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Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord, by Herries Beattie

12 July 2011

Folk Lore, Fairy Tales, Traditions and Place-Names of the Scenic Wonderland of the South Island

One of Herries Beatties’ most famous works, Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord combines Māori history and tradition, legends and nomenclature. Much of the information was gathered orally from the author’s informants, old Māori or pakeha who had become well acquainted with their culture. What makes the book both unique and invaluable is the fact that much of the information had never been published before, and it would have been lost forever, had Beattie not gone to the effort of putting it in writing. Asides from many stories and legends, 268 Māori place names were published for the first time in this book. 

Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord is structured in 3 parts. In Part I, The Lakes, Beattie delves into the Māori’s connection with the great lakes of the South Island. Starting from Nelson Lakes, the author moves gradually south to the waters of Inland Canterbury, West Otago and Southland. Lakes Wakatipu, Wanaka, Manapouri and Te Anau receive special attention and provide the bulk of the material published in this section. In Part II, The Alps, Beattie explains the origins of the Māori names for most prominent peaks, and the legends that gave birth to these names. Most stories are associated with the Mount Cook region, or the area around Haast Pass. Māori routes across the Southern Alps are also discussed. In Part III, The Fiords, Beattie summarizes what little information he was able to gather about the Māori nomenclature of Fiordland. If the paucity of the material disappoints, the author makes up for it with a wealth of stories about the wild natives, and the encounters between early European navigators and the Fiordland Māori. In my opinion, this is the most interesting and fascinating part of the book.

Like all other books by Beattie, Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord is not an easy read, being both chaotic and disorganized. In spite of the appearance of some logics in the overall structure of the volume, the material is scattered all over the place without any sensible connection. Repetitions abound, as do sudden jumps from one topic to another. At least there is an index, which makes it possible to track down specific information. Asides from 12 (rather disappointing) black and white photographs, the book is also notable for a lack of illustrations and maps, which makes it very hard for the reader to locate many of the geographical features described by the author.

Possibly the greatest limitation in Beatties’ work lies in the lack of local knowledge by the author of most areas he describes. While he gathered much valuable information from Māori sources, Beattie was faced with the non enviable task of matching this information with the maps of areas he was not familiar with. This means that most Māori names may be correct, yet several may be associated with the wrong geographical feature and modern English name. Here the reader really needs to apply a lot of caution. In spite of these limitations, this volume remains one of the prime sources of information about Māori lore and nomenclature in the South Island, and is one of the principal references for modern dictionaries of Māori place names.

Reference

Beattie, H. (1945) Maori Lore of Lake, Alp and Fiord. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co. Ltd., Dunedin, New Zealand. 150 pages

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