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Potiki Essay Definition

Potiki - Is Toko Maui?

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She blew his mouth and nostrils, and with two fingers lightly massaged his chest until the mucus began to drain freely. She took a pendant from her ear and put it on the blanket beside him. ‘Tokowaru-i-te-Marama. Ko Tokowaru-i-te-Marama te ingoa o tenei,’ she said. (Grace 36)

The passage above comes from the book Potiki. It’s when granny Tamihana breathes life into Toko and gives him the name of her deceased brother. In Potiki, a novel written by Patricia Grace, we are introduced to a family that is given a special gift. That gift is in a form of a child named Toko. Toko isn’t any ordinary child for he knows all his past stories and has the ability to see future stories. Toko was born by Mary and is cared for by Mary’s brother Hemi and his wife Roimata. In yet another novel, there is a strong presence of mythological icons being incorporated into a book. Grace ties the legend of Maui into the character of Toko. Toko and Maui were both born prematurely. Another similarity Grace ties in with the legend of Maui is the fishing story. Maui goes out fishing with his brothers and brags that he’ll catch a bigger fish than his brothers and Toko’s fishing with his family in the lagoon and catches a big eel. Lastly, Grace links the legend of Maui’s death to Toko’s death. In Potiki, Toko enters the wharenui to bring back Manu who was sleepwalking. Instead a gunshot was heard and Toko was killed. In the legend of Maui, Maui tried to capture death by trying to crawl into the death goddess “hidden source of life” to capture her heart. A bird laughs, which woke the death goddess and closed her mouth. The teeth of the death goddess cut Maui in the center and killed him.

According to Westervelt, “Maui may mean “to live,” to subsists,” and may refer to beauty and strength, or it may have the idea of “the left hand” or “turning aside. (1)” In Potiki, Grace ties in the meaning of Maui to the character Toko. In what way is the birth of Toko and Maui similar and it’s relationship with Westervelt’s definition of Maui? How is Toko’s fishing story similar with the legend of Maui pulling the island of New Zealand and its relationship with Westervelt’s definition of Maui? How is the death of Toko similar to the way Maui dies and how it relates to the definition of Maui?

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We first recognize the similarities between the mythological stories of Maui to Toko’s life as we are introduced to Toko. In Toko’s saga as well as Maui’s legend, they are born prematurely and born near the ocean. Both Maui’s and Toko’s mother doesn’t care much for them and tries to throw them into the ocean.

Maui was prematurely born, and his mother, not, caring to be troubled with him, cut off a lock of her hair, tied it around him and cast him into the sea. The waters bore him safely. The jellyfish enwrapped and mothered him. The god of the seas cared for and protected him. He was carried to the god’s house and hung up in the roof that he might feel the warm air of the fire, and be cherished into life. (Westervelt 3)

This passage explains the birth of Maui. Toko’s birth closely resembles the birth Maui-Potiki, the trickster demi-god. Maui was born prematurely and was thrown into the sea, where he was tangled in seaweed, and washed up on the shore. Files and birds tried to eat him but he was saved by his ancestor and given magic powers. His rudeness and inquisitive mind caused him many troubles, but led to new discoveries and knowledge. Because Maui was born premature his left hand was shorter than his right hand.

I was born on the beach stones on a day with no colour and my borning mother carried me into the water. She would have left me there for the birds, mistaking me for something she had found. Or she could have kept walking with me out into the water until the sea closed over us, and we would both have belonged to the fishes. But my sister Tangimoana, in her red shirt, came and snatched me away from my first drowning and hurried home with me. (Grace 42)

This passage describes the birth of Toko. Mary, not knowing what she was throwing into the ocean was her own child, mistakenly thought that she had found something that was alive and as she usually does throws what ever it was back into the ocean. This passage reflects the idea of “the left hand” and “turning aside” from the definition of Maui in that Toko was born premature. His left shoulder was lower than his right shoulder, which caused him trouble walking. As Toko grew older, his ability to support himself using crutches diminished and was bound to a wheelchair.

