Ultima Thule is a latin phrase. But is it a place or an idea? Thule pronounced thoo lee was the name used by the ancient explorer Pytheas (in the 4th century BC) for a remote island to the north of Orkney. It might have been Shetland, Jutland, Norway, or perhaps Iceland, we don't know. Ultima Thule is the almost mythical land farthest north. Literally we could say that it is the North Pole but it is more interesting as a symbol; something that we strive for but never quite reach.

Here is an 1880 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Ultima Thule

With favoring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.


After I wrote this I discovered (thanks to a /msg from bigmouth_strikes) that Ultima Thule is also a symbol for some neo-nazi groups. In particular there is a extremist right wing Swedish rock band with this name. My first thought was to nuke this node as I have no wish to be associated with such people. But after speaking to people on #everything I decided to leave it with this note. The poem is beautiful and we shouldn't let nazis take words from the language! Yes, and I will do a web search next time!

Often defined as the "northernmost part of the world that the ancients believed to be habitable"; it has been variously identified as the Shetland islands, Norway, or Iceland. However, this meaning is no longer particularly useful in common parlance, so a new definition has emerged.

Nowadays Ultima Thule is often used to mean the farthest possible place, or more metaphorically, a remote goal, or an ideal (and perhaps hidden/lost) place. It might also refer to the furthest one could possibly travel. In modern usage is often shortened to simply Thule.

Ultima is Latin for 'farthest'. Thule comes from the Greek Thyle, defined as "a land six days sail north of Britain".

See also: El Dorado, Timbuktu, Shangri-La.

Ultima Thule: Mythic Scandinavia is the sourcebook of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland in a mythic version 13th century for the ARS MAGICA game. The ad copy for the game states, "Any roleplayer with an interest in Mythic Scandinavia should have Ultima Thule!", which begs the question, "Am I interested in Scandanavia?"

Frankly, I'm not. That's just the honest truth. When THE DRAGON AND THE BEAR, detailing the Novgorod (Russian) tribunal came out earlier this year, it caught my attention by finally filling in lost facts on the Order of Odin and other long-held mysteries of ARS MAGICA. With the game still lacking an English or French sourcebooks, the decision to go again to the north for two sourcebooks in a row seemed strange--do you really need to know that much about the area?

Well, yes and no. Historically the northern lands are very important for the people we know as Vikings--their attacks on the rest of western Europe during the Dark Ages played a pivotal role in the development of feudalism and the spread of red hair throughout Europe. By 1220 (the year this supplement is set in) their time and power is waning as Christianity has begun to change the fundamental forces at work in their societies. This part of the book is quite fascinating, and useful as text and for game background.

What keeps the book from excelling is tense. Unlike all other Ars Magica sourcebooks to date, ULTIMA THULE is written entirely in the past tense...which makes all of the material in it feel fixed and unchangeable. It also takes away the great strength of ARS MAGICA, which is leveraging the use of real history against a possibly changing future--using 13th century history, told as current events, to provide excellent plot hooks from which GMs can create their own sagas. By placing all of the book in the past tense it comes off as a too-brief, too-shallow history book...an effect to be avoided in historical supplements at all costs.

The additional magical systems are nice, with the Finnish wind wizards being a particularly sharp touch-- they show off the versatillity of the Ars Magica system to accomodate new traditions without stretching or breaking rules. The vitkir (Norse rune masters) have some great thought behind them, and so I would certainly recommend the book...if you are already campaigning in the distant North now.

Verdict

A mild dissapointment, though ULTIMA THULE is still an order of magnitude better than comparable sourcebooks from White Wolf or Palladium. If you're a completist, or you have ideas for a saga that will take you up past the Arctic Circle you'll want to buy it.

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