Thursday, 6 April 2017

King Ottokar's Sceptre - The Adventures of Tintin 8 by Hergé

King Ottokar's Sceptre is a curious entry in the Adventures. It features both a highly modern (for the time) scenario of a country facing an internal coup & potential annexation by its neighbours, yet also contains an extremely odd structure by presenting a situation where control of a country rests upon possession of a single object. This fusion of late 1930s concern about German expansion and the potential weakness of small neighbouring states with almost fairy tale notions of monarchy and power feels odd. And yet the story is set in what is by far the most thought through and developed fictional country yet seen in the Adventures.

Much of the background to Syldavia, including the significance of the sceptre itself, is delivered via a three-page sequence that shows the contents of a brochure Tintin reads whilst on the plane. "The Kingdom of the Black Pelican" is sketched out well, establishing it as a small nation in eastern Europe surrounded by great mountains with the resulting isolation preserving it as a traditional medieval nation. The people, the style of dress, the limits of technology and the authority of the king are all delivered in a way that feels totally natural even though it's a massive info dump. Consequently, Syldavia feels like a place in its own right rather than a thinly disguise parody of a real-world country. Individual elements may be drawn from other countries but when combined together the result is that this nation holds up well as the setting for the adventure.

Tintin finds himself dragged into the events when a chance meeting with Professor Alembick, yet another absent minded academic, leads to his noticing suspicious characters staking out Alembick's flat and he is offered the job of secretary to the sillographer (one who studies document seals) to go to the country. The early part of the album is taken up with events in Brussels as the agents stalking Alembick try a little too hard to dispose of Tintin and instead arouse his suspicions even more, thus driving him to accept the offer. This part of the tale is somewhat clunky and rather delays the more interesting piece. So far in the Adventures, whereas stories set in real foreign countries have begun either in the countries themselves or aboard transport to them, those set in fictional lands have involved a greater element of scene setting in Brussels. It may seem less urgent to get the character to a fictional country than a real one, but it does rather detract and so it's over a third of the album before Tintin literally lands in Syldavia. Luckily Hergé seems about as interested in sillography as Tintin is (though he does his best to disguise it) and so the early pages are at least taken up with some action and comedy, especially with Thompson and Thomson who are still ready to jump to conclusions about Tintin but increasingly willing to accept his word and work with him, allying with him later in the story. They do continue to provide the slapstick, including an excess scene at the end where they disembark from a seaplane without realising where it's come down.

Another regular character is introduced in this story, though from her appearance here there's little to suggest she will be a recurring feature. Opera singer Bianca Castafiore proves easily manipulated by Tintin into unknowingly helping him evade a cordon around the capital Klow, whilst later her singing does not go down well with Tintin. At this stage a mere bit part player, accompanied by her unspeaking pianist, she's just an incidental character and it's a surprise that she will go on to be the most prominent female in the Adventures. More notable here is Muskar XII, the current king whom Tintin soon wins the confidence of and could make for a useful ally for the future, whilst the treacherous aide-de-camp Colonel Boris Jorgen is another foe with return potential.

Of more interest at this stage is the plot, which advances in a slightly unusual manner. Tintin effectively guesses that the aim is to steal the sceptre and thus force the king to abdicate but it rapidly proves accurate and he has to face down a conspiracy by elements in the court that will stop at nothing to prevent him warning the king. The sceptre gets stolen from a locked room, leading to a mini-mystery to solve before a final chase that sees Tintin recover the sceptre just before a thief can take it over the border - only to then cross the border himself in the belief he can get food at a frontier post. It's an utterly bizarre moment that seems designed just to pad out the climax, as does his not realising he has dropped the heavy object when walking to the palace, only for Snowy to bring it along. The story is also more subtle than earlier adventures in parodying real world events by holding back the revelation that the conspirators are part of a plot to ferment internal unrest before a neighbouring power will enter the country and annex it. This story began not long after the German Anschluss of Austria and during its serialisation modern day Czechia (then part of Czechoslovakia) was first partitioned and then the rump state collapsed and was absorbed. The unseen dictator's name is far from subtle - Musstler. During Hergé's childhood much of Belgium was occupied and it's easy to see fears that this would happen again underlying the story.

This is a tale with a decent underlying plot, even if the key element seems rather far-fetched and drawn from a fairy tale, along with a well-thought through setting. But the story has too much padding and odd moments to be really satisfactory as a whole. The ending is prolonged by wrapping up the outstanding elements, including a matter of fact revelation that Alembick was replaced by a twin brother, a plot twist that even then was becoming an easy cliché. And Tintin leaps to conclusions or has sudden bizarre moments that allow for scene changes in a very unsatisfactory manner. The overall result is a rather disappointing tale.

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