23 December 2011

The Boy Reporter: A Catholic Hero?

As I said the other day, I have of late been reading my way through Hergé's Tintin books, finishing them this week. They're remarkable, really, and once one gets beyond the crude stereotypes of the first couple of volumes they develop in subtle and intriguing ways.

A few weeks back I read a post on Dylan Parry's Reluctant Sinner blog in which he took issue with a ridiculous column in the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which argued against restrictions on how Tintin in the Congo is sold in Britain.

Pointing out that such columns make a joke of a once-important paper and run the risk of making the Church and Rome seem out of touch with reality, Dylan rightly homes in on L'Osservatore Romano's ludicrous and embarrassing attempt to argue that Tintin in the Congo isn't racist, and I think I'd agree with almost everything he says.

Almost everything. Not all of it, though. Drawing his post to a close, he says:
'Tintin is a cartoon character, and one would be hard pushed (as far as I know) to find any explicit reference to God or religion in Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin. Although Hergé first published the Tintin stories in a Catholic newspaper, it's probably right to say that his time in the Boy Scouts had more of an influence on the cartoons than did the Catholic catechism. Being a divorced and remarried man, one would have to question, too, how much of an influence, if at all, Catholicism really had on Tintin's creator.'
Well, having read all the books in a fairly concentrated period, I've been surprised to discover just how Christian -- and in particular how Catholic -- Tintin is.

Hergé originally created Tintin for the youth supplement of Le Vingtième Siècle, a Belgian newspaper a strongly Catholic and conservative slant; its editor until 1933, when the first Tintin stories were written, was Abbé Norbert Wallez, a right-wing priest-journalist who had an immense influence on Hergé. There's a level, then, at which Tintin was originally intended as Catholic propaganda, but what's remarkable is the extent to which religion remains important in Tintin right up to the end.

Frankly, there's more evidence for Tintin being Catholic than for Tintin being a reporter...

Religion first appears in an overt way in the early, controversial, and quasi-canonical Tintin in the Congo, a book that makes for very strange reading now, notable not merely for its racism but for Tintin's rather dramatic depopulation of the local wildlife, whether accidently gunning down more than a dozen antelope, shooting a chimp so he can don its skin as a costume, or using dynamite to dispatch a rhinocerous in a rather decisive fashion. 

Anyway, there's a scene where he's rescued from crocodiles by a Belgian missionary priest, one of I think only two clergymen to appear in the entire Tintin oeuvre, the other being Reverend Peacock who appears and never speaks in a scene in The Cigars of the Pharaoh. I'd be inclined to assume Peacock's an Anglican to judge by the context -- British India -- but given that he's introduced as 'our padre', I'm not sure.

So, having been rescued Tintin is taken off to the Mission, where we see the only church that appears in all 24 volumes, that being the Mission's chapel, with the cross displayed prominently on the roof. Impressed by all of this, Tintin's dog Snowy remarks 'Missionaries are the tops!'

Hergé eventually struck out from Vingtième Siècle but in the subsequent decades there are occasional moments when Tintin's Catholicism flickers through. It is, after all, his knowledge of Christian iconography that enables Tintin to solve the riddle of Red Rackham's Treasure.

While some might be tempted to dismiss this as simply childhood knowledge, retained while his infant faith faded away, but there are glimmers that show Tintin as holding fast, even when nobody is looking, to the faith within which this iconic Belgian would almost certainly have been raised.

Look at his comments about how Captain Haddock seems to have some kind of heavenly protection. In Prisoners of the Sun he explains to a presumably-Catholic Peruvian boy that the Captain's guardian angel has a full time job. While that is something that every educated Christian, or whatever denomination, should recognise as part of the deposit of faith, the line in The Crab with the Golden Claws, an earlier book telling the tale of how Tintin befriends the Captain, about there being a patron saint of drunkards, reflects a more distinctively Catholic theology.

This begs the question of where the Captain stands on the whole issue of religion, and there are glimmerings that he is, at the very least, clued in on the subject. In Flight 714, for instance,  he's seen imagining a grateful man in prayer, as though he thinks of prayer as a natural reaction for a grateful man.

That's worth noting, as it happens. Prayer's a real rarity in the Tintin books, save amongst Muslims, so it's striking that when Haddock imagines it he does so in the context of prayers of thanks and praise, and not of petition. Flight 714's an odd book all told, hardly short on religious references, and it's striking that Haddock's contribution to the jigsaw is to think of prayer and to refer to a French saint notable for having heard messages...

Saints are referred to one way or another throughout the Tintin books. If you're paying attention you'll catch references to Mary, St John the Evangelist, St George, St Augustine of Hippo, a St Theodore, St Vladimir the Great, and St Joan of Arc.

St John the Evangelist is the crucial element in the riddle of Red Rackham's Treasure, as I've said, and St John of Arc is mentioned by Captain Haddock in Flight 714, but what of the others? Well, if we read King Ottakar's Sceptre carefully we'll notice a few things. We'll notice that Syldavia is a tiny Balkan country the identity of which is defined by its early -- I would say historically impossible -- opposition to the Turks, where the King wears a Maltese Cross at  his neck, and where the crown is surmounted by a cross. The key national day seems to be St Vladimir's Day, and the kingdom is known as the Kingdom of the Black Pelican.

