Pp104.)

The land is an important part of the characters’ lives because they believe it contains within it the stories that make up their collective history. When developers begin to work on the ancestral land it is said,

?We tried to turn our backs on the hills and not look up?we could not forget that it was land who, in the beginning, held the secret, who contained our very beginnings within herself.? (Pp110.)

The fact that Potiki is set in New Zealand is very significant to the theme because, as stated, narratives and oral teachings are very important in the understanding and teaching of Maori culture, in which Potiki is suffused.

Symbolism plays a considerable part in exploring the storytelling theme in Potiki from the very beginning of the book in the prologue. The carver in Potiki does not merely carve figures out of wood, but instead seeks out and exposes the figures that are already hidden in the trees. It can be told from this idea that the carver represents the traditional storyteller in the way that the stories told ? or figures carved ? are already in existence, and the storyteller is the master who depicts the story for others to understand and learn from.

Another way in which symbolism is used to explore the theme of the importance of storytelling is the distinct parallels, for example their ?special knowing? and unusual births, between the character of Toko in Potiki and Maui, a supernatural being from Maori mythology. By linking the two characters the author is then able to link modern life (represented by Toko) with traditional stories and show how ancient parables can still be related to the present.

A further way in which symbolism is used in Potiki to examine the importance of storytelling is the recurring allusion to the traditional Maori motif of the spiral of life and death. The spiral is never complete, and in the same way, there is always, as Roimata comments,

“One more story to be told, a story not of beginning or an end but marking only a position on the spiral”. (Pp180.)

The core theme in Patricia Grace?s novel Potiki that ?telling and retelling stories is an important and valuable part of being human? is useful to all readers because by sharing views with others and listening to each other and each other?s stories, people not only learn about what is important to others, but what is valuable to themselves.


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