Thursday, 13 July 2017

Tintin in Tibet - The Adventures of Tintin 20 by Hergé

In some corners of the internet, which is an inevitable warning sign about the truth of this, there are claims that Tintin in Tibet was intended to be the final of The Adventures of Tintin and that everything which came afterwards was by publisher and popular demand. It's not clear how true this is, and it may be a misunderstanding of Hergé's considerations and circumstances at the time when it was conceived, but it's interesting to consider how this album might have stood as a conclusion to the series.

The title evokes the format of the earliest Adventures and there's also a notably limited use of most of the regular supporting cast. Snowy and Captain Haddock are ever present but Professor Calculus appears only in the early scenes at the fiction resort of Vargèse, Bianca Castafiore is only heard on the radio and Nestor is merely mentioned. Of Thompson and Thomson and Jolyon Wagg there is not a sign. Nor is there any great mystery or conspiracy to untangle. This is instead a quest story that takes Tintin to a remote and difficult terrain in the hope of rescuing his friend.

That friend is Chang Chong-Chen, the sole character from a previous story to be reused here. Hergé had devised the character for The Blue Lotus, basing him on a visiting art student he had befriended. The two had lost contact after the outbreak of war in 1937 and would not meet again until the 1980s. In Tintin's quest for his friend it's easy to see a creator also wishing for a reunion no matter how difficult it might be, as though it would help to tidy away the threads of the past. For this is a story very much about friendship and the lengths to which people will go to help their friends, no matter how dangerous or hopeless it may seem. Chang is a passenger aboard an aeroplane that crashes in the Himalayas with all aboard assumed dead but Tintin refuses to believe this is the case. He persists with this despite being advised otherwise by many, including Haddock, Chang's uncle Cheng Li-Kin and Tharkey the Sherpa guide, but it's only the Grand Abbot at a monastery in the mountains who finally persuades Tintin there is no hope. But then comes a sign that all is not lost.

But it's not only Tintin's devotion to his friend which is on display. Time and again Haddock advises Tintin against taking a course of action but then shows he will not abandon him, first travelling to Kathmandu with him and then unexpectedly coming on the expedition into the mountains. Haddock is written as his traditional self with a strong thirst for whisky, a quick temper, a poor grasp of local customs and a habit of blundering into situations, most notably when he attempts to shift a cow from blocking the streets of New Delhi, but is also loyal and dependable although at times Tintin does have to manipulate him into staying. One of the most memorable scenes comes as he and Tintin climb a cliff when Haddock slips and falls, dragging Tintin towards the edge. It seems impossible to save him and so Haddock pulls out his knife and is prepared to cut the rope, sacrificing himself so that his friend can live. Though the scene isn't dwelt on for long, with numbness preventing Haddock from using the knife, and the return of Tharkey saves them both, it's a powerful moment that shows the strength of friendship at its most extreme, such that he has no hesitation in being willing to do this for his friend.

Equally loyal is Snowy, though, in some of his best scenes for ages, he has to face down temptation. Twice he is visited by angelic and demonic images of himself that urge different courses of action when he finds whisky dripping from Haddock's rucksack and again when he is sent to the monastery with a message to get help but sees a bone on the way. Later on he proves effective at sniffing out the scent of the yeti. Snowy has often been relegated to a bit part in the series, merely offering the odd cynical comment about events, so it's good to see him given a better role in the story.

The setting of Tibet contains most of the traditional imagery of the land - mountains, villages, monasteries, Sherpas and the so-called Abominable Snowman. No mention is made of Tibet's political status despite the 1959 Uprising occurring midway through the story's serialisation. This is not a polemical adventure but rather a personal tale. Tharkey the Sherpa is the only other character of note throughout most of the book and he is inspired by Tintin's courage and determination to return and help the young reporter rather than retreating down the mountain with the porters. The monks are also depicted respectfully, with one of them, named "Blessed Lightning", having strange powers of levitation and visions of events afar. Fantasy elements have previously not worked well in the Adventures but here the visions of the monk and an early dream by Tintin help drive the characters into action.

More fantastical still is the yeti, here kept a deliberate mystery throughout most of the story, only appearing at a distance in snow storms or covered by a tent blown away in the wind, until the ending when Tintin discovers his cave and Chang inside. But this is not some rampaging beast but rather a reclusive who seems only to crave friendship, having rescued and cared for Chang. Though fearsome when startled, he does not randomly attack or live up to the name "abominable snowman". At the very end he is shown sadly looking on as a group of monks escort Tintin and Chang away. This is a very human character at heart, one who again does everything to help his friend.

This is a highly unusual entry in The Adventures of Tintin, featuring no real enemies, few of the supporting cast, no political commentary and no mystery. Instead it's a very personalised tale of the importance of friendship and the lengths people will go to help friends in need. Set on a small scale with a narrow and focused cast, this is triumph of characterisation. It is easy to see why Hergé and many others consider it the finest of the Adventures and it's certainly a triumph.

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