Lessons from Thule: A description of Thulene and Badener society

The Beckman, 1974 (picture: wikipedia)

Like I said in my last post I’ve been rereading Thea Beckmans Thule trilogy recently. There are several interesting ideas in the books that are worth blogging about, which is problematic since they are only available in Dutch. So in this post I will try to summarise the most important details of the intriguing worldbuilding of the trilogy as a reference for further posts in this series.

In a way the books are built around a simple post-apocalyptic reboot of humanity, in which some cultures have learnt from ‘the Great Catastrophe’ (nuclear world warIII), and others haven’t a thousand years later: The Thulenes have a nonviolent culture based on respect for life and the leadership of women, while their opponents the Badeners are a dystopian mix of the negative aspects of European cultures of the last few centuries that isn’t actually that unrealistic.

See also:

The land of Thule
The land of Thule is a temperate-climate Greenland in a world where the North pole has moved to Japan and the South pole to South America. It is inhabited by people of mixed race, mostly descendants of Danish colonists and Inuit from before the Great Catastrophe. The capital is Gothab. The language is Thulene, which isn’t used in the books, but is the place and person names are a good indication that it falls something in between Inuit languages and Scandinavian too. People on the coast often known some Kanadene as a second language, descended from English and still mutually intelligible with the languages of the Merikans and Brits.

Thule: General culture:
Thule has a simple and rather low-tech culture, depending on horses and windmills. No-one is poor and no-one except for the royal Konega-family is rich. Communities share most of their stuff: houses, boats and horses belong to the whole community, but people do have personal property too. They also use silver money, but part of the wages is paid in various stuff. Children in school don’t just learn theory but also how to build houses and other practical stuff, and most people make furniture themselves.

He (Kilian) would have to search for a job, because his academic degrees were worthless here in this country. Thulenes had a completely different education than children in the Badener Empire. Here they were taught carpentry, sailing, cooking, shipbuilding, and all kinds of practical matters. And what were his skills? Nothing like that… (THP p.262)

Frederiksborg is an important university city. 80% of the university population is female, since men are rather rare in higher jobs. Thulenes have printing presses and colour print. Gunpowder is known but normally only used for fireworks or mining. Fire-arms are unknown orand later considered taboo. The only weapon used is a kind of stun-gun with little poisoned arrows, or the thorns of which the poison comes, that make an animal or human fall unconscious for a while. Men with weapons are seen as extremely indecent, except in the case of woodsmen. The idea of men fighting is shameful, almost obscene.

Important areas are the Capital Gothab on the West coast, the Holtak-district where the vases vases with gold-dust are made in the middle, and Kulus in the East. The Mining districts are in the North, where winters are still cold. Gold is exported to Kanada for wheat, and most trade with other countries is barter.
The population runs in the millions, but no-one has ever counted how much Thulenes there are, since people are not registered. They only have first names, except for the women descending from the ‘Mother of the Motherland’ Sigrid Helgadottir who are called ‘Dottir’ and are considered some kind of nobility. Most of the dottirs seem to be connected to trade.

Thule: Nature
Thulenes live very close to nature, and feel like themselves are a part of nature. Destruction of nature is punishable. Hunting is generally forbidden, and for every tree that is cut down a new sapling must be planted. Killing an animal is seen as murder almost as much as killing a human. The Thulenes import wild animals from Kanada for the balance of nature, and have a very diverse wildlife with deer, 4 species of bears (it’s implied that ice bears have survived too in the North, and adapted to a more temperate climate), wolves, foxes, moose, and much more. The people are friendly to animals, even predators and are in return rarely attacked by them and often treated as friends by animals.

I don’t understand, Kilian thought. This wilderness is full of devouring beasts, but this morning a wolf only woke me up and then ran away from me. And I seem to have slept in the arms of a bear, which didn’t do me any harm either. Shouldn’t people feer them at all?
No, he answered his own question. Not if the bear thought you were a Thulene. (THP p. 226)

Marine mammals are also friends of the Thulenes, and orcas even know the difference between the Thulene language of friendly humans and the Badener language of enemies who want to kill them. Elvira knows to ward off an orca that wants to attack the lifeboat after her ship has sunk by talking to it in Thulene, although it tries to attack people speaking Badeners.

Meat is eaten though, but only from old animals that have lived a happy life, which makes all meat extremely chewy. Birds are never eaten or killed. Eating fish is less of a taboo than eating meat, but in the dolphin season fish is left for dolphins and humans and not fished by people.
Poaching and destruction of nature get punished harshly with a mark in the face. (see later)

Thule: Gender roles
Thule is clearly a matriarchy: women are leaders in every aspect of society, they held most jobs with power, and they are seen as the more responsible sex. Men are seen as not to be trusted with power, which is connected to the stories about the Great Catastrophe, when the world was almost destroyed by men. Apart from that the society of Thule is not only very friendly but also egalitarian. There are hardly any class distinctions and people of all classes mingle with each other.

