Thule a la carta marina d'Olaus Magnus (1539)
Thule on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (1539)

On January 19, 2006, the spacecraft New Horizons began its interplanetary travel. A few hours later it surpassed the Moon, three months later, Mars and on February 2007 it reached Jupiter, its first important study point. After making tests and collecting data, it follows its journey to its primary mission, Pluto. It reached that planet on July 2015 after surpassing Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The New Horizons is now 41.5 AU far from the Earth (1 AU, Astronomical Unit, is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, roughly 150 million km) and has already completed 90% of his journey; it's expected it will reach its final destination on the 1st January. The target is one of the hundreds of objects in the Kuiper Belt, a small one that measures approximately 40 kilometres in diameter; it was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope on 26 June 2014 and named 2014 MU69.

I am talking about this interplanetary adventure because a few months ago, the mission team choose a more poetical nickname for the 2014 MU69: Ultima Thule (I can see how some of you put two and two together). It seems that Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, coined this expression to metaphorically refer to any place beyond the known world; Since reaching the MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, the NASA team chose a very suitable name.

Virgil made reference to the island of Thule, discovered in the 4th century BC for the Greek explorer Pytheas, who made a voyage as fascinating as the New Horizons probe. We don't know exactly his route; it seems that he set sail from Massalia (today, Marseille), sailed southwards, went through the Pillars of Hercules (that is, the current Strait of Gibraltar), which were the limit of the "civilized" world, and from there he discovered many places and phenomena. He described in a book lost during the fire in the Library of Alexandria; Luckily enough, some excerpts, copies and interpretations from other authors survived that allowed us to know more about Pytheas journey. Once in the Atlantic Ocean, he realized that he was surrounding a peninsula; He first described tides and suggested their relationship with the lunar phases; he went through the English Channel and travelled almost the whole British Isles; He arrived at Thule and then he went to the North Sea; He described the Midnight sun and the frozen sea; he discovered amber; He contacted many "Barbarians" and went back home, possibly upriver on the Rhine.

Thule was the most distant point known until that moment, but Pytheas' descriptions didn't accurately set its coordinates; since then, many scientists suggested several options: Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, some of the Shetland Islands, Heligoland... The last theories, put forward then years ago, place Thule in the island of Smøla, in Norway. Thule became a myth already in the classical era; as you can imagine, there are many literary references, from the lost Pytheas' work to Nabokov throughout Goethe, our man today.

Goethe wrote in 1774 a poem published in 1802, Der König in Thule, where a dying king distributes his property among his heirs; all of them but his most precious asset, a golden goblet that his beloved gave him before she died; After drinking for the last time, he throws the goblet into the sea and dies. It's not known why Goethe talks about Thule (evil tongues say it's because that word rhymes with "Buhle") or the origins of the story he explains; he could have been inspired by a Celtic legend where the golden goblet symbolizes power instead of faithful love.

Goethe's poem was included in Faust, published in 1808; It's the song that Gretchen sings after recalling a young man that she has just known and before finding the jewels that that young man and Mephistopheles put in her room. A song that, of course, has been musicalized on several occasions. And finally, I'm reaching my aim: Franz Schubert's Der König in Thule (mental note: to post a series of the Faust's songs). Der König in Thule was one of the Lieder sent to Goethe by Josef von Spaun in 1816; probably, Schubert wrote it that year. Deliberately or not, his song perfectly matches Goethe's criteria: a pure strophic song with very simple melody and accompaniment. It's a shame that Goethe didn't even have a look at those Lieder, so he missed the beautiful song that Schubert wrote from his poem.

Sometimes it's said that it's a monotonous and boring song; it depends on the performance, of course. We've talked sometimes about the problem that strophic songs arise: music is always the same, but the words are always different; Therefore, they can not be performed always in the same way. In Der König in Thule, each musical verse has two parts that correspond to two stanzas of the poem. The first musical verse tells us about the golden goblet; the second one, about the king's disposals before his imminent death; the third one, of the goblet thrown to the sea and his death. The performers have to tell us a story in an unaffected way, with the pensive and melancholy mood marked by Schubert's music, leading us from the introduction to the climax of the story by subtly emphasizing here and there to grab our attention.

Would you do an experiment with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau's version, that you have on this post? Before going on, listen to the song a couple of times without reading the poem, and try to find out the points they emphasize. I would say that in the first verse, they enhance "treu bis Grab" and "gold'nen Becher gab" in the first part, and "die Augen gingen ihm über" in the second one; at the first part of the second verse, the voice clearly highlights "sterben" and a little less "Becher"; in the second part, I would say that the piano changes the intensity slightly, anticipating the climax of the third stanza. Here, the voice highlights "heil'gen Becher" (in fact, every time the goblet is mentioned the voice gives it a special importance); "und sinken tief in's Meer" and "die Augen täten ihm sinken" are mutually reinforced because the first sentence is underlined by the piano and the second one is sung more piano. The final verse has a clearly conclusive atmosphere: the tempo becomes slower and the syllabes sound practically one-by-one.

Now, listen at your leisure to the song; I hope you like our journey to Thule and if you want to follow the New Horizons trajectory, check this link.

Der König in Thule

Es war ein König in Thule,
Gar treu bis an das Grab,
Dem sterbend seine Buhle
Einen goldnen Becher gab.

Es ging ihm nichts darüber,
Er leert’ ihn jeden Schmaus;
Die Augen gingen ihm über,
So oft er trank daraus.

Und als er kam zu sterben,
Zählt’ er seine Städt’ im Reich,
Gönnt’ alles seinem Erben,
Den Becher nicht zugleich.

Er saß beim Königsmahle,
Die Ritter um ihn her,
Auf hohem Vätersaale,
Dort auf dem Schloß am Meer.

Dort stand der alte Zecher,
Trank letzte Lebensglut,
Und warf den heil’gen Becher
Hinunter in die Flut.

Er sah ihn stürzen, trinken
Und sinken tief ins Meer.
Die Augen täten ihm sinken
Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr.

There was a King of Thule,
faithful to the grave,
to whom his dying beloved
gave a golden goblet.

Nothing was more valuable to him:
he drained it in every feast;
and his eyes would overflow
whenever he drank from it.

And when he neared death,
he counted the cities of his realm
and left everything gladly to his heir -
except for the goblet.

He sat at his kingly feast,
his knights about him,
in the lofty hall of ancestors,
there in the castle by the sea.

There, the old wine-lover stood,
took a last draught of life's fire,
and hurled the sacred goblet
down into the waters.

He watched it plunge, fill up,
and sink deep into the sea.
His eyes then sank closed
and he drank not one drop more.

(translation by Emily Ezust)

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Comments (2)

  • christina horst roseman

    Such a lovely poem, in the original German. Worth learning German just to read this poem, as the translation here (& most others of it) certainly doesn't begin to do it justice. btw, in the short list of literary references, yes to Goethe, yes to Nabokov, no to Pytheas; the mentions of Thule in Pytheas aren't literary references, they're firsthand accounts.

  • Sílvia

    Thank you for your comment, Christina, and welcome! No doubt that the saying "tradutore, tradittore" is even more right when talking about poetry, but translations are sometimes the only way to approach a poem.

    Of course, Pytheas' book should have been what we nowadays call non-fiction literature. Or maybe I was lost in translation; in Catalan, we can use 'literature' to talk about bibliography or references.

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank Emily Ezust for allowing me to use her translations, and to recommend her website <a href=""></a>.

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