Here is where the crown jewels are kept; you can see the crown in the centre and beside it the royal sceptre, surmounted with a pelican, just as the canopy housing both items is surmounted with five pelicans. There's no explanation given anywhere in the text as to why the pelican is important to the Syldavians, but it's surely not insignificant that in Christian iconography the pelican has always symbolised Christ himself, with particular reference to his feeding of us through the Eucharist. If we look on the walls of this room we'll see a number of frescoes, at least two of which are religious in character; the one on the far left I cannot identify, though it clearly shows an angel addressing someone, while the on the far right we can see St George slaying the dragon.

It's striking that St George is evidently important to the Syldavians, given how closely his cult was linked with the crusades, and how Syldavia's nationhood was forged in war against the Turks. There appear to be haloed saints depicted on the king's royal carriage, which appears later in the book, but it's impossible to tell who they are.

If it's not really possible to say whether Syldavia should be understood as a Catholic country or an Orthodox one, there can be no doubts about the other great fictional land of Tintin's adventures, that being Latin America's troubled little republic of San Theodoros. The land is named after a saint, albeit in a grammatically dubious way, and it's clear that Carnaval is a high point -- perhaps the high point -- of its national calendar. And, as it happens, it houses the only church ever named in a Tintin book.

Yes, the principle church in San Theodoros' capital city, Los Dopicos, is the cathedral church of the Holy Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. This isn't the only reference to Our Lady in the Tintin books, though, as she also gets a mention in a scene in The Red Sea Sharks, a book which is largely about people being freed from slavery. Yes, people being freed from slavery in a story that entails them crossing the Red Sea. I'm not making this up, you know.

Anyway, there's a scene in The Red Sea Sharks where Tintin is adrift at sea with Haddock and an Estonian pilot named Skut; they come within range of a luxury yacht called the Scheherazade, owned by Tintin's recurring nemesis, Rastapopoulos. Onboard is Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer who appears on a regular basis in the tales, and someone whose reaction to seeing Tintin is in stark contrast to that of Rastapopoulos.

Whereas Rastapopoulos, clad in a red Conquistador outfit surmounted by two plumes and completed by a pointed beard, with the effect that it's almost a Mephistopheles outfit, swears by the Devil and by the fires of hell on seeing the heroes, Bianca responds with a delighted invocation of Our Lady. It may not be wholly insignificant that her name translates as 'White Chaste-flower', which itself calls to mind the idea of the lily, the standard medieval emblem of Mary; Captain Haddock, curiously, bears the name of a fish and bears on his body the emblem of an anchor, those being probably the two oldest symbols for Christ.

That might seem to be pushing things, but the more I look at Tintin, the more I think there are depths there that need excavating. Take, for example, this scene from Flight 714, where the millionaire Laszlo Carreidas is given a truth serum and asked to reveal his bank details to Rastapopoulos.

Immediately launching into a lengthy confession, he begins by telling of how he stole a pear. So what? Well, trivial though the theft of this pear was in itself Carreidas seems acutely aware of the damage such behaviour did to his soul, and there can be no doubt that Hergé must have adopted the idea of using this particular fruit in this way from St Augustine, who famously describes in his Confessions how he stole pears in his youth; it's a blatant allusion of a sort that every educated adult of Hergé's generation would have recognised.

Granted, that's probably the kind of subtext that would have bypassed all of  Hergé's younger readers, but he could be pretty obvious when he wanted to. Here, for instance, is how we learn of the fate that befalls the villains of The Broken Ear:

You can't really get much more to the point than that, can you? That last panel's coloured a striking red, for what it's worth, standing in stark contrast to the sequence of largely blue panels that preceded it, and it's not presented -- as in scenes where Snowy's or Haddock's better and worse angels squabble over them -- as merely someone's imagination. I think we're meant to take this as a genuine depiction of how villainous sorts who die suddenly without making their peace with God can wind up facing a very dark fate.

I've no doubt there's far more to say on this topic, but I'm a busy man and it's not for me to say it. I've work to be doing.


Cathyby said...

Looking at the depiction of Syldavia (and before I read your text) I assumed the fresco on the left was of the Annunciation. I've seen a picture of the Annunication somewhere with the same positioning as that and many where Mary is reading (eg this http://www.terminartors.com/files/artworks/4/2/5/42599/Spinello_Aretino-Annunciation.jpg)

I also note halos in the other pictures - frescos of events in lives of saints?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

You're entirely right: those are haloes. I hadn't even noticed them! The second and third saints should be identifiable. One is a king carrying something - a loaf of bread, maybe? - and the other is a saint with a torn garment.

And yes, now that you've mentioned Mary reading in Annunciation paintings, that's almost certainly the scene in question. I had wondered whether it might be an Annunciation scene, but really couldn't tell.