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Myths and Legends of the Polynesians Review


Myths and Legends of the Polynesians offers a vast and expansive primary source collection of Polynesian mythology. This has helped it weather the tide of years remarkably well, since despite nearly a century having passed since the book was first written, in 1928, it still has a deep respect for the Polynesians and a faithful recounting of their stories which makes it timeless. It is however, an intensely niche book, as it only has relatively limited focus on Polynesian history, it doesn’t engage overtly in comparative mythology, and while it faithfully recounts the stories, it lacks for a literary genius which would bring them to life, novel-like.

Instead, it is as mentioned above, a trove of primary resources for the researcher into Polynesian mythology, already well acquainted with the general outline of their civilization. More in the way of comparative mythology would have been useful for the amateur, skimming over Polynesian mythology. The dense, rather helter-skelter arrangement of the stories in the book makes it difficult to follow and somewhat dry for the newly introducer reader to the subject. It lacks somehow the touches that would make it into an enjoyable novel-history book.

But if you are looking for a direct, primary source, it is hard to deny that it is excellent: the stories are recounted directly, in a staggering number. And they give a real sense of what the ideal of Polynesian society was. Sure, just like with myths and legends of other civilizations, this probably only had a limited connection to actual, lived existence - but it is intriguing to hear tales of what the society vaunted, such as the brave warrior, the beautiful princess, the intrepid adventurer, its fascination with honor, pride, and where need be the violence to uphold it and the revenge that could be taken. It shows a lively attention to romantic love, where a foreign prince might sweep a princess off her feet, or perhaps off her surfboard. One of the stories within, Kelea and Kalamaku, is a great one for this: Kelea, a princess of great beauty and independence, but who hadn't married, was carried away by Kalamakua from her game of surfing, to marry the brother of this prince, Lo-Lale, until in the end he realized that he real love was for Kalamakua himself and he released her to marry him. There are really far too many stories to relate, but the ideals of Polynesian culture are displayed very well in the book.

There are also some good illustrations in it, of first various Polynesian cultural artifacts, but also of some of the heroes and legends. There is also an admirable effort to translate songs and poems, even if the author doesn't try to keep whatever lyrical or melodious element they may have had in the first place: but then, it lends a certain majesty to them, a grandeur of sounding like old poetry, which might have lost its elegance with the years but retains its power.

Getting through such a long book, nearly 500 pages, can be hard without a burning interest in the subject, but there is no denying that as far as a collection of mythology goes, Myths and Legends of the Polynesians continues to have impressive staying power, even nearly a century after its publication.

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