Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2011

Wulf (2011), by Hamish Clayton

Hamish Clayton’s debut novel Wulf is a seductively raw story, entwining a primitively lush landscape like a vine in the mind as events based on New Zealand’s early history move slowly to their horrific conclusion.

There is a growing sense of menace as insouciant sailors come to trade in the early 19th century.  Cowell, the ship’s trading master, has been to these islands before and he regales his shipmates with stories that should make them wary but they have no real idea what they are in for. The naïve narrator – called Davis Jones [1] as an unfunny joke by the crew on the Dragon though he’s otherwise un-named –  tells this story as sailors do, foreshadowing events in the form of omens, symbols and shipboard superstitions which feed this atmosphere of menace.  His naiveté is exacerbated by the fact that he, like the rest of the crew, is trying to interpret Maori culture only through his existing ideas about history and culture.  Clayton occasionally has a bit of fun with this (as when they try to rationalise the Maori having the same name for the sun, Ra, as the Egyptians do), but most of the time it’s an acknowledgement that rough-and-ready traders are not best placed to negotiate the complex waters of First Contact.

Clayton draws on real history for his narrative.  Jacky Guard, the legendary whaler who triggers a ‘shift in the wind’ aboard the Elizabeth, was the real-life survivor of the Harriet AffairThe Captive Wife(Fiona Kidman, mining the same history, wrote the wife’s story in her award-winning novel,  The Captive Wife.The menacing mystical figure of Te Rop’raha is based on Te Rauparaha, a Maori chieftain who led the intra-tribal Musket Wars in the early 19th century which decimated Maori populations, led a forced migration in retreat to the Southern part of the North Island and eventually came to dominate the area through possession of the fortress Kapiti Island, called Kopitee Island in Clayton’s story.

Two contrasting translations of a notoriously obscure Old English poem called variously Wulf or Wulf and Eadwacer begin and end the storyThis enigmatic work has apparently amused scholars for years because its narrator could be a woman pining for her lover or her son; she could be in an adulterous relationship or not, or Wulf and Eadwacer could even be one and the same.  Difficulties of translation compound the ambiguity because Old English words can have multiple meanings not necessarily compatible.  (Clayton, in his introduction, gives the example that ‘gift’ can also mean ‘play’ or ‘battle’.)

Beyond the mythic resonance of this lament, for me, the most immediate relevance of this poem’s ancient narrative form, was its influence on Clayton’s prose. Its rhythmic cadences reminded me straight away of Beowulf (of which Seamus Heaney’s version is my favourite – he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past‘ and you can see why in this poetry – though it’s Michael Morpurgo’s that I have just this term read to my students).  Clayton’s writing works the same way: incisive muscular rhythms, onomatopoeia, and cumulative layers of imagery resonate with the power of ancient storytelling that stretches back into the ages with a raw beauty.

Here’s a taste:

So now Te Rop’raha’s hands lie stretched over the water in two directions: one hand rests on the bottom of the Northern Island, the island on which he was born, while the other has already begun to creep south, even grasping the top of the Middle Island by the scruff of its neck. He wants that island, he would swallow it whole. He has circled it and knows its weight. And although these islands are larger than Britain he knows their exact shape, he has seen their every harbour., their every bared knee and elbow of rocky shore. His great canoes of war have eyed these coasts like carrion fowl and he will not rest until his name is heard in every corner of the country like a whispering terror on the wind, a spirit biting the ear and a shot of poison ferried to the heart. (p54)

This Te Rop’raha haunts the narrative from the very beginning.  He emerges fully grown, with little to explain the mythic aggression which earns him the moniker Wolf.  He wants to master all that he surveys, defeat any tribe in his way, and is cunning enough to use the interlopers to achieve it.  His mystical qualities enable him to evade pursuit in a hostile desert, and the atrocities he perpetrates are monstrous, but he is deliberately one-dimensional.  He is the ultimate savage of European nightmare.

‘Annanonymous’ (that’s not a typo)  admired its lyrical qualities at The End is Naenae, while  Bookie Monster thought it captured the very essence of New Zealand.  It’s a very fine book indeed.

[1] ‘Davy Jones’ locker’ means the bottom of the sea; it’s a sailor’s euphemism for death at sea.

©Lisa Hill

Wulf Author: Hamish Clayton
Title: Wulf
Publisher: Penguin (New Zealand) 2011
ISBN: 9780143206491
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin New Zealand
Availability: Fishpond Wulf.

These are the editions of Beowulf I’ve referred to.  Pay a little extra for the illustrated version of Seamus Harvey’s; it is worth every cent.

Michael Morpurgo’s version is suitable for children 10+.


  1. oh might pick this up for my reading the myth challenge ,thanks for higlighting it lisa ,I ll have to check if its out here ,I like the occasional sea based story as well ,all the best stu


    • I’ve contacted Penguin NZ about international availability, Stu, and will add it as an update above if they have organised distribution overseas. Cheers, Lisa


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