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Hergé and Catholicism

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#1 · Posted: 1 Aug 2004 21:59 · Edited by: Moderator
Following on from Tintinrulz' point in another topic:

To what extent do you think that Hergé's Catholic background, and his relationship with his 'faith', is reflected in the Tintin stories themselves?
UK Correspondent
#2 · Posted: 1 Aug 2004 23:33
For specific albums, I think three stand out as having strong Catholic references : 'Tintin in the Congo', 'The Broken Ear' and 'Explorers on the Moon'.

'Tintin in the Congo' reflects not necessarily Hergé's views, but the Belgian Catholic's viewpoint in general in regard to the colonialism present in the Congo. As is widely known, Hergé didn't want to send Tintin to Africa after Russia - he wanted America, but was pressured into sending Tintin to deepest darkest Africa. Which actually wasn't that deep, and not that dark.

'The Broken Ear' has (I believe) one of the highest "death counts" of any of the Tintin books (at least referenced are the deaths of Balthazar, Lopez, Tortilla, Corporal Diaz, Ramon and Alonso), if you don't include the plane crash from 'Tintin in Tibet', which we are only ever aware of the aftermath of, not the crash itself. The deaths of Ramon and Alonso at the end were judged (I think) to be just retribution for the murders of Lopez and Tortilla.

Hergé's faith seems to have been curiously absent until 'Explorers on the Moon', when the question of Wolff's sacrifice comes up. In the documentary 'Tintin et Moi', the topic is discussed - a number of priests presented their objections to Hergé and Casterman, about the suicide being portrayed in a positive light. I personally believe that the act of supreme self-sacrifice Wolff carries out to save the others (partly because he couldn't live with having betrayed Calculus and the others, and having committed the manslaughter of Jörgen ?) was incredibly brave and noble, and the inclusion of Wolff's sentence "Perhaps by some miracle I shall escape too" was unnecessary, and seemed to detract from the point of view Wolff was putting across. As Hergé said at one point, Wolff knew very well that he hadn't a chance of surviving, and to do what he was doing would indeed be suicide. However, he did it in order to save the others. The Catholic viewpoint on this is undetermined, as far as I know - suicide is forbidden, yet the act of self-sacrifice in order to save the lives of others (perhaps a hint of utilitarianism ?) would be permissable. I'm not entirely sure on this point, yet I would assume it would be.

In regard to Hergé's gradual loss of faith, it could be seen that in 'Tintin in Tibet' (the most personal of all the albums), he presents a wholly sympathetic view of the Tibetan Buddhist monks, to an extent unseen of his own supposed faith. It is true that he became more interested in Far Eastern philosophy when he married Fanny, so this could be seen as a rebellion against his own faith.

In the stories in general, the lack of female characters seems to adhere to the Catholic viewpoint - that there should be no "shenannigans", shall we say, between the two sexes. Therefore, Tintin never gets himself involved with another woman romantically, and does not ever present the idea that he is a homosexual. As mentioned in the other topic, the sexuality of the characters doesn't come into the story, so it is never mentioned.

And perhaps another point, in the original French editions, Tintin (and the others) often exclaim "Mon Dieu !", or "My God !". This was never used in the English editions - perhaps because it is seen as a mild curse, and not something that would really be appropriate in a comic strip targetted primarily at children (as English bookshops and libraries seem to think). Whilst many people commonly use this exclamation without thinking about the actual implications of it (the belief in the existance of God, or a god), it could be concluded from this that Hergé believed in God, or at least, wanted his characters to. I think there's something in 'Tintin et Moi, entretiens avec Hergé' about his beliefs, but I don't have it to hand at the moment.

That's just a basic overview, I'm sure there's more that I haven't mentioned.
Trivia Challenge Score Keeper
#3 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 00:11
Great post Richard!

I'd add how, in French, Tintin is prone to saying "Dieu ait son âme" (God rest his soul) whenever someone is seen to die - however this is usually translated as something like "The poor devil!" (see Congo p.48, Cigars p.60, Lotus p.61) . I think there is a definite difference in the use of Dieu/God in French and English, though why this could be is beyond the scope of my post. Note perhaps that the use of it is inhereted from the early books' serialisations in a Catholic newspaper. I would point out though, that this phrase is curiously absent around the deaths of Jorgen and Wolff in "Explorers on the Moon" - perhaps the two most shocking and moving deaths in the series. Could this be because of the nature of the events (Jorgen's bungled attempt at cold-blooded murder; Wolff's suicide?), or perhaps because of the state of Hergé's faith around the time the book was written? He wasn't, after all, very far from the marital problems that would lead to his eventual breakdown, and the subsequent turmoil over morality that accompanied it.

