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Ampton Reads: The Secret of the Unicorn

Just seeing the cover of The Secret of the Unicorn makes me flash back to weekends and evenings lying in front of the fire at my grandmother’s house, reading through her Tintin and Asterix collections. The Secret of the Unicorn was always one of my favourite books, although I didn’t really understand it very well as a kid. Hergé wasn’t just writing for kids by this point; he wanted his stories to have a sophistication that could appeal to everyone. I just liked looking at pictures of pirates and laughing at the funny detective men. Still do, to be honest.

Until he wrote Tintin in Tibet in 1960, Hergé considered The Secret of the Unicorn to be his finest work. It’s simpler than the preceding books, set solely in Belgium, and involves the clever intertwining of three different plotlines, as well as some of the best fantasy sequences in the whole series. It was published between in 1942 and 1943 during the German occupation of Belgium. It was his first two-part story since Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus, and this two-part story would do an enormous amount to change the status quo of Tintin. 

Tintin before the war was a simple guy. He and his pet dog journeyed the world, surviving the impossible, unraveling evil schemes, and writing a nice long article for the newspaper at the end. He was alone, and his home was meaningless. But Hergé knew full well that this formula wouldn’t work much longer. Journalists in the war, especially journalists who stuck up for the little guy, weren’t really popular in occupied Belgium. He couldn’t afford to tackle serious social issues when his one attempt to do so had ended up wildly antisemitic. What’s more, his style of writing was taking a turn for character focus and more thoughtfully executed comedy, and having Tintin alone didn’t quite work for that. He’d already introduced Haddock and had a few other companions cycling in and out of stories, but he was to go one step further over the course of this two-part series. Tintin was getting a house.

Tintin’s existence at Labrador Road was poorly fleshed out. He definitely lived in an apartment there, and had a long-suffering landlady, but it was simply a place where he slept in between fantastic adventures. It was also very indicative of his life as a young reporter. 

I bet Tintin never got his bond back. Also, ‘Mr Tintin’.

His new job would be the more politically neutral role of explorer. If he managed to help people while he was on the go, that was good, but he was now pursuing leads for the simple joy of seeing them to their conclusion. In some ways this is almost a reversion of his character, as the explorer archetype was more popular a generation prior, but Hergé had now developed the writing skill necessary to make an explorer character fun and unique. In the newspaper version there was a short sequence where Tintin called his editor to let them know he was about to have some big news, but that isn’t even in the book. Tintin had retired, at age 12, or however old he is.

Like a lot of explorers, Tintin was now to become independently wealthy and possessed of a nice house, so that finances couldn’t slow him down and so his house was grand enough to contain and reflect his endeavours. Really, the status quo change that Hergé managed to accomplish over the course of this story and its second part is quite impressive. Tintin and his situation at the end are completely different to how they were before. This formula combined with Hergé’s skill would take Tintin from a popular Belgian comic to his enduring legacy as a children’s classic. Red Rackham’s Treasure is the most successful Tintin book, and The Secret of the Unicorn (along with The Crab with the Golden Claws) were the subject of Spielberg’s 2011 animated Tintin adaptation, with all the horrifying uncanny valley animation that came with it.

I might write something about that movie in the future, but I just want you to know now that I think this looks really fucking weird.

In actuality Professor Calculus bought Marlinspike Hall and Haddock took the treasure, but Tintin just moved in and lived off Haddock’s money anyways. In fairness, I’m Tintin’s age, and if my friends came into immeasurable wealth and a nice mansion, I’m sure they’d let me in on it. Combined with the lack of female characters in Tintin, Hergé accidentally succeeded in making Haddock and Tintin one of the more popular subjects (along with Batman and Robin) for edgy people to draw art of them making out. To each their own. 

The Secret of the Unicorn was also probably the first great example of Hergé become truly obsessed with detail. With nothing much on his agenda except writing Tintin, he spent his time doing exhaustive research. He liked to have things accurate and tidy in the previous stories, but in this story every single detail had to be perfect, from the rigging on the ships to the knowledge of pirates and the specific details of architecture in Brussels and at Marlinspike. Indeed, it’s quite possible to actually visit several locations from this story, most notably the flea market where Tintin buys the first miniature ship. The Unicorn was a real 18th century British ship, and Hergé copied the design of the figurehead and the name onto the French ship Le Brillant, a 17th century warship. Marlinspike is not a real place, but the building itself is an obvious copy of the Château de Cheverny in France, minus the two side wings.  

Sure, you can copy my homework, just make it look different.

Incidentally, research after the fact showed that there really had been a family of Haddocks in the 17th century who produced an Admiral, Sir Richard Haddock. There was also another unrelated Captain Haddock in the British Navy around the same time period who got in the shit for unlawfully trading goods instead of following orders. This isn’t the only time the extensive research in Tintin would bring it parallel to real life.