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? (KOMA p.20)

This is also reflected in the political system: Thule is ruled by the Konega with the Council of Women, which consists of all district leaders and sometimes family members of the Konega, but traditionally no men. A small reform at the end of the first book tried to balance the inequality between the sexes by giving the men in the Konega-family a place in the Council of women too. In the third book, 50 years later that means 3 men and 26 women. Other cultures close to Thule like the Kanadenes and the Baffinlanders seem to also be female-led by the way.

Thule: Relationships and Marriage
monogamous marriage based on love seems to be the norm, but with reversal of traditional gender patterns: Christian at the beginning of the first book for example is horrified by the idea that he, as a Konega-son, might have to ask a woman himself instead of her asking him. Apart from that it seems that relationships are both rather relaxed and serious at the same time and based on friendship and intimacy.
Intercultural relationships and marriages, even with Badeners, are not seen as a problem at all if the character of the outsider has proven to be good.

Nanora had told her friends of the weaver mill enthusiastically about the young sailor who was so nice, had such a sweet face, cared so much about his mother and behaved so well. It wasn’t true at all that all of the Badeners were fiddling around with your body, that they were intrusive and brutal and thought that all girls just had to do whatever they liked. Erich was completely different: modest and careful. He left the initiative to his girlfriend, as it should be, and waited quietly until it was time for more intimate caresses. Really, Badeners were okay if you got to know them. (THP p 307)

Women get only a few children, because they have more things to do with their life than being a mother. (I suppose contraception is implied but not named because it is a childrens’ book after all. Nothing is said about sex explicitly.) Girls are sometimes valued above boys, although in theory boys are loved equally. People are very relaxed about nudity and young people are very playful and relaxed about their bodies in general. (Compared to the prudish Badeners) Prostitution is unknown, and harassment of women or violence within a relationship is a strong taboo.

The one exception to people being free to choose their own partner is the succession law for the Konega-family: a Konega-son can traditionally only marry a woman from the ‘dottir’ families, because of the supposed genetic superiority of the family line of Sigrid Helgadottir. This rather eugenic practice is called out as such by Christian, as he struggles with his love for the non-dottir girl Thura, and this law also gets a reform at the end of the first book for Christian and Thura.

Thule: Religion
Thulenes have a rather non-religious reverence for mother Earth, which is mostly just seen as the planet herself. They are not offended when Badeners describe it like that either. There are no priests or religious services, only small open temples in which people can sit in silence. These temples typically have a place on which one or more vases (if possible Holtak-vases made with gold-clay) with flowers are put express thankfulness.

Thule: Political system
Thulenes have a monarchy led by a Konega. The first Konega was Sigrid Helga-dottir, who came from Yselan (Iceland), and the Icelandic matronym ‘dottir’ became a kind of clan name for her female descendants, which were seen as women of great intelligence and intuition. Only a dottir can be a Konega. Thura becomes the first non-dottir Konega-mother, and her daughter Ferika-dottir then became the successor of Christians mother Armina-dottir.

The Council of Women consists of the leaders of all districts of Thule, and is in Gothab with the Konega half of the year and in their own district the rest of the year. District leaders, as well as region and city leaders are chosen democratically by men and women, based on their competence and skills, and always female.

Thule: Punishment system
The last intriguing part of Thulene society is their unique system of punishment. Thulenes never use violence (their worst weapon is a stun gun) and they don’t take away someone’s freedom either. They still have a rather extreme way of punishing criminals though, based on a mark on their face:

‘There’s something more that they’ve invented,’ said Edu Zimmerman, not without satisfaction: ‘their criminal laws. Just like in every country you have people here who don’t want to be decent. Who get violent, or take more from the common possessions for themselves than they need, or even who go into the wilderness to poach, which is strictly prohibited. And then you have the hotheads who cannot keep their hands to themselves and who mistreat or kill others.  But because Thulenes find it unthinkable to deprive someone of their freedom, they came up with something: he who breaks the law and gets caught gets a stamp.’
He grinned and pointed to the commander. ‘You have one, and you too.’ He pointed at Kilian. “A red mark means violent trespass. Or depriving the community of Thulene possessions. It’ll fade over time. Red after a year or two. Green means  doing violence to nature, like cutting down trees without permission, mistreating animals, slaughtering animals that are too young. It disappears after a year. Purple is worse, for wilfully inflicting bodily harm to humans or higher animals. Poachers get that too, and it lasts for four or five years. The worst is evidently murder. Killing a fellow human being is taken very seriously, and gets the harshest punishment. So murderers get the black mark. Just imagine: being marked as a murdererer for seven years. You can walk around free, you can work for your bread. But no decent person will be your friend, no woman will share your bed, no child will smile at you or play with you. Anyone can see what kind of low-life you are – seven years long.’
‘So? If you remain a free man…’ grumbled the commander.
‘Why seven years?’ asked Dr. Mannix.
‘Oh, the Thulenes are convinced that every crime, even the worst, has had its penance after seven years. The murderer will get the chance to start a normal life after that.’