Inasmuch as there is religion in the Tintin books, the pervading sense of it is moral rather than spiritual. Tintin is never bad - mischevious sometimes, mistaken plenty of times, but never sinful. The alcoholism of Captain Haddock is shown very clearly to be wrong - less of a sin than a moral transgression - and the fact that the drunk Captain is ridiculed and Tintin manages to sober him up shows how misguided the American censors were in demanding cuts of his drinking scenes in "The Crab with the Golden Claws".

In perhaps the most moral and humane book of them all, "Tintin in Tibet", we find an atmosphere that is also spiritual but notably not Christian. That's not to say it is unchristian - the morality of Tintin's quest is still compatible with the Church - but the spiritual journey undertaken by the characters is guided by Buddhism. The monks communicate on a higher plane that cannot be fully understood, the Yeti is shown to be peaceful and caring, there is no violence and the absence of a true enemy (except the elements of the Tibetan weather) is conspicuous. The morality of the characters is highlighted in the entertaining scenes where the two sides of Snowy's conscience - one angelic, one diabolical - argue over him drinking whisky or carelessly chewing a bone. This was lifted from a similar scene in "The Red Sea Sharks" where, in the context of Captain Haddock's drinking, it was used purely for comic effect. Hergé's skill in the later book was to retain the comic element ("dragging an animal down to the level of man!") with a commentary on ethics.

UK Correspondent
#4 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 00:50
In regard to Jörgen's death, one of the most notable points about this is that we actually see his body. As far as I can remember, this is one of the only times (if not the only) that we see a dead body in the adventures of Tintin. This can be interpreted as being highly significant in regard to Hergé's own beliefs. In demonstrating a genuine will to kill in cold-blood Tintin, Haddock, Calculus, the Thompsons and Wolff (and also injuring Snowy in such a brutal way) Jörgen can be seen as one of the most evil characters in the series. The fact that we see his body devoid of life - without a spirit or a soul, depending on your beliefs - can almost be seen as a complete reduction of life to nothing more than a shell, and the ultimate retribution. A belief commonly held is that once a person dies, their soul, or spirit, leaves the body. To see Jörgen's body without a soul is a stark image, demonstrating the result of his actions, and is a profound moral statement.

In regard to 'Tintin in Tibet', I agree that the quest that Tintin and Haddock undertake is far closer to Buddhism than Christianity. There are, of course, links to Christianity - the two characters are often perceived to be Christian (partly because of what we have already mentioned, regarding "Mon Dieu" and "Dieu ait son âme"), and the colour of the snow is the symbol of purity and goodness in the Western world, yet the overly peaceful nature, with no enemy in human form to confront, no guns, no fighting etc. are all reminiscent of the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and peaceful coexistance.

The morality in the series is strongly evident in every book up until 'Tintin in Tibet', after which the boundaries between good and bad become blurred. 'Flight 714' has Carreidas, the supposed 'goodie' revealing his past, and Krollspell, the ex-concentration camp doctor ends up siding with Tintin and co. in an attempt to get off the island. In 'Tintin and the Picaros', the boundaries are almost non-existant. Nestor is shown to drink Haddock's whiskey, Pablo betrays Tintin, Alcazar is no better than Tapioca etc. The morality that Hergé inherited through his Catholic upbringing is strongly notable in the earlier albums, but as the stories become more complex, and other influences enter his work (the desire for realism, current affairs), his faith becomes less apparent, up until the point he almost renounces it completely.

Just out of interest - I know this doesn't relate exactly to the topic - what is your opinion of Wolff's decision to sacrifice himself to save the others in 'Explorers on the Moon' ? Is it a noble thing for him to have done, or is it still suicide, nothing more ? Hergé's own viewpoint was that it was admirable (I personally feel the same, and his note is particularly moving), but I wonder what everyone else's opinion is ?

- Richard
Moderator Emeritus
#5 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 01:04
Just out of interest - I know this doesn't relate exactly to the topic - what is your opinion of Wolff's decision to sacrifice himself to save the others in 'Explorers on the Moon' ?

We have one thread already which discusses this to some extent:

Views on the Catholic emphasis on this episode are most welcome, of course. :)

#6 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 01:21 · Edited by: Tintinrulz
There are Christian references in The Shooting Star where Professor Philippulus is up in the mast basket on the Auora, throwing down suitcases to the deck.
He says:

"It is the judgement come upon you! Philippulus the prophet gave you warning!" Then he lights a stick of dynamite and as Tintin is climbing the mast to stop him he says, "You! I recognise you! You're the servant of Satan! Keep your distance, fiend!"

He throws the dynamite and it falls into the water. Tintin exclaims, "...In heaven's name come down!" Professor Philippulus climbs higher and says: "You speak not in the name of heaven...but of hell! You will never cast me down! Higher and higher! That is my match word!"

Tintin says, "... Come on down. Look, I'm going down, too..." Phillippulus replies, "Yes! Go down! Return to the shades of hell, whence you should never have strayed!"

