The king in Thule
(Poet's title: Der König in Thule)
Set by Schubert:
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 seinen 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 heilgen 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 once a king in Thule,
Totally faithful up until he went to his grave,
To whom, when she was dying, his mistress
Gave a golden beaker.
Nothing surpassed it for him,
He emptied it at every banquet;
His eyes welled up
As often as he drank out of it.
And when he came to die,
He counted up all the towns in his empire,
He granted everyone their inheritance,
But he did not include that beaker.
He sat at the royal feast,
With his knights around him,
In the high hall of his ancestors,
Over there in the castle by the sea.
The old drunkard stood there,
Drank the last glow of life,
Und hurled the sacred beaker
Down into the flooding waters.
He watched it plunge, take in water,
And then sink deep into the sea.
His eyes made him sink too;
And he never drank another drop.
All translations into English that appear on this website, unless otherwise stated, are by Malcolm Wren. You are free to use them on condition that you acknowledge Malcolm Wren as the translator and schubertsong.uk as the source. Unless otherwise stated, the comments and essays that appear after the texts and translations are by Malcolm Wren and are © Copyright.
In the context of Goethe’s play Faust, Gretchen sings this song as she is preparing to go to bed. Unknown to her, Faust has decided to seduce her, and Mephistopheles, his manipulative accomplice, has hidden jewels in the chest that she is about to open. The audience is therefore aware that this innocent girl is about to be ruined, and that the song of idealised love that she sings to herself is in sharp contrast to what she is going to experience. Far from becoming the mistress of a totally devoted and faithful lover (the king in Thule), she is going to experience the all too common story of abandonment and disgrace. The jewels she is about to discover will bring about her downfall, unlike the precious goblet given to the king, which is a symbol of undying devotion.
How conscious would Gretchen have been that the story she was narrating was a fantasy? Did she really believe that there were men like the devoted old king in Thule who remained totally faithful to their lovers? Are we supposed to think of her as deludedly naive or simply charmingly innocent? She is presented as an ordinary girl with little education, so could she have known the difference between fiction and reality? She could not have known, though her creator (Goethe) would have done, that the setting of the tale, Thule, was the most remote land known to the ancient Greeks. In the 4th century BC a Greek navigator, Pytheas, left Marseilles, sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and turned north. He explored the mouth of the Loire and visited Cornwall. Four days north of Britain he came to the island of Thule, a place where the sun never set at midsummer and beyond which the sea was frozen. Later writers doubted some of these details, and there has been great dispute as to whether (assuming there is truth in his account) he could have been to referring to Shetland, Iceland (neither within the Arctic Circle) or Norway (not an island). For most people his story seemed exaggerated and Thule came to be thought of simply as a mythical land on the edge of the known world.
For Gretchen, of course, he is an archetypical ‘king’, and the fact that there would have been few ‘towns’ for him to give away in such a remote land would have been neither here nor there. Kings were rich and powerful, and it was the idea that they could be swayed by the devoted love of a woman that mattered most. What does such a loving mistress give the man who has everything? It has to be something with what we call ‘sentimental’ value, particularly when she is on her deathbed. It could have been a picture, a lock of her hair or a simple wooden ring, but none of these would have had the powerful connotations of the golden goblet that is central to this story.
It is basic to the narrative that the king receives the beaker or cup as a bequest and that when it is his own turn to die he determines to bequeathe it to noone else. It therefore has to have inherent as well as sentimental value. We need to know that his knights or heirs would like to possess the object and that they are consequently so impressed (and possibly horrified) by his decision to throw it into the sea, beyond their grasp. The king needs to signal that the cup represents something unique that belonged to him and his mistress exclusively. It has taken on ‘symbolic’ significance.
We can read the symbolism of the cup in a variety of ways or on a number of levels, ranging from the sexual (the vessel as vulva) to the spiritual (the chalice as grail). We definitely should not overlook the associations with the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist:
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”(Mark 14: 23-25, RSV)
As Christ’s followers later re-enacted his sacrificial death whenever they participated in ‘Communion’, so the King in Thule continued to experience his mistress’s death at every banquet. His eyes welled up with tears as her agonising physical absence meant that she was all the more intensively present in spirit. The cup manages to symbolise both the emptiness of the king’s grief and the fullness of his communion with his mistress.
In the final stanza the cup and the king have become fused. He drains it for the last time and then it is the cup’s turn to drink. As it is thrown into the sea the cup first ‘drinks’ the sea water before it ‘sinks’. The king’s eyes similarly ‘drink’ (tears, we assume) and begin to weigh him down as he too ‘sinks’.
Such is the story Gretchen sings to herself as she prepares for bed. Presumably this has been a regular bedtime story of hers, and we can imagine her snuggling into bed and settling to sleep as she sings of the king’s heavy eyes and his sinking into unconsciousness. She has managed to identify with both the faraway king and his unnamed lover, but the audience knows that a different fate awaits her.
Original Spelling 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 Lebensgluth, Und warf den heil'gen Becher Hinunter in die Fluth. Er sah ihn stürzen, trinken, Und sinken tief ins Meer. Die Augen täten ihm sinken; Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Goethe’s sämmtliche Schriften. Siebenter Band. / Gedichte von Goethe. Erster Theil. Lyrische Gedichte. Wien, 1810. Verlegt bey Anton Strauß. In Commission bey Geistinger, page 281; with Goethe’s Werke, Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, Erster Band, Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1827, pages 187-188; and with Faust. Ein Fragment. in Goethe’s Schriften. Siebenter Band. Leipzig, bey Georg Joachim Göschen, 1790, pages 94-95. First published in a different version in Volks- und andere Lieder, mit Begleitung des Forte piano, In Musik gesetzt von Siegmund Freyherrn von Seckendorff. Dritte Sammlung. Dessau, 1782, pages 6-9.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 281 [295 von 418] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ163965701