For the Thulenes these marks are very serious, so most people with serious marks move to the mine districts where a lot of marked people work, and then to a place where they are unknown and can start their life anew afterwards.

The whole army of the second invasion gets marked with a red mark in the second book. It seems that the word of the Konega-family can trump a mark; at least Kilian gets treated almost as if he doesn’t have a mark when he befriends Christian and the Konega family at the end of the book.

The Badener Empire
The Great Badener Empire is a simple dystopia built on the negative characteristics of recent European cultures, violent and (self)destructive. They have a colonial and industrial culture at a technological level of roughly the early 20th century, with steam engines and cannons and electricity, and in the third book even a few cars (but no planes or long distance communication). Gunpowder and fire-arms made it possible for them to conquer all neighbouring states and tribes on what’s left of the European continent, only the Brits have their sovereignty and are equally powerful. The language is based on German and has grammatical cases that seem hard for Thulenes. The Capital is Badenburg by the ‘Badenmeer’ (now Bodensee in German, or Lake Constance).

The Badeners have a rather fascist dictatorship at the time of the first two books under the Egons (a hereditary title) Militarism is central to their culture, and men with uniforms and weapons are looked up to. There’s a lot of corruption and abuse of power, and a culture of fear and manipulation. The Egon has a whole secret police that makes people with wrong opinions disappear.
Being the polar opposite of the Thulenes the culture isn’t just violent with no respect for life, but is also deeply patriarchal and it has extreme class distinctions. Scarcity and fear are its motor. All high functions are for men, and women are hardly taken seriously, as are people from elsewhere. In all three books they make the same fatal mistake of not recognising that the Thulenes are different in that regard.

The Empire has depleted its own nature in an industrial revolution, and it doesn’t really seem to care. Hunting for sports is very normal, and wild animals are getting rare. (The first Egon is said to have killed the last bear in Europee) Desertification and pollution threaten their foodsources and also make people sick. Loss of nature is seen as a normal consequence of technological progress but poses great problems, which they attempt to solve by conquering new colonies.

The Badener Empire also has monogamous marriages as the norm, but women are oppressed by men. Violence is a normal part of society, probably in marriages too. Women are expected to get a lot of babies, and sons are seen as much more important than daughters. It is seen as a great misfortune for baron Von Birken in the third book to only have three daughters and no son, and rather exceptional for him to treat his daughters as if they were sons.
There also are strong rules about girls not sleeping close to boys, at least for rich privileged girls like the three daughters of the head-governor when Sepp the clerk refuses to share a cabin with them. Those rules are probably not that strange, since harassment of girls and women seems a common problem. Elvira for example needs to keep the sailors off her body when she’s the only passenger on a Badener steamship for example, even though she is the daughter of a (then dead) deputy governor. But by then she has learned a lot of assertivity from the Thulenes. Prostitution seems to be expected by soldiers, and men expect women that don’t even know them to look up to them and obey them, which won’t work with Thulenes.

The religion is a ‘mutilated Christianity’, that doesn’t impact the lives of the people much but is used to keep the people under oppression. (A bit like nominal American Evangelicalism) Several Badeners remark that there are no churches and that the Thulenes are Pagans throughout the series, but their own religion doesn’t seem to provide much substance either for most Badeners. (Except for probably Shasita Von Birken in book 3, who spontaneously starts to pray to ‘the Lord’ at one of the temples for Mother Earth.)

The Badener empire is also shown to be self-destructive in many ways. Their destruction of nature obviously gives them many problems, but there are more subtle things. One of the reasons that the ‘unsinkable’ warships can get sabotaged by the Thulenes is because the corrupt Government Commissioner Kwatschi who used inferior materials to put as much money in his own pockets. The assumption that the Thulenes are stupid (which even becomes a proverb in Badenburg in the third book) makes them underestimate them time after time too. It’s quite obvious that Thea Beckman offers a critique to her own culture here too.

So why do I find this such an important read? I find the world-building intriguing because it gives an alternative to the cultures we know, and because it also deconstructs a lot of the negative aspects of European cultures. The description of the tensions created by the ‘soft oppression’ of men in a female-led world for Christian and Rajo are interesting to have a new look at gender roles from the opposite side for example.
The consistently pro-life culture of the Thulenes in which every life matters is a good example of how life could be different. The way negative traits of European cultures (some of which are also present in other cultures though) are shown with their destructive consequences are a good eye-opener too.

So, is there anything else you want to know about the land of Thule?



2 responses to “Lessons from Thule: A description of Thulene and Badener society

  1. Pingback: Thea Beckmans Thule trilogy: The best post-apocalyptic dystopian/utopian fiction that was never translated to English. | Brambonius' blog in english

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.