When Toko was five, he went on a fishing trip with Hemi, James, and Tangimoana to catch bait for the next days fishing. He waited patiently and certainly enough there was a fish for him to catch. This part of the book is similar to the legend of Maui and. Maui also went on a fishing trip with his brothers and bragged that he would catch the bigger fish than his brothers would.

I remember when the pull came. James, who was sitting by me, grabbed and held onto me so that I wouldn’t go over the side. I held on hard to my line. I remembered that for a moment there was nothing else, only holding – me holding the line, James holding me. Hemi took the other end of my line, unrolled some of it and tied it to the seat (Grace 49).

This passage explains the process of Toko catching the big fish. Toko knew that that night when they would go out fishing there would be a special catch for him. So he prepared himself by grabbing the big line from the shed and waited until the fish took a bite from his hook. Toko was sure that there would be a fish for him that night and he was right. Though Toko had a disability, his family didn’t stop him from doing work. Toko helped out in the garden and he also helped by going fishing with them. Toko’s fishing story signified that even though he was crooked he had a lot of strength in him. Westervelt’s definition of Maui reflects that Toko was similar to Maui in that Toko’s fishing story showcased his strength.

Then he drew his magic hook from under his malo or loincloth. The brothers wondered what he would do for bait. The New Zealand legend says that he struck his nose a mighty blow until the blood gushed forth. When this blood became clotted, he fastened it upon his hook and let it down into the deep sea. Down it went into the very bottom and caught the under world…Out of the great seas the black, ragged head of a large island was rising like a fish-it seemed to be chasing them, through the boiling surf. In a little while the water became shallow around them, and their canoe finally rested on the black beach (Westervelt 12).

This excerpt above comes from the legend of Maui. There’s a lot of correlation with the story of Toko. Maui went fishing with his older brothers and bragged that he would catch a bigger fish than them. Using his magic hook, Maui hauled up a giant fish, which was Ao-tea-roa – one of the large islands of New Zealand. On it were houses, with people around them. Fires were burning. He took fire in his hands and was burned. He leaped into the sea, dived deep, came up with the other large island on his shoulders. This island he set on fire and left it always burning. It is said that the name for New Zealand given to Captain Cook was Te ika o Maui, “The fish of Maui.”

Another connection with the story of Toko and the legend of Maui is how their death transpires. When Toko goes into the wharenui to bring back Manu who was sleeping walking, someone shoots him. In Maui’s legend, Maui tried to obtain immortality for all mankind by attempting to capture the heart of the death goddess. Maui fails to do so and thus dies.

But it was when Toko pushed the swinging door open that there was a different sound, like a soft explosion, then Manu screamed out and there was a glimpse of light although the house itself was in darkness still. There were running footsteps but I could see no one by the light of the stars. No one passed my way. (Grace 163)

This passage is referring to Roimata recalling the events that unfolded the night of Toko’s death. Manu, Toko’s brother, is a sleepwalker and on the night of Toko’s death, Manu was sleepwalking towards the wharenui. Toko as always would be the one who would bring back Manu to the house. That night Toko went to get Manu but something unusual occurred. When Toko went into the wharenui, there was a “soft explosion” and Manu came out screaming. An unidentified person killed Toko. Toko later on becomes immortalize as he is carved into the poupou that the old carver left unfinished and given the name Potiki. The Tamihanas knew that Toko’s life on earth would be brief and they allowed Toko to participate in all activities. They allowed Toko to speak when there were meetings in the wharenui, allowed him to work in the fields, go fishing, etc… Grace ties in the legend of Maui with Toko’s death for the reason that Toko life would be short on earth. This is what Westervelt’s definition of Maui which was “to live” or subsists.”

