April 23, 2021

U is for Ultima Thule

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        What is the common thread between the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas, the New Horizons space probe, Edgar Allen Poe, frozen surfaces the squidgy consistency of jellyfish, and Nazi occultists?  To find out, read 
        Thule is another place for which people keep trying to identify real geographical locations, but this time it isn’t entirely unreasonable.  (I’ve mentioned some of the theories in the original post.)  The Greek explorer Pytheas included descriptions of Thule in his voyage around northwestern Europe around 325 BCE, and is generally believed to have been making a good-faith description of an actual place, rather than simply making up a tale of foreign marvels.  Thule appears on many renaissance maps, although not always in the same place.  However, if Thule may be based on a real, if unidentified place, what earns Ultima Thule a spot in this month’s A to Z Challenge theme of mythical and imaginary places is the connotations that the name took on in the minds of classical writers, and medieval scholars after them.  Wherever Thule may have started out, Ultima Thule soon became a land beyond the very edge of the known world, “the back of beyond,” and a symbol of all the undiscovered territory that we don’t yet know.
        This resonance was picked up on by many writers.  In 1774 Goethe wrote a poem called “The King in Thule,” in which the setting really could have been anywhere.  Indeed, the poem was originally inspired by a castle on the river Lahn, but Goethe changed his setting to Thule to evoke an exotic mythical vibe.  The painting above illustrates Goethe’s poem, and Schubert - among no fewer than 15 composers - set the poem to music as one of his Lieder.  You can listen to a performance here, or read both the original and a translation of the poem here.
        In 1880 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled a collection of poetry Ultima Thule, after the dedicatory poem about it.  You can read that poem here, but the final stanza is

     Ultima Thule!  Utmost Isle!

     Here in thy harbors for a while

     We lower our sails; a while we rest

     From the unending, endless quest.

      Even comic strip hero Prince Valiant (created in 1937) comes from Thule, although in creator Hal Foster’s mythology, Thule is simply somewhere in Norway.  At one point our hero has to help his father regain the throne of Thule from a usurper.  In these comics Thule is portrayed as a generally Arthurian-vibe place with a touch of Viking.
        And by the way, the Kuiper Belt object that was temporarily nicknamed “Ultima Thule” now has its official name: Arrokoth.  Arrokoth is a Powhatan/Algonquian word meaning “sky” or “cloud.”  This official name still reflects the idea of looking to the farthest distances, and wondering what discoveries lie beyond.
        The MORAL of Ultima Thule:  One of the defining human traits is our curiosity and spirit of exploration — although sometimes we like it best if someone else explores the unpleasantly frigid places.
              OR:  No matter how far you go, the horizon is still in the distance… so don’t forget to pack your winter coat, just in case.
        So, would you rather be an explorer, or read the explorer’s reports from the comfort of your armchair?

[Pictures: De konig van Thule (The King of Thule), painting by Pierre Jean van der Ouderaa, 1896 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
View of the Castle of Thule, and Approaching the usurper’s throne, panels from Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, 1943 and 1939 (Images from Heritage Auctions and Read All Comics).]


Lisa said...

I'm the report reader, not the explorer! I love the Poe poem you had in linked post.
I remember seeing Prince Valiant in the Sunday Comics, but I was too little to read it. My brother was a lot older and lorded it over me that HE loved Prince Valiant!

Deborah Weber said...

I like the idea of Ultima Thule as in back oo beyond. I have a friend who uses the term beyond the beyond in descriptions of the cosmos, and now I'll always consider Thule in that leading edge. You find me happily in an armchair reading reports, although I'm a valiant explorer in my dreams. :-)

Olga Godim said...

I'm definitely an armchair explorer. I don't like the physical discomforts of hiking and camping and I hate the absence of plumbing in the wilderness.

JadeLi said...

Sounds like a fun place to go. If I had unlimited funds to get the supplies together for a grand adventure I would love to do it. Nothing too strenuous but something like Thule, imagined but discovered only in the going there.

My “U” song for the day:

Sue Bursztynski said...

I like the IDEA of travel. If someone experienced could organise a modern day adventure involving at least some travelling in a van, I’d go for it. But armchair is good too.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I have often heard it equated to Iceland. A friend of mine who studied Icelandic has Ultima Thule tattooed on her back, anyway :D

The Multicolored Diary

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, older brothers can be so mean! But you could probably read Prince Valiant now, and decide whether or not you were really missing anything.

Jade, I like your phrase "imagined but discovered only in the going there."

Zalka, wow, that's really committing to a theory!

I'm with all of you that I'm not really up for the level of exploration that involves actual danger and major hardship. But I do very much enjoy exploring new-to-me places that are not so perilous.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I'd rather read about the explorer's exploits -- I'd rather not lose any fingers or toes! Enjoyed your original post about the place.

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Unnatural Magic

JazzFeathers said...

You know? As you were describing Ultima Thule, I suddenly thought about the Last Homely House in Tolkien's stories.