Thea Beckmans Thule trilogy: The best post-apocalyptic dystopian/utopian fiction that was never translated to English.


The Beckman, 1974 (picture: wikipedia)

Recently I’ve been rereading some books that I liked as a kid that I know to still make sense to me  as an adult and that’s quite an interesting exercise. So when I found ‘Het helse paradijs’ (the infernal paradise) by Thea Beckman in a secondhand bookstore I didn’t even think about it and bought it. It’s a fantastic book, second in a trilogy that I would put on the level of Narnia, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Astrid Lindgrens Ronja the Robbersdaughter and the ‘Avatar: Legend of Aang’ cartoons.

Thea Beckman (1923-2004) is a rather well-known writer of books for older children (‘jeugdboeken’) in Dutch-speaking areas. I think the three Thule books are 12+ or so, something like what is weirdly called ‘Young Adult’ in the English-speaking world, but I certainly must have been younger than that when I read most of them. She’s famous for high-quality historical fiction, like ‘kruistocht in spijkerbroek’ (available in English as ‘Crusade in Jeans‘, also made into a film in 2006), but also for example for her impressive trilogy around the hundred years’ war. But the books I remember and loved most aren’t historical books but the trilogy about the future land of Thule and its conflicts with the great Badener empire. ‘Het helse paradijs’ is actually the second book of the trilogy, so later that week I went to look for the first one, and I couldn’t resist the third one too. Luckily they are easily found in the better bookshop: even though being written in the eighties they are still reprinted constantly. Rereading the books has been a pleasure, they are still as good as ever so I’m still rereading them; and they contain some very interesting ideas.

See also the next post:

It’s also interesting how European the story is, an American for example wouldn’t write  a story like this. Thea Beckman endured the second world war under the fascism of the nazis (The Netherlands were occupied for most of the war, as was Belgium where I live) and wrote the books in the cold war from inside country that had no influence on the madness of the idiotic arms race between the US and the USSR and the possibility of total destruction of the planet. Both have certainly influenced her views on the future of planet Earth and human civilisation.

Thule and the Baderner Empire
The Thule books are built around a clash between an utopia and a dystopia, and contain intriguing experiments in speculative sociology: what happens when a nonviolent female-dominated culture meets an aggressive colonialist culture that wants to subdue it. How will both sides see each other? How will they react to each other in conflict? The whole series gives a very interesting critique and sometimes outright deconstruction of fascism, militarism, colonialism, male chauvinism, societies based on aggression, industrialism that destroys nature, and so on. The stories follow 2 countries in a recovering post-apocalyptic world some thousand years after a nuclear world war III, which has hit the planet hard: her axis has changed, the continents have been redrawn, and the poles have moved to Japan and South-America. Most of humanity and other life has been killed in the mad nuclear war, but over time nature has stabilised again, and humanity too has come back from near-extinction so new civilisations are rising up again on what’s left of the world. Greenland has become the green land the name has always suggested it was and it is now the matriarchal nation of Thule. Meanwhile in central-Europe an industrial colonial power named the Badeners is rising up to conquer everything in sight in the name of progress and civilisation.

The difference between both cultures couldn’t be bigger: the Thulenes, descendants of a mix of mostly North-Europeans and Inuit that survived the Great Catastrophe, have only women in power, they even believe than men should never have power since men were responsible for the Great Catastrophe, and can be called fanatically non-violent ecofeminist, living in peace with nature, with a rather limited use of money, and a taboo on men having too much power, since that was what led to the Great Catastrophe. The Badeners, named after an area in between Germany and Switzerland, are a violent and (self)destructive culture, combining industrial colonialism with a form of fascism (later replaced by some kind of democracy), and are always trying to expand their territory, having conquered most other European people except for the Brits and supposedly some South-European countries. Fear and oppression as well as poverty and pollution plus a heavy dose of corruption are the price for a ‘great civilisation’.