Hine was sleeping soundly. The flashes of lighting had all ceased. The sunlight had almost passed away and the house lay in quiet gloom. Maui came near to the sleeping goddess. Her large, fish-like mouth was open wide. He put off his clothing and prepared to pass through the ordeal of going to the hidden source of life, to tear it out of the body of its guardian and carry it back with him, to mankind…He leaped through the mouth of the enchanted one and entered her stomach, weapon in band, to take out her heart, the vital principle which he knew had its home somewhere within her being. He found immortality on the other side of death. He turned to come back again into life when suddenly a little bird laughed in a clear, shrill tone, and Great Hine, through whose mouth Maui was passing, awoke. Her sharp, obsidian teeth closed with a snap upon Maui, cutting his body in the center. Thus Maui entered the gates of death, but was unable to return, and death has ever since been victor over rebellious men… (Westervelt 128)

Toko’s death is similar to the legend of Maui. The difference between them is that Toko entered the mouth of the wharenui to bring back Manu and in Maui’s legend, Maui attempted to conquer death by turning into a small bird and crawling into the “source of life” of the death goddess in order to take her heart. Maui warned his friends who had accompanied him to “refrain from making any noises while he made the supreme effort of his life. (Westervelt 128)” When Maui was almost completed a fantail, or silly bird, could not contain its laughter and excitement, and woke Hine who closed her teeth which killed Maui. This is similar to Toko’s story in that both entered the through the mouth. In Toko’s case it was the mouth of the wharenui and in Maui’s case it was the mouth of the death goddess.

In most of the book we’ve been reading, there has been a lot of connection to mythological icons centering the Pacific Ocean. An example is the comparison of the mythological myth of Pili to Faleasa Osovae in Pouliuli, and now there is another direct correlation with the character Toko in Potiki to the legend of Maui.

In Potiki, Grace ties in the mythological legend of Maui to the character of Toko. Grace does this superbly as if Toko is really Maui. The motive for Grace tying the legend of Maui with the character of Toko is in Westervelt’s definition of Maui. Westervelt describe Maui as to live, having strength, and the idea of turning to the side. Grace does this by linking the legend of Maui’s birth with the birth of Toko’s. Toko’s birth and Maui’s birth both refer to the definition of Maui according to Westervelt. They were both born prematurely and caused their left hand to be deformed. Toko had a deformed left shoulder and Maui’s left hand was shorter than his right hand. Another resemblance with the legend of Maui and Toko’s story is the story of the fishing incident. In the fishing story Grace ties in the idea of Toko having a lot of strength. Finally the death of Maui and Toko are alike. Maui died when was coming out through the mouth of the death goddess while he tried to capture the heart and Toko died while entering the mouth of the wharenui to bring back Manu to the house. In the death of Toko, Grace tied in the idea of “to live.”

Works Cited
Grace, Patricia. Potiki. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.
Westervelt, W.D. Legends of Maui: A Demi God of Polynesia and of His Mother Hina. Honolulu: The Hawaiian Gazette Co., LTD. 1910.



A Maori community on the coast of New Zealand is threatened by a land developer who wants to purchase the community property, move the community meeting hall, and construct many new buildings, including an "underwater zoo." The story is told in several chapters that switch narrators. Sometimes, it is Hemi, a man who was laid off from his job and realizes that this situatioA Maori community on the coast of New Zealand is threatened by a land developer who wants to purchase the community property, move the community meeting hall, and construct many new buildings, including an "underwater zoo." The story is told in several chapters that switch narrators. Sometimes, it is Hemi, a man who was laid off from his job and realizes that this situation affords him the opportunity to reconnect with the land, his culture and his family. Other times, Toko is the narrator. Toko is Hemi's adopted son and is physically handicapped. However, he also has a sixth sense and can see events before they occur. Mostly, though, the story is told by Roimata, Hemi's wife and Toko's adoptive mother. She relates the growing concern the Maori have about developers coming into their land, and their quiet, concerted efforts to rebel. She details their successes and many painful failures in a sparse, simple prose. The book does not really have a true resolution; instead, Patricia Grace outlines the cultural differences that exist in New Zealand, and the uses and abuses of power, and how it can affect a people....more

Paperback, Talanoa : Contemporary Pacific Literature, 192 pages

Published June 1st 1995 by Univ of Hawaii Pr (first published October 7th 1986)