Hergé began writing King Ottokar’s Sceptre in 1938, under the name Tintin in Syldavia. As you may be aware, a significant event in world history was right around the corner, and most people in Europe could already feel it coming. Hergé himself had already written books about political satire, of course, but China and South America were a long way away from him and he probably didn’t fear much reprisal from the people he was poking fun at. This time, his target was the Nazis, who were right on his doorstep. Three weeks after King Ottokar’s Sceptre finished serialisation, Germany invaded Poland, and a year later, Belgium would fall to Germany also.
You might wonder how Hergé went from being pushed into writing far-right propaganda to writing controversial political pieces opposing the right. A lot of people who like Tintin are shocked and appalled to learn about Land of the Soviets or Tintin in the Congo, which is valid, because Tintin in the Congo is offensive to just about anyone who reads it. There are a few factors at play here. Abbot Wallez, who was originally telling Herge what to do from his position as editor of Le Vingtième Siècle, had been gone for a while. Tintin had been incredibly successful and Hergé had a decent amount of creative freedom as long as he kept subscriptions high; plus, he was his own editor at Le Petit Vingtième. I almost feel like King Ottokar’s Sceptre was a case of Hergé biting off too much to chew. All of a sudden he was throwing himself into actual physical danger with his political opinions, and he’s very lucky he didn’t pay the price for it. In fact, he was allowed to continue the Tintin series during Nazi occupation, either because they hadn’t noticed his anti-Nazi writing or because they didn’t care.
Syldavia and Borduria, where this story takes place, are entirely fictional nations that draw influence from a large number of different countries, although Syldavia is essentially a Balkan nation and Borduria is Nazi Germany. The storyline is based around Germany’s annexation of Austria earlier in 1938, although as the story went in Hergé worked in elements of Italy’s annexation of Albania in 1939. This fusion is best seen in the name of the leader of Borduria, Müsstler, a straightforward combination of Mussolini and Hitler. If you’ll recall, Abbot Wallez had a signed picture of Mussolini on his desk way back at the start of Tintin. Oh, how things had changed.
Syldavia was to become Hergé’s best developed fictional nation, appearing again as the settings for Destination Moon and The Calculus Affair. Inventing countries in which to set his adventures gave Hergé more room to make the history and culture of the country fit his stories, and Tintin effortlessly flits between real and fake nations in many of his stories. In this story, Syldavia is an idyllic pre-War European nation with a nice king and happy people, giving Hergé a stereotypical nation with which to contrast the brutality of Borduria.
The plot of this story involves another false flag operation like the one carried out by the Japanese in The Blue Lotus, and a manufactured war between two nations like in The Broken Ear, although both of these details are in the background. The foreground is all mystery plot. Hergé brings back the Thompsons, this time as Tintin’s friends throughout who serve as comic relief. Colonel Boris Jorgen appears in this story and is later an antagonist in the moon saga. He introduces Bianca Castafiore, the only recurring female character in the series who plays a major role, and I say this to distinguish her from Tintin’s landlady, who only makes brief, inconsequential appearances. Castafiore is partly based on opera singer Maria Callas and partly on Hergé’s aunt, Ninie, who would regularly subject the young Herge to some truly awful singing. In all honesty I just think Herge hated opera, much like how he hated salesmen (like Oliveira de Figueira) and insurance reps (like Jolyon Wagg). No better way to express your hatred than ripping the piss out of them in your comics.
The story was published in black and white by Casterman as King Ottokar’s Sceptre in 1939. In 1947, after the war, Hergé went back and colourised the story, and corrected some technical details such as the uniforms worn by the royal guard. The revisions were relatively minor, and the version we see today is quite true to the original. The translation into English dates from 1951; King Ottokar’s Sceptre was the very first Tintin story to be translated into English. It was serialised in The Eagle magazine, although there were some translation quirks: Snowy was still called Milou. Finally, the colourised English book was published in 1958. This is the version I’ll be reading today.
Much like the previous story, this one begins with Tintin minding his own damn business. He finds a briefcase on a park bench and attempts to use the name on it, Hector Alembick, to hunt down the owner. In the original version his name was Nestor Alembick but this was changed in the colourised version in order to avoid confusion with Nestor the butler.
Tintin goes to visit Alembick, who turns out to be a professor. Specifically, he’s Hergé’s favourite kind of professor, an eccentric with a big beard. He is a sigillographer, meaning that his job is to study seals. Not the kind that flop about in the ocean, but the kind used to press letters shut. He immediately shows Tintin his collection.