Kinderen van Moeder Aarde

Men were nice, strong, often friendly creatures that could do the heavy work, that could plough the land, cut down trees, carry heavy loads and build houses, but couldn’t be trusted with something as sensitive as governing a country. They were too rude for that, too headstrong and selfish… Am I rude and selfish? Christian wondered. Was my father Rajo? (p.20)

The first book ‘Kinderen van Moeder Aarde’ (Children of Mother Earth) follows the royal family of Thule at the time of the first expedition of the Badeners to what the old maps called ‘Groenland’. The main character throughout most of the book is the Konega-son Christian, whose name is not referring to Christianity (the Thulenes have an almost non-religious reverence of ‘Mother Earth’ as religion) but just a Scandinavian-sounding name like most of the royal family has, with them being descended from a legendary family from Yselan. Christian is the son of the matriarchal monarch of Thule, Armina-dottir the Konega but just as his father he has no special title or role. He is just a man. (A bit like a princess in a kingdom where only men can be king)
One storyline revolves around his family, the disappearance and reappearance of his father Rajo, and the problems of being a man in a female-led society with as his father calls it the ‘gentle oppression of men’. The Women Council of Thule is extremely conservative, and men are not supposed to have any power because that is dangerous (it is what led to the Great Catastrophe) There also is the problem of Christian being the only child of the Konega-family and being only a boy, so he will be expected to marry a Dottir (a woman from the royal bloodline) to hopefully one day father a girl who can become the new Konega.
The arrival of the Badenfelder and the reaction of both cultures to each other is another big part of the story. Both cultures are completely alien for each other, and they completely get lost in translation even though there is a language they can both use(Brits and Kanadene are still mostly mutually intelligible language). The Badeners try to start with diplomacy and talk about friendship and alliances, but don’t they just want to conquer the whole country? Christian is interested in the other culture, but still skeptical. At a certain point the ‘prince’  as the Badeners see him gets ‘kidnapped’ (actually he joins them willingly, trying to understand them more as he was assigned by his mother) by the commander and asked to show them the inland and he takes them on a crazy hike to the wilderness, where he learns by their reaction what the true (murderous) nature of their culture is.
A third storyline is the impossible love-story between Christian and Thura, a young-captain-in-training and certainly not a Dottir, a fierce, intelligent and unyielding personality with a lot of Inuit blood. She turns out to be one of the most courageous and tactical defenders of her country though, and will play an important role in conquering the Badeners, who are not killed but prevented from ever returning and assimilated in the Thulene society.

Het  Helse Paradijs

The Konega looked straight at Kilian. ‘You are right,’ she spoke. ‘We tried deliberately to kill all of you when it became clear that you didn’t want to abort the invasion attempt. It was you who convinced us of that. We wanted to smother what was left by the hurricane, the rat disease and the swamps in fire and smoke. We had thought out much more natural disasters for you. But it became too much, we couldn’t go on. Pity choked us. It is against our nature to be cruel and ruthless. (P. 271)

In the second book ‘het helse paradijs’ (the infernal paradise) we get more insight in the culture of the Badeners. Kilian Werfel, a young linguist, is summoned by the Egon, the dictator, together with an admiral, a Government Commissioner, and a geologist, to go on a new expedition to Greenland after the disappearance of the Badenfelder 2 years ago. The fleet consists of 5 warships and around 1000 soldiers that takes over the harbor of Kulus and Kilian will have the impossible task to try to connect to an enemy whose new tactic is mostly to completely ignore them.  He’ll also have the misfortune of falling in love with Thulene spokesperson Thura, who is completely unreachable as the fiancée of the Konega-son.
And on top of that none of the leaders of the invasion is ever happy with the messages he needs to carry from the other side, which is that they just have to leave Thule or will be ‘destroyed by Mother Earth’.

The Thulenes led by the Konega and Thura don’t use any conventional warfare, but they are very successful against the Badeners. They move in stealth and stun the invaders whenever they misbehave, to leave them to wake up stripped of weapons and uniforms elsewhere. At a certain point the whole invasion army wakes up in their underwear, robbed of a lot of stuff, with a red mark of a criminal in their face. And that’s just the beginning: the warships get sabotaged and the big march over land to Gothab, the capitol, gets stuck in the middle of nowhere before a blown-up bridge with a ‘city of gold’ just out of reach on the other side, plagued by diseases and natural disasters.

