Photograph of Lahneck Castle by Holger Weinandt. ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany)

Der König in Thule by Goethe

The featured image is a photograph taken of Lahneck Castle in Lahnstein, Germany, in 2010, by Holger Weinandt. This castle was the inspiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Geistesgruß” (“Spirit Greeting” or “Ghost Greeting”), which in turn was a kind of precursor to the poem I’m sharing today, “Der König in Thule” (The King of Thule).

Johann Wolfgang Goethe ca. 1775
Johann Wolfgang Goethe ca. 1775

You’re likely familiar with Goethe, either by name or by the penetration of his works into Western culture. His most famous work is Faust (Part 1 published 1808; Part 2 published 1832), in which the title character sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the devil, in exchange for knowledge, an adaptation of an older myth. And “The King of Thule” has a direct connection to Faust: when Faust’s love Margaret/Gretchen (both names are used for the same person) is introduced, she is singing “The King of Thule”.

I’m not sharing this because of Goethe or Faust, though each are fascinating subjects; rather, this is to bring up the subject of “Thule”. An explorer from ancient Greece named Pytheas gave this name to a land he claims to have discovered far to the north, beyond Britain, when he was asked to investigate the source of some of the items reaching Greece in trade. Scholars at the time disputed whether Pytheas found any such place, but the name stuck: the lands to the far north were called Thule. Virgil came to use the term Ultima Thule to refer to a far-off land or an unattainable goal.

Eventually “Thule” came to be used to refer to Iceland, as by the Irish monk Dicuilus and Adam of Bremen, and that usage of the term was generally recognized to Goethe’s time and beyond. Additionally, the explorer James Cook named one of the southernmost of the South Sandwich Islands Southern Thule, and the US Air Force has a base in northern Greenland called Thule Air Base, named for the Thule people who lived there (and have been relocated) and, in turn, for the fantastical island of Pytheas.

The question for the reader, then, is to determine what significance to place on Goethe’s use of the name Thule. Does he mean a distant northern kingdom, and the king a contemporary who symbolized a dying age of monarchy? Is he thinking of a fantasy kingdom where “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish in which one can neither walk nor sail,” which seems to be how Pytheas described Thule (we don’t have his book, only some criticisms of it)? In that case, is this, more like an Ultima Thule, meant to evoke a dream, a vision of man renouncing material wealth at his death? Is this king a pagan or a Christian? Iceland itself was ruled by Denmark during Goethe’s life, as were Greenland and Norway, for that matter.

It seems as if the poem was about something other than the specific politics of the literal Northern spaces as they existed during Goethe’s time then. Maybe “Thule” was just “generic place” so Goethe could evoke imagery involving the mistress, the cup, and the king. And its placement a few years later in Faust gives it further meaning to decipher.

Here’s the poem. You decide.

The King of Thule

There was a king in Thule,
Was faithful to the grave,
Whom she that loved him truly
In dying a goblet gave.

He found no prize more appealing,
Each feast he drained the cup;
To his eyes the tears came stealing
Whenever he held it up.

And when he came to dying,
The towns in his realm he enrolled,
His heir no prize denying,
Except that cup of gold.

And at a royal wassail
With all his knights sat he
In the hall of his father’s castle
That faces toward the sea.

The old carouser slowly
Stood up, drank life’s last glow,
And flung the cup so holy
Into the flood below.

He saw it plunging, drinking
As deep in the sea it sank.
His eyes the while were sinking,
Not a drop again he drank.

1774, translation by Edwin Zeydel, 1955

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