Professor Phostle speaks and Philippulus replies, "You are not Phostle! You have assumed his shape, but you are a fiend!... You are not Phostle!" Captain Haddock yells at him and Philippulus says, "I'm sorry. I take no orders, except from above! I'm staying here!"

Tintin springs an idea, grabs a megaphone and yells up to Philippulus, "Hello, hello, Philippulus the prophet! This is your guardian angel, speaking from heaven. I order you to return to earth. And be careful: don't break your neck!"
Philipulus obeys and climbs down.

If it were not for the fact that he was mentally disturbed he would be a man of incredible faith.

Just out of curiousity, how different is the original French translation for this section and could someone translate the dialogue directly out for us?

Trivia Challenge Score Keeper
#7 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 09:16
I agree with Richard in that Wolff's final act is supposed to be viewed as noble - I think Hergé is trying to put across that, given Wolff's position, there was no greater sacrifice he could offer. There's a very clear allusion here (in my mind at least) to the notion of forgiveness and atonement for sin - not exclusively Catholic, but certainly a major part of the belief - and this helps the reader to sympathise with Wolff's plight. I think the adage goes something like: "Greater love hath no one than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends". Though it would have been dangerous to paint Wolff as a Christ figure (especially in the concept of the blasphemy laws of the time), I'd agree with Hergé's view that Wolff's act was not the mortal sin of suicide, but the act of sacrifice. It would result in his inevitable death, of course, but the motivation behind it was to save the lives of others.

UK Correspondent
#8 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 09:30
I think Wolff's sacrifice had to be present for us to sympathise with the character, too - up until that point, we may well have thought badly of him; indeed, the reader can channel his feelings about Wolff through Haddock. However, when the note has been found, we see him all in a completely different light, and we realise that Wolff was simply a victim, pressured into smuggling Jörgen on board the rocket as a result of gambling debts. His sacrifice proves that he truly felt remorse for his actions, and it was the only thing that he could have done to atone for them.

Also, something else I realised in support of the characters being Christians - on the Christmas cards Hergé produced, one can witness Tintin praying before a nativity scene, the characters walking to church (for midnight mass, I assume), and Tintin walking with a Bible under his arm. Whilst not part of the official canon, they present a pretty strong case for Tintin and co. being Christians. Not necessarily catholics, of course, but Christians nevertheless.
#9 · Posted: 2 Aug 2004 11:23
I think the Christmas cards show more about the faith of Tintin's creator rather than the characters.

My view is that the characters are essentially non-religious. Hergé drew his books, at least when they went international, for a world audience, in the same way Chaplin made his films with the thought that everyone could enjoy them. Certainly he is not pushing any particular creed. When moral issues came up they were ones he battled with (in real-life - leaving his wife, in the stories - for instance, Wolff's suicide) and his own personal bias would basically seem to go against the grain of the Church's authority. While his upbringing would try and bend him to a fairly strict regime, he was more concerned with doing what was right, and while this would more often than not go happily hand-in-hand with Christian teachings, sometimes it would grate against it, and produce the guilt and crisis he felt.

I identify Hergé more as a Humanist, I think, certainly where his work was concerned. It is interesting that when he needed to free himself from various torments he gravitated toward a 'religion' that is not strictly a religion at all - Bhuddism.

The scene that Tintinrulz mentioned is also fascinating. To help accentuate that Philipulus was mad he had him using words you'd expect to hear from a pulpit.
#10 · Posted: 20 Jan 2005 22:06
tybaltstone remarked:
I think the Christmas cards show more about the faith of Tintin's creator rather than the characters.

I think it depends on whether you are playing “The Game”, as Dorothy L. Sayers described the way in which Sherlock Holmes fans use the information given in the stories by Conan Doyle to deduce more about the characters, and construct a better idea of the world they move in.
You work from the evidence given, however wittingly or not, by the author, and pursue a logical path to a reasonable out-come.

Strictly speaking, if the Tintin characters are shown going to Midnight Mass, kneeling praying, celebrating Easter (some of the worst Tintin art are the Easter covers on the magazines!) etc., then I think it is fair to assume that they are Christian in practice, and more than likely Catholic.

My view is that the characters are essentially non-religious.
And if you look at it from a purely practical point of view, I agree entirely: I don’t believe that Hergé was promoting anything other than good citizenship; his characters may exhibit many of the tenets of Christianity (regard for life, helping others, good against evil etc.), but these are not in themselves unique, and are beliefs held by many faiths, creeds and philosophies.

It also has to be said that the examples of worship etc. are confined to the greetings cards and magazine covers, where if we are to believe that the characters go to church in their “off-screen” lives, then they also appear to ride around on giant Easter eggs, sit on tiny rocket ships, transmogrify into babies in baskets, and all the other japes in which they were shown taking part...

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