Kilian himself gets more bad luck and is accused of treason after he brings another message from Thura (‘go back to Kulus, you won’t survive the winter here’) to his superiors. He barely escapes alive, and then wanders around as beggar and stranger, marked as a crimnlal  through Thule to end up in a hospital, while the Badener army goes rogue destroying a village and then finds its demise in natural disasters as a reaction.

In the end the second invasion will have a similar outcome as the first one: none of the Badeners will see their homeland again, but this time with a lot of casualties. Assimilating the remaining Badeners into the Thulene culture is much harder this time, but the Konega-family mobilises Kilian, whom they’ve picked up along the way to Gothab and who knows both cultures now as their own mediator to explain the culture to the scattered left-overs of the invasion-army.

Het Gulden Vlies van Thule

Elvira shook her head, rather hopelessly. ‘Lady Thura, please understand! If I go to Gothab, and make myself known as the mediator chosen by the Thulenes… The head-governor will roll over with laughter. He will say ‘child, don’t be silly, go get married, get six children, and that’s how you’ll do a service to the fatherland.’
‘That man couldn’t be that stupid,’ Thura said. (p.178)

The third book ‘het Gulden Vlies van Thule’ (the Golden Fleece of Thule) is set half a century later and is written again from a Badener point of view, but this time the main characters are female. The Badener Empire has moved on from dictatorship to democracy, but is in a lot of problems, which it tries to solve with new colonies overseas. Four coastal Thulene cities including the capital Gothab have been conquered and are under Badener rule, but the colonisation isn’t very successful and the Thulenes are doing endless acts of sabotage while rarely being seen or caught. The Badeners don’t understand anything of the Thulenes, and don’t really try to understand their culture and language, seeing them as just stupid and primitive cowards for them.

The book first follows Elvira, daughter of a  deputy governor. She sees the need to understand the Thulene language and culture, and she even gets help in secret from a Thulene woman to learn it. Her father is sent to join a punitive expedition to the inland where no-one ever returns from when he protests the corruption of the governor, and doesn’t come back. Finally she goes into Thulene country to find him. She meets a district leader who tells her the fate of her father, and meets the Konega-son Tjalk who  hates the Badener who killed half his family, but still brings him to temporary capitol Holtak, known for its expensive vases made with gold-clay to meet Thura, an old woman now but still the fierce leader of the resistance.  She predicts the end of the Badener colonies, and wants her to be a negotiator with the Badener government.

Another storyline follows the three daughters of the new head governor of the added territories of Thule. Being a nobleman of ill fortune he tries to find a new chance for his family in the colonies, which are in bad condition already when he arrives. Unlike his predecessor he is more interested in trade and diplomacy, and sees the importance of learning the language and culture of the native Thulenes, so he orders his daughters to study it.
After a while the three girls will do their own attempt to reach Holtak where the famed vases made of gold-clay originate, to try to make trade possible between Thulenes and Badeners. When they finally reach Holtak they are received by Thura and the Konega, who tells them that friendship is impossible as long as the Thulene cities are occupied, . Together with Elvira they are sent back, and find the capitol in worse state than ever, with rats everywhere and workers on strike. The head governor sends a message to the motherland, and finally a diplomat arrives to talk with the Konega, even though the idea of talking with women is rather ridiculous to him. The cultural misunderstandings are big and the demands of Thura and the Konega-family are high,  but there is one trump that the Thulenes use to buy off the Badeners (one which is hinted at in the title already) to get their country back.

It really is a pity that the books have never been translated. They are very intelligently written, and help one ask questions and see through the nonsense of society.

Some themes will be worth exploring more in future posts.

Peace

Bram

2 responses to “Thea Beckmans Thule trilogy: The best post-apocalyptic dystopian/utopian fiction that was never translated to English.

  1. Pingback: Lessons from Thule: A description of Thulene and Badener society | Brambonius' blog in english

  2. Pingback: Lessons from Thule: Living in a nonviolent female-led Utopia | Brambonius' blog in english

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