Your humble host forgot for a moment that ‘doge’ is actually what leaders in Venice and Genoa were called, and not, you know, a precocious meme. The image above introduces Syldavia and Ottokar. Incidentally, ‘Ottokar’ was actually the name of several kings of Bohemia, and a real sceptre belonging to one of these kings was dug out of the ground in Prague in 1976. Good guess, Hergé.
Alembick is about to travel to Syldavia to learn more about their unique seals. He needs an assistant, and since Tintin is obviously fascinated with the seals, he gives him a brochure on sigillography. As Tintin leaves, someone stealthily takes a photograph of him, and the photographers get his name, too. Tintin notices them snooping around and follows them to a Syldavian restaurant.
He goes through the restaurant and listens at a door. As I said, this book was colourised without significant alterations to the art. You can see here how Tintin’s face isn’t quite on model to his later portrayals. Many panels in the earlier parts of the story use single-colour backgrounds without detail, another artefact of Hergé’s early style seen extensively in The Broken Ear.
Tintin sits down an eats a mysterious meal in the restaurant, while the owner tells the mysterious people that Tintin was eavesdropping. Tintin goes on his way, but he’s painted a target on his back just because he found someone’s briefcase. He has the worst luck.
Today, between telemarketers and door to door salesmen, Tintin would never have fallen for this.
Right as the person is supposed to turn up, Tintin finds this guy drugged and left on his doorstep by an unknown assailant. Tintin takes him inside right as the Thompsons show up. In this volume they’ve gone from clumsy antagonists to friends, and Hergé can play up the slapstick humour all he likes. Tintin realises that he doesn’t actually know if this is the guy he was going to meet, and the Thompsons start to suspect Tintin is the culprit behind it until the man wakes up with a total case of amnesia.
After a rock is thrown through Tintin’s window with a note, he puts the pieces together and realises that he’s stumbled into something involving Syldavia somehow. The only correct action is to pursue it relentlessly, and he becomes Alembick’s assistant in order to accompany him to Syldavia and get to the bottom of it. The bad guys keep saying that their plan is in real danger now that Tintin’s on the case. I find that funny because Tintin wouldn’t be involved if they hadn’t alerted him to the fact that something weird was going on.
Tintin heads out to get his passport sorted for the trip and the Thompsons pick up a package for him at his flat. The note on the package claims that it contains answers to Tintin’s questions, so the detectives try and open it, and it explodes. Tintin sees the guys who photographed him in the street and attempts to chase them down. Incidentally, they have comically large moustaches.
I really like this set of panels for their expressiveness and the way they convey motion. Also, the background work in the top right panel is pleasing to the eye. After one of Hergé’s classic vehicle chase scenes, Tintin loses the bad guys, and he’s forced to be patient and wait for something to go wrong on his trip with Alembick. Tintin calls Alembick to discuss the trip but hears sounds of a struggle. He runs over to the professor’s apartment but finds nothing amiss, and is very confused.
On the journey to Klow, the capital of Syldavia, something is off about the professor. He doesn’t seem to need his glasses to see and he’s not strongly addicted to cigarettes like he has been the entire time Tintin has known him. Tintin only gets more confused and suspicious.
Rather charmingly, pages 19-21 are actually a travel brochure for the nation of Syldavia. It gives us a rundown on Syldavian history, the Kingdom of the Black Pelican. Incidentally, Romania is the only country in Europe where pelicans are actually found, and the way the pelican is splayed on the Syldavian flag looks like a lot like the Albanian flag. Syldavian place names end with -ow, which is similar to Poland. Hergé just put a whole bunch of European countries in a blender to write this story. We get to see the uniforms of the royal guard, who in the first version were rip-offs of the British beefeater uniforms. In this version they are more similar to the Bulgarian National Guards uniform.
More pointedly the Syldavian King Muskar XII looks a lot like the king of Belgium at the time, King Leopold III. This was part of Hergé’s political angling. He was warning Belgium that the events of this story could also happen to them.
Tintin and Alembick get into a tiny little plane to take them to their destination and Tintin and Snowy are thrown out of the plane, seat and all. Snowy successfully uses the parachute and Tintin lands in a huge haystack. They weren’t that far off the ground, so they’re fine.
Hergé made up his own language for the original French version that was Marollien (a Brussels-specific language that was a mishmash of Western European languages, and that I’m pretty sure Hergé spoke) but using French syntax. This was a joke his original readership would have understood. He uses Marollien in other stories, too, in order to make up foreign-sounding names. I’m not actually sure what is used here in the English translation. It looks Eastern European to me, but I’m probably missing a joke.
