For almost forty years I taught U.S. undergraduates an introductory course in Russian Literature, touting to them this particular literature's moral intensity and its narrative sophistication. I always maintained to my students that literary sophistication in a culture had to originate from its pre-literate narrative genres. The Russian culture, after all, was literate only in the most recent one thousand years. Before that were several thousand years of story-telling, the evolution of which contributed to the culture's subsequent literary sophistication. Every literary trope has a figure-of-speech precedent. Every theme its oral epic analogue. It was the conscious effort of a native Hawaiian scholar named S. N. Hale'ole to put one of the Hawaiian culture's most revered oral epics into writing, when he published Ke Ka'ao o La'ieikawai in the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa in serial form in 1862-1863. This work was then translated into English by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1919, who then termed it "the sole piece of Hawaiian imaginative writing to reach book form." So we may presume that in this work we are witnessing the nascence of the Hawaiian culture's literary tradition, and seeing the demonstration of that literary tradition's inherited sophistication transmitted to an English readership. Hale'ole and Beckwith deserve great credit for advancing this Hawaiian epic romance, fraught with striking reflections of Hawaiian cultural values and rife with subtly meaningful cultural references. If one wants to learn about the pre-contact Hawaiian culture, this is surely one of the best places to do it.
Indeed I noted this book on the shelf of the Kauai Community College bookstore textual resources for students of the Hawaiian culture--quite appropriate. But very important here is the work of the book's modern editors, Dennis Kawaharada, Richard Hamasaki, and Esther Mookini. It is they who really make this an educational "tour de force." The footnotes with recommended sources, the character list, the glossary, and the maps, do much to clarify the reading for the student or scholar. The footnotes are, in fact, a marvel of knowledge and intercultural savvy, the task being not just what to explain, but how optimally to explain it in its cultural context. There are several of these notes that had me smiling in admiration for these editors as I read them. Footnote 27 about the Hawaiian sexual-reference puns that inhabit a counselor's advice to the male protagonist to "be persistent...like a shark" in wooing his love object, is just such an object of admiration, citing in the explanation the "PE" (Pukui and Elbert's Hawaiian Dictionary) and Pukui's "Proverb No. 800" in Olelo No'eau . What we have here is a fascinating work, illuminated by GREAT editing...clearly a labor of love. Essential reading for every Hawaiiophile...kama'aina or ha'ole.