Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review - King Ottokar's Sceptre by Hergé

Short review: Tintin happens upon a plot to dethrone the ruler of Syldavia and becomes a national hero. He does no reporting.

In Syldavia
A gang of traitors conspire
To steal a sceptre

Full review: King Ottokar's Sceptre is the last Tintin adventure originally written and published before World War II and Belgium becoming an occupied country. It is also the last Tintin adventure before the appearance of Tintin's friend Captain Haddock. In some sense, it is the last of the "pure" Tintin books and one of the most political and serious ones as well. Without Haddock and Calculus to provide goofy humor, the only comedic relief in an otherwise fairly tense sorry of royal intrigue is the bumbling duo of Thompson and Thomson, and they are clearly a sideshow in this volume. Because of this, King Ottokar's Sceptre is one of the most adventure oriented and one of the best stand alone volumes in the series.

The book begins blandly enough when Tintin finds an unattended briefcase sitting on a park bench. After checking inside to find the owners' identity, he heads off on a good Samaritan mission to return the valise to its proper owner. This leads him to Professor Hector Alembeck, an expert in the somewhat obscure field of Sigillography, the study of seals, a subject Alembeck finds endlessly fascinating, and which seems to interest Tintin as well. Of particular note, and setting the story into motion, is the seal of King Ottokar IV of Syldavia, a tiny country with an obscure sigillographic history. Alembeck tells Tintin of his intention to travel to Syldavia and study the seals of that country in the near future, but complains that he need a private secretary to assist him when he travels.

The story would have ended there, but the villains continue in the proud tradition of Tintin villains and wildly overreact to Tintin's presence and draw attention to themselves. First by acting suspiciously they lead Tintin to a Syldavian restaurant, leading him to follow even more suspicious activity, and then by trying to warn him off, arousing his interest even further. Eventually this leads Tintin to accepting the position as Alembeck's personal secretary and sends him off to Syldavia. Once again, had the villains simply laid low and hadn't engaged in heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to dissuade Tintin's investigations, their actual plans would have remained hidden and they would have accomplished their ultimate goal. Instead, by trying to warn Tintin off (and eventually kill him), all they did was put our hero on their trail. This leads to a number of cat and mouse situations - a man arranges to meet Tintin to pass information to him, but then shows up knocked out on Tintin's doorstep having lost his memory. A package is delivered to Tintin's house that turns out to be a bomb, leading to a car chase. And so on.

Tintin's suspicions are aroused even further when he is speaking with Alembeck on the phone and hears sounds of a struggle. Rushing to Alembeck's apartment, Tintin finds an undisturbed professor packing his clothes. In any event, Tintin and the putative Alembeck head off on their trip to Syldavia, and this is where Hergé really begins to flex his story telling muscles. To this point the story has been a fairly run-of-the-mill spy story. But now, Hergé shows off his now well-developed world-building abilities, creating an entire fictional Balkan nation with an interesting history and a plausible long-standing rivalry with its neighbor. And he does so in just three pages, including one beautifully drawn full page illustration representing a medieval miniature depicting the fictitious Battle of Zileheroum in which the Syldavians defeated the Turkish troops occupying their country. In these three pages Hergé establishes the background needed for his story and does it in a manner that avoids making the reader think he has just had nothing but the critical elements dumped on his head. There is enough "extra" exposition over and above that strictly necessary to the plot to give the impression that Syldavia is a real place, but not so much more that the book bogs down in a swamp of detailed world-building background.

Having established his setting, Hergé wastes no time getting back to the plot, as Tintin becomes more and more suspicious that the individual he is traveling with is not actually Professor Alembeck. Soon enough, the tables turn and Tintin and Snowy are dumped out of an airborne plane. The sequence that follows established Tintin as (a) incredibly lucky, and (b) incredibly durable, adding to his list of superpowers the ability to survive a fall from an aircraft by landing in a pile of hay. Oddly, despite trying to get Tintin out of the way, the villains waited until they were over Syldavia to dump him out of the plane, which positions Tintin to try to foil their plan. On the other hand, Tintin is hampered by two things that make his task more difficult. First, he has no real direct information about the villains' plans, having come up with a guess based on nothing more than the fact that they were trying to get rid of him and the contents of a travel brochure he read while traveling on a plane. One has to wonder if Tintin is able to tie these ephemeral threads together and deduce the nature of the conspiracy against the Syldavian monarchy why no one in Syldavia has been able to figure this out. Second, it seems like almost everyone Tintin comes across in Syldavia is in on the conspiracy. Local police chiefs, members of the King's personal guard, the official Court photographer, and random people on the street all seem to be conspirators bent on overthrowing the Syldavian monarchy and assisting in a foreign takeover of the country.

