‘Eua is made of limestone, a substance that has always appealed to artistic imaginations. In his poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’, WH Auden celebrated the way that the soft, porous rock encourages ‘secret systems of caves and conduits’ and springs that ‘spurt everywhere with a chuckle’. Like the Derbyshire downs that Auden loved, ‘Eua’s highland is distinguished by gaping caves, apparently bottomless sinkholes, and streams that disappear and reappear mischievously.
During the seven visits I have made to ‘Eua since 2010 I have repeatedly heard suggestions that James Cameron journeyed to the island, toured its highland, and took away with him the setting for the world’s most popular movie.
Some ‘Euans see a similarity between the Hometree, which rises a mile or so above the surface of Pandora, and their banyans. They also note that in Cameron’s movie the goddess of life, who is identified with the forests of Pandora, is known as Eywa. Cameron famously employed a team of linguists to create the language spoken by the indigenes of Pandora, but every invented tongue must have some real-life inspiration, and his employees have admitted borrowing certain words from Polynesian languages. The ‘Euans I have talked with maintain that the name Eywa is meant as a coded acknowledgement of Cameron’s debt to their island.
With its portrayal of a clash between the simple, sensuous Na’vi and a gang of avaricious, technophiliac human miners, Avatar is a retelling of a very old European fable. Since the eighteenth century, when Rousseau and his disciples hailed the inhabitants of newly ‘discovered’ societies like Tahiti and America as ‘noble savages’ with lifestyles and values inimical to the grubby commercial world of Europe, Western intellectuals and artists have been idealising and patronising indigenous peoples.
Moorehead’s perspective has been discredited amongst most scholars of Pacific history and culture, who point out that Tahitian or New Guinean culture is no less compatible with modern technology and economic development than German or Chinese culture, but his ideas have a lingering influence amongst well-meaning members of the First World left.