The Adventures of Tintin

When a Belgian cartoonist first imagined Tintin and his dog Snowy, and sent them off on an adventure to Communist Russia, a cult was born that has since spread across the world. Georges Prosper Remi Remi or Herge (for that was his pen-name) spent the rest of his long life writing and drawing the adventures of Tintin, boy reporter, whose courage and ingenuity, good manners and fine sensibilities, were constantly challenged by strokes of great fortune and misfortune, as is often the case with heroes.

At the end, Tintin changed with the times, and wore bell-bottoms, and a peace-pin; but for the most of his excellent career, he was attired in knickers. In these politically correct times, much has been found to lament and criticise in the rather ethnocentric world-view depicted in Herge's Tintin stories. It is a European world-view, and in the compressed format of a 62-page novelette, Herge relied often upon stereotypes, to evoke character. In Cigars of the Pharaoh, an Arab soldier frantically flees from Snowy, when Tintin warns him of the "mad dog". There may not be many people nowadays who even know that fear of mad dogs is, or rather was, an imagined hallmark of the Arab psyche; but it is so. When Tintin visits America in the early 1930s, we find policemen gravely saluting bank robbers, and the gangsters who own meat packing plants paying bonuses to their workers for the stray rats, cats and dogs they bring in; in the plant, a cow slides contentedly along a conveyor belt into a vast and intricate grinding machine, whence emerges an endless row of shiny cans. The wonders of American technology!

Tintin was born, a fully-formed 14-year-old, in 1929, first appearing in the pages of Le Petit Vingtieme, the children's supplement to a Brussels newspaper. I have enjoyed reading of his exploits since 1981, when I was introduced to Tintin by a young friend of mine. When my own children arrived, I could scarcely wait to read the Tintin stories to them. I purchased all the adventures available in America, twenty-one of them, and began reading them to my daughter, Janet, before she was two years old. She loved them. Now she is six, and able to read them a bit on her own; but the reading of Tintin to her and her brother Greg remains a daily ritual.

I take considerable pride in my dramatic renderings; Tintin, I imagine, speaks in a youthful tenor, with neutral accents. His rough-hewn friend, drunken old Captain Haddock, is so gruff and emphatic as to be laughable; he is laughable, and must be so. Although English, his accent is also neutral. Professor Calculus likewise lacks accent, I think, but speaks in a high, clipped voice, with a naive precision. The two Thompsons, twin detectives, are as English as Haddock, but absolutely must have the thickest of Cockney accents, as surely as they must always wear their bowler hats and carry their walking sticks. Such are a few of my ideas about characterisation.

Having read and re-read all these adventures until I know them by heart, over the years I have given considerable thought to Tintin, to Herge, and to what sources might have been tapped for the many trials and travails of Tintin. I believe I have detected more than a few, but without being able to ask Herge himself (he died a few years back), I can only say, these are my guesses.

In the first place, and without question, Herge was a great fan of the National Geographic magazine. His exquisite closed-line renderings of scenes are often derived from photos in that magazine: a temple in Kathmandu, a street scene in Shanghai, near the Great Pyramids in Egypt or atop the white cliffs of Dover. These drawings show great skill and attention to detail; if one sees a car in Tintin, one can be sure that, right down to the very tall lights and chrome details, it is some particular make, year and model.

I am reasonably certain that the genius of Jules Verne is echoed in Tintin, but can point to no episodes to support this notion. Likewise, Tintin's American contemporary, Tom Swift, may have inspired Herge. With the Thompsons, the European's natural envy of English attainments finds expression, for Herge gazed carefully upon the noble visage of Sherlock Holmes, and then somehow conjured these twin pinnacles of idiocy compounded with witless incoordination.

Even the noble Plutarch, the Greek essayist and historian of the second century A.D., seems to have left his mark on Tintin, which is not too terribly surprising. At the conclusion of Explorers of the Moon, when Tintin, Snowy and the rest at last land safely after their deadly adventures, Captain Haddock being revived by the mere mention of whisky declares "I have learned one thing from all of this; man's true place," and he falls flat on his face, but continues, "is on dear old Earth!" This is very like what happened to Julius Caesar when, under circumstances which tried the patience and endurance of his soldiers, he was forced to travel to Africa and crush the last gasp of Republican resistance led by Cato and others. When Caesar first set foot on African soil, he tripped and fell forward; to avert the terrible omen, before it could fully infest his dismayed troops, he immediately cried out, "Africa, I embrace thee!"

There are several Tintin and Herge Internet sites. The French one, even has a recording of the Jewel Song, an aria from Gounod's Faust which one encounters again and again in Tintin, sung by the redoubtable Madame Bianca Castafiore, of Milan (to Captain Haddock's utter horror). As Tintin would say, she turns up in the oddest places, and if Tintin has not yet turned up in your life, go and find him, and the others. You will be rewarded, if you are lucky.