So, Tintin manages to overcome the vast pervasive conspiracy that seems to permeate all of Syldavia and make his way to the king (along the way, he meets Bianca Castafiore for the first time in the series, and she regales him with an impromptu performance as they travel together, leading Tintin to note that it is a good thing the car they are riding in has safety glass). Although his path to get to King Muskar XII is difficult, once he does get a chance to talk to him, Tintin has a fairly easy time convincing him that his most trusted adviser is conspiring against him. Because Tintin is the protagonist, he is quickly given access to the heavily guarded Kropow Castle where the royal regalia is located, although not until it is just too late to prevent the theft of the royal sceptre, which happens to be the indispensable symbol of Syldavian royal legitimacy. Oddly, Tintin never mentions his connection to Professor Alembeck (who had been given the run of Kropow Castle already), nor does he mention his suspicions about Alembeck being replaced by a double. It seems like, having served his purpose in getting Tintin started along the path to uncovering the conspiracy, the relationship between the two men is forgotten and each follows an entirely separate path for the rest of the book.

Once Tintin reveals the plot, he and King Muskar are confronted with a locked door mystery in which the sceptre has seemingly disappeared from a heavily guarded room while everyone inside was knocked unconscious. Thompson and Thomson arrive for a little bit of comic relief, but even though they remain clumsy and full of malapropisms, they are no longer stupidly incompetent. Although the bumbling detectives are not able to solve the mystery, they are on the right track until Tintin trumps them with a flash of insight. This leads to a chase after the sceptre that leads through the Syldavian mountains to the Bodurian border. As one would expect, Tintin prevails, and uncovers some rather shocking documents from the thief. Of course, what is rather shocking is that the man Tintin takes them from had the documents at all given that he seems to be little more than a flunky, making the fact that he has detailed plans outlining the entire conspiracy signed by its leader seem somewhat odd. Having recovered the sceptre and the remarkably incriminating documents, Tintin must make his way back to the Syldavian capital Klow, and we learn that in addition to his many other super powers, Tintin is able to pilot a military aircraft that he has presumably never seen before.

In the end, Tintin finds his way back to Klow, and so does the sceptre. Some people have argued that the plot of King Ottokar's Sceptre is a criticism of the Nazi Anschluss that annexed Austria to Germany, and it might be. But if it is, it is a fairly cautious and oblique criticism, as the conspiracy in this story seems to be aimed at imposing a mostly unwelcome invader upon Syldavia as opposed to the much more friendly reception many Austrians gave to joining the Third Reich, although whether the Nazi's were welcomed into Austria by the majority of the populace is a debatable point. No matter whether this story was intended as an allegory or not, what it is is an exciting and well-written adventure with strong world-building and interesting characters. As an aside, I'll note that the edition I own is a post-World War II revised edition, and this is one of the books that went through the most substantial revisions, although not to the story, but rather to the artwork. In the original edition, although Syldavia was supposed to be located in the Balkans, many Syldavian characters wore outfits that would be much more British in style, including the guards at Kropow Castle who were dressed as Beefeaters. Following the war, Hergé went back and redrew many panels to give Syldavia the much more Slavic flavor that it has today, a change that definitely improved the book. This excellent artwork combined with the strong story makes this one of the best Tintin stand-alone books. If you have a reader unfamiliar with The Adventures of Tintin who is interested in giving the series a try, and they aren't a stickler for reading things in their "proper" order, this would be the book I would hand them first.

Previous book in the series: The Black Island
Subsequent book in the series: The Crab with the Golden Claws

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