When it comes to myths and legends of Australasia, A.W. Reed is a ubiquitous author – and equally ubiquitous as his own publisher. Myths and Legends of the Pacific extends his range across the whole of the Pacific, covering nearly all the main archipelagos of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Conspicuous by its absence, as usual, is New Caledonia.
Although a Hawaiian story is included about the fire goddess Pele, and a Maori one about the Sky Father and Earth Mother, and a Tongan one about the culture hero Maui, most of the 23 stories in this collection have the feel of folktales. They are localised tales about ordinary women and men – and animals – to whom extraordinary things happen. They are lively and entertaining and could be used by storytellers with little need for adaptation. Other than the name of the archipelago each story comes from, the book provides no apparatus of sources. No doubt, through Reed’s redaction, some of the tales’ cultural specificities have been smoothed away to make them palatable to young Western readers and listeners.
You could weigh into the politics of appropriation about that if you wanted, but they are good stories nevertheless, and they convey a sense of the commonalities of island life across the vastness of the Pacific: canoes, palm trees, birds, fishing, thatched buildings and woven mats, the sea and its creatures and shores provide the essential building blocks of plot. The human communities are inseparable from the natural world they inhabit. In one way or another, all of these tales are ecological stories. Yet it’s the truly extraordinary, the supernatural, that gives so many of them their frisson of interest – whether it’s a giant bird or reptile, redolent of vanished species, or the recurring legend of ‘fairy’ people who were there before the islands’ present inhabitants, or motifs of miraculous transformation or communication between human beings and animals or the elements or otherworldly beings.