Once again, the passion of Hergé’s assistant Jacques van Melkebeke for the works of Jules Verne sneaks it. The adventure format, the three scrolls containing a mystery, and the eventual dip under the ocean in an unconventional submarine are all influenced by Verne through Melkebeke. Hergé had a decent number of assistants throughout the years but often chafed at the idea of admitting how important they were to the development of the story. I might write more about each assistant in the future, but I’ve been keeping it simple here.

The formula followed by Hergé in this two-parter is the same he used in the moon duo and the Incan duo: the first book is in a more grounded setting, with the foundations being laid for the great adventure that takes place in the second half. In this case, all the important elements for the story are lovingly intertwined in The Secret of the Unicorn, making it a satisfying mystery story all on its own without its sequel. 

Today I’m going to be reading the 1943 version of The Secret of the Unicorn. Since it was drawn in colour with book publication in mind, Hergé didn’t have to change much, and the current version is basically what people saw in the newspapers. The Secret of the Unicorn was actually the first book translated in English in 1952 by Casterman, the Belgian publisher. They were not popular and sold so poorly that any surviving books are now extremely valuable collector’s items. Methuen redid the translation seven years later in 1959 and that book was much more successful, being the version currently in print today. 


In any other context, police officers telling each other that they need to catch these crooks would be funny and unnecessary. With my knowledge of how the Thompsons are, it seems more like a timely reminder than anything else.

On the left you can see Hergé’s growing ability to draw beautiful backgrounds and elaborate crowd scenes. He uses this a lot in this story, especially during the pirate sequences, which are immersive and show a knack for fluid storytelling. On the right you see a panel with a typical flat colour background. I suppose Hergé felt that for the closer shots it was acceptable or even preferred to keep it simple, so you could focus on the characters.

Note my use of the word ‘shot’. Hergé was fascinated by film techniques, and by this time he had started to built a repertoire of different zooms for various effects. It’s well-integrated, so not necessarily something you would notice. Full body shots feature backgrounds, half body shots usually contain a couple of characters and some important dialogue or action. Close zooms of the face are used sparingly to convey strong emotion. Another trick he uses is that action in the scenes always takes place from left to right, the same way the reader views it. In both sets of panels above, the motion of walking is pointing to the right, the same way the eye is going. It helps give the story a lot of flow.

Things like using different shots and directions of motion to tell a story seem pretty obvious by today’s comic standards, but you must remember that Tintin was one of the first great European comics. Hergé was one of the first European comic artists to ever even use speech bubbles. He learned a lot of his trade from imported American comics, but he also experimented a lot in the early Tintin books. The degree of fluidity he had managed to achieve by this point is a testament to his artistic innovation.

Compare it to the panels above. The same composition is used in all four panels, with Tintin’s height taking up the whole of the frame. The action starts moving left and then turns right. This scene should have a decent amount of emotion to it, because Tintin just escaped certain death, but instead the composition of the panels makes it quite flat. Part of that is down to a lack of artistic ability and it’s not quite a fair comparison, but still, you must see what I mean.

 Tintin finds the model of the Unicorn and buys it as a gift to Captain Haddock, which is sweet. Haddock has apparently moved to Brussels at some point and is now Tintin’s homie. I fully recognise that Hergé wasn’t particularly interested in exploring the character’s backstories and daily lives, but some part of me really does wonder how close Tintin and Haddock were that Haddock uprooted his entire life to move to Brussels and get into bullshit with his friends. They even live together and go to the moon together in later books. It’s an untold story that plenty of people have jumped on to continue on their own.

I’ve just reread Land of the Soviets, so forgive me for continuing to ramble about Hergé’s improvements as an author. I feel like the introduction of Haddock, who has a strong personality, led Hergé to give Tintin more of a personality too, and you can see it pretty clearly in the above few lines. Tintin is outgoing and impatient, constantly on the move, constantly wary. Haddock needs to take breaks, but Tintin never wants to, even when getting shot. I feel like Hergé managed to keep his adventurer’s spirit and self-insert traits from earlier books and turn it into a definite person, albeit one with no last name or family.

The prolonged scene when Haddock describes the naval battle his ancestor went through is fantastic. The art, as shown above, is some of Hergé’s best from the time. The way the story shifts from the modern day to the past, and uses Haddock’s comic abilities to keep it punchy and fun, is awesome. I’d say it’s one of my favourite parts of any Tintin book.