Tintin heads to the nearby village and tells the police there that he thinks that the imposter in Alembick’s place is going to be part of a plot to steal the sceptre of the king. He read on the flight over that without the sceptre, the king of Syldavia is not legally allowed to rule. The police thank him for his service and send this knowledge forward to Klow. Tintin hitches a ride with a peasant towards the capital. He is attacked by the bad guys, who are trying to shut him up, but he sneaks away from the peasant and hitches a lift with a nearby car.
And here Tintin meets Bianca Castafiore and Igor Wagner for the first time. She gives one of the traditional renditions of the jewel song from Faust, startling the local wildlife. Realising that his life is not worth putting up with this, Tintin gets out and walks. When he reaches a checkpoint he is arrested for being in the country illegally even though his documents are fine. He is starting to realise that perhaps he has stumbled onto a conspiracy that reaches far across the nation. Meanwhile, Alembick is given permission to go through Syldavian archives.
It’s at this point that the story turns into a locked room mystery, one of my favourite kinds of mysteries. The sceptre vanishes from its protected position in the castle. Tintin makes his escape from captivity and tries to get to Klow as fast as possible to prevent disaster. He hightails it to the royal palace to warn the king, but gets distracted along the way.
This Diplodocus is copied from a similar one that exists in the Berlin museum, and I included it because I just think it’s a neat illustration. Unfortunately Snowy is probably barking up the wrong Diplodocus, as due to their weight and value museums don’t usually display the actual bones, only casts. When Tintin gets to the palace, he is told by Colonel Jorgen that he can’t see the king until that evening. As Tintin approaches the palace that night, he is almost assassinated in front of the palace.
The king is safe and sound, receiving Castafiore in the aptly named Audience Chamber, where she is belting out the Jewel Song. Tintin smashes the window and climbs in, yelling about the plot, but he is quickly arrested because he looks and sounds a lot like an anarchist. He’s supposed to be transferred to state prison, but his transport vehicle crashes and he makes a great escape, immediately trying to get back into the palace.
Image quality seems to have shat itself there. You get what I was aiming for. Fortunately, the car that bowls Tintin actually contains the king. He jumps out to apologise to Tintin, and Colonel Jorgen pulls a gun and tries to put him out of his anarchist misery. The king believes Tintin, even though Jorgen tries hard to discredit him. Now they’re in a race against time to get back to the palace and save the sceptre from Alembick, who is … still in the process of stealing it. It’s been a whole day! I think it took him that long to work his way into the room where the sceptre was being kept.
Tintin and the king burst into the room with the sceptre, only to find everyone in it unconscious. Here we finally get to the locked room mystery part. There are two guards, a photographer, and Alembick on the ground, and the sceptre is long gone. The Thompsons end up assigned to the case, bringing them back into the story. We learn that everyone in the room was knocked out by a noxious smoke that came from the camera, and that the only way in or out of the room was through the door that was guarded on the outside by sentries. Every piece of equipment in the room was searched to try and find the sceptre, but it has vanished.
The next piece of news is that Alembick and his photographer have escaped from custody, thanks to some traitors among the guards. The king was confident that all his people could be trusted, but it now becomes clear that he is being threatened from within. While pacing around, Tintin comes up with a possible way it could have worked.
I just picked this because it illustrates my point, and then I realised it’s Loss.jpg. It’s literally in the Loss.jpg format and I didn’t even do anything to it.
Tintin has been knocked out by the lens of the camera, which springs out of the camera at high speeds. He figures out that the sceptre can be loaded into the lens and fired between the bars of the windows, over the moat and into the forest. He tries this out with a random stick, then speeds across the river to see where it landed. His timing is great because he stumbles onto some of the conspirators picking up the sceptre, and is able to fight them and keep a hold of it for a little while. By the time he loses, the detectives have arrived to take up the chase by car.
Two of the bad guys shoot at Tintin to hold him back while the other one tries to make a break through the mountains to Borduria alone. Night falls and Tintin has to curl up and sleep on the side of the mountain since it’s too dark for him to go on. The next morning, Tintin finally intercepts the bad guy right at the border of, here comes wordplay, Borduria. Tintin jumps off a cliff and bodyslams the dude to get the sceptre back. I can’t be bothered typing out the contents of the note Tintin finds on the guy so here it is:
Basically, Borduria is trying to sneakily overtake Syldavia, and that’s not cool. Tintin is really hungry and exhausted, so he tries to find a farmhouse on the other side of the border, but stumbles into a guardpost. He gets bread from them, but at the loss of his stealth, and they pursue him across country. Eventually he finds himself at an airfield, and, being Tintin, he steals a plane. What follows is a beautifully drawn dogfight scene reminiscent of air raid aesthetics from WWI.