This plotline is also good in that it gives Haddock a lot to do. The Shooting Star did benefit from his presence, but he didn’t define it the way he defines this story and later ones he’s in. He’s Tintin’s foil in that he’s emotional, a creature of vice, and not naturally drawn to adventure, and from this story onwards Hergé has figured out how to make that work to make the stories more engaging. Also, in The Crab with the Golden Claws, Haddock’s flaws caused significant problems, whereas Hergé manages to strike a better balance of flaws and good traits in later stories, so that taking Haddock along is actually worth doing. If I was kinder I would say that Hergé was taking Haddock through the process of sobering and letting his character grow for it, but really I think Haddock just needed tweaking from his first appearance to make him useful for later stories.

Haddock’s plotline fits neatly into both the pickpocket plot and the three ship models when Tintin’s piece of parchment from his ship, contained in his wallet, is stolen. Now the two of them need to pursue the pickpocket and the other two ships in order to make Haddock’s own plotline make sense. Far cry from Tintin wandering around the Congo and being sporadically racist. Hergé was a proper writer now.

There’s some genuine Sherlock Holmes style investigating in this story. It’s only through Tintin’s brains that they manage to find the scrolls and the pickpocket, and for his crimes of being smart he is kidnapped partway through the story. The story abruptly shifts setting to Marlinspike Hall; Tintin wakes up in the basement there and Snowy follows him all the way there.

Tintin fashions a battering ram and just bashes through one of the walls like an absolute madman. We’re introduced to the Bird brothers, who want to find Red Rackham’s treasure so they can be even more rich than they are, I guess. I don’t feel they’re Hergé’s best villains, since all they really do is shoot people and give orders to Nestor, but with so much happening in the plot otherwise they don’t need to be great villains. Nestor, who will later become Haddock’s butler, actually physically attacks Tintin in this. Must have been an awkward making of amends.

Nestor is, to me, an inspired creation in how simple he is. From his body language, Nestor appears to be older and not particularly spry, and he’s clearly just a butler, not a great criminal. Without any particular focus on him, Hergé has created a character who is more of a bystander and has plenty of potential to help the good guys in the future. He’s only attacking Tintin because of a misunderstanding and he quickly shifts to an ally. It sounds like a very low bar, but I feel Hergé had struggled in the past with characters who are not bad people but happen to be working for the bad guys, and can be redeemed. This is obviously a product of the genre, since simple stories generally like to divide people into permanently good or evil roles.

To bring everything back together, they still need to resolve the third plotline. The wallet thief turns out to be an old guy with a fetish for wallets, although those aren’t the words the story uses. Tintin retrieves the two scrolls, giving him three total, and the Thompsons retrieve their fourteen or so wallets that they have lost to the Wallet Fetish Man. Happens to the best of us. Despite Haddock’s attempts to have a drink and put his feet up, Tintin starts planning an expedition to go hunt down the treasure. They will set sail in a month, and it is here that our story ends.

I’m sure I’ve made this abundantly clear over the course of this article, but I love this story. It’s so satisfying. For the first time, Hergé is creating an plot with multiple threads that all link to each other and give each character their own unique drive. He’s hit his stride with Haddock and knows how much to use the Thompsons to have them be funny without them being annoying. The story works on its own, but there’s plenty for the next part to work with. Phew. I’ll get out of breath if I keep singing praises.

This is also how I like to announce my plans to my friends.

Back to the more meta stuff. The Secret of the Unicorn was a resounding success at the time, and it was completely lacking in any kind of politics. The Shooting Star was as far as Hergé would go into political discourse during the war, and that was a disaster for him in the long term. He spent the rest of the war working on stories of adventure and exploration that couldn’t possibly get him in trouble. He was receiving fan letters begging him to stop working for the Nazis for the sake of children who might see his compliance as normalising their regime, but as far as I’m aware, he ignored them. The remaining stories written during the war (Red Rackham’s Treasure, and the first half of The Seven Crystal Balls) contained exactly zero politics, and even after the war, he never went back to the kind of aggressive political writing he’d been doing before the war.

Harry Thompson and other Tintinologists have remarked on how The Secret of the Unicorn marks the end of several aspects of the Tintin series, most notably the more 1930s elements of the story and Tintin’s role as the heart of the story. I do agree that Haddock, from here on out, is the heart of the story. He’s the one with the family and the demons, and he’s the one that needs convincing to adventure, which leads to his involvement in the story being deeper than just curiosity. However, if the story is dropping the 1930s feeling, it’s not to move into the 1940s; in my opinion, the story is now taking on a slightly more timeless feeling in line with Verne’s work and mystery stories that might take us back a few decades. That said, I’m not particularly well-read, so feel free to disagree with me.

Hergé’s period of relative safety would continue into Red Rackham’s Treasure, which was also written without great drama. It wasn’t until the war ended in 1945, partway through The Seven Crystal Balls, that Hergé would be back in the shit, this time from the Allies. More on that when we get there. For now, we can admire a well-told and beautifully illustrated story that dutifully ignores the political climate in which it was written. For now.

Catch you next time,

– Aмртоп

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