Tintin is shot down, but he parachutes to safety, landing five hours away from Klow with the sceptre. He gets there as fast as he can, bursting in on the king and giving him back his sceptre. He also hands over the notes he took from the bad guy that explain Müsstler’s evil plan. The king is able to fortify Syldavia against the Bordurians, and Tintin is honoured by the people of Syldavia for his assistance in saving them from the Bordurian threat. Specifically, he becomes a Knight of the Order of the Golden Pelican.
It turns out, in the end, that Alembick had a twin brother who was recruited onto this mission to replace him. The real Alembick has been tied up in his basement for the last few weeks, and is apparently still alive, so that’s nice. Due to the international embarrassment caused by the revealing of this plot, Borduria is forced to withdraw their troops from the Syldavian border or risk losing face. Tintin heads home with the Thompsons on a flying boat, probably looking forward to taking a nap after the ridiculous distances he’s had to hike across the Balkan countryside recently. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, but his holiday has been less than relaxing.
If he was knighted in Syldavia, is his official title Sir Tintin now? Or does that only apply when he’s actually in Syldavia? Or is the conferring of an honorific not a universal thing with knighting? Do people refer to his knighthood in the later books set in Syldavia? I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out.
Maybe he’s not called Sir Tintin because that would force Hergé to reveal whether Tintin is a first or last name. The plot of this story essentially boiled down to a twin replacement story, which leads me to believe that Hergé was attempting to inform the loyal reader (me and me only) that there is also a second Tintin.
Double Tintin Theory. You heard it here first.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre was to be the last story fully published in Le Petit Vingtième. Herge did begin writing Land of the Black Gold, which starred Dr Müller as the antagonist and took a few more jabs at Germany. Since he was called up to serve in the Belgian army up in the north, he wrote the first part of this story on the job, sending the pages back two at a time to be published. As the situation worsened, he had to leave Tintin on a cliffhanger, with Tintin himself about to be murdered by Dr Müller, and wrestle with serious real-life issues. More on that later, because there’s a lot of story in how The Crab with the Golden Claws became the next Tintin book.
Despite the fact this was an anti-German book that was warning Belgium, among other countries, about the impending war, King Ottokar’s Sceptre was released without any particular political drama. It was a commercial success, just like all the other pre-war Tintin books, and Hergé never even got in the shit for it when the Germans took Belgium. If the plot seems to be only loosely a jab at Germany, it’s because the annexation of Austria was five minutes ago for Hergé and is eighty years ago for us.
The first thing I have to say about King Ottokar’s Sceptre is that it is a beautiful book. Most of the images I put into my readthrough were ones that made me pause due to how lovely they were. This book wasn’t redrawn at all by Hergé, just colourised, so we can see that he has finally hit his best period of art. Hergé masters palace scenes and idyllic pictures of the countryside. King Ottokar’s Sceptre is not a Tintin book I have read many times, so I got to experience a certain sense of new wonder while going through it.
The next thing that I have to comment on is the structure of the story. It bounces between settings, including across countries, but the mystery and political intrigue of the plot tie the whole thing together, even across a broad range of secondary characters, who provide punchlines and plot events without overpowering Tintin’s quest or interrupting the flow. I think Hergé has developed his ability to conceptualise a plot a lot just in the last few books. This makes sense, as each book took him over a year, even though it takes me only an hour to read. The settings are good too; like the settings in The Broken Ear they’re built of stereotypes to an extent, but he gives Syldavia a whole lot of character.
What I’m saying is that I think King Ottokar’s Sceptre is probably my favourite book from my readthrough so far. Hergé brought what would become his best traits as a writer to this one. Probably my one issue regarding the pacing is that the locked room mystery takes a very long time to set up and is resolved relatively quickly. A good plot point like that might work better if it overarches the story, just like the mystery of what is happening to Alembick. Similarly, the fact that the nation of Borduria is menacing people isn’t really prominent in the first half of the story; Tintin conjectures that an unknown someone is trying to nick the sceptre, but knowing that the nations of Europe are being menaced by Borduria might have given the story a more specific focus. However, like I said, the annexation of Austria was fresh in people’s minds and this may not have been necessary in the original context.
So, good book, would read it again. Land of the Black Gold should be next, but I’ll discuss exactly why it isn’t next time.