Tintin in Tibet is a story about love. Tintin pursues his friend Chang to the ends of the Earth and Haddock pursues Tintin to keep him safe. Behind the scenes, the story was influenced by Hergé’s longing and affection for his lost friend Zhang, by the ending of friendships, and by the dissolution of his marriage with Germaine and the start of his relationship with his lover, Fanny Vlaminck. Hergé’s life throughout the authorship of Tintin was often turbulent, but by the late 1950s his issues could be avoided no more. I’ll be taking this opportunity to go much further into Hergé’s life than I normally would, and this essay shall be an extended one. There’s much to be said about every strand of information that went into the creation of this deeply personal work of fiction.
This book is personal to me, too, because it’s my favourite, and because it’s one of the very few Tintin books that goes further than just being ‘a great story’ and resonates emotionally with me. The plot of this book, about one youngster who goes on a desperate and short-sighted quest to try and get a close but estranged friend back from the brink of death, shows more of Tintin’s personality than any other book and arguably puts him closer to a meaningful, consequential death than any other. Something about Tintin’s ragged determination and the bleakness of lands he traverses really speaks to me, especially his constant fluctuations between grief and hope, and the eerie but spellbinding images of the ravaged plane lying in the snow.
HERGÉ’S PERSONAL ISSUES
Prior to and during the writing of this story, Hergé was going through some shit. More precisely, he was divorcing his wife. He had carried out a number of extramarital affairs in the past, but found himself truly infatuated with someone this time, Fanny Vlamick. He set about divorce proceedings from Germaine, but this was not without emotional consequences, and he suffered something of a mental breakdown as he began his relationship with his new girlfriend. I call Vlaminck his girlfriend because not only was she 28 years younger than him (he was 51 in 1958 and she was 24) (yes, I am being judgemental), but due to Hergé being a devout Catholic, he didn’t divorce Germaine for another seventeen years.
Hergé had, like most people, longed to be happy his whole life, but despite how well his professional career was going, he wasn’t anywhere close to satisfied with his personal life. He had recently had a significant falling out with Jacques van Melkebeke, a long time friend and collaborator, partly due to the advice of a psychic that Hergé was becoming increasingly reliant on. He had been plagued for years, since before the war, by nightmares of snow and whiteness, the same nightmares that had encouraged him to take Tintin north to Scotland for The Black Island, and they were worse than ever after The Red Sea Sharks.
He traveled to Switzerland to seek the assistance of Franz Riklin, a psychoanalyst who had trained under Carl Jung. Riklin inferred that Hergé was struggling with his self-image and conflicting personal beliefs in the wake of his upcoming divorce, and advised him to take a break from writing Tintin and focus on abstract art for a bit. This didn’t happen; Mama Remi didn’t raise a quitter, and Hergé instead tried to expunge his soul through his newest book, which he was midway through creating.
Not to call him a hypocrite, but he was too loyal to abandon Tintin and not at all too loyal to abandon his wife. He was also too much of a good Catholic to divorce his wife and not enough of a good Catholic to not cheat on her in the first goddamn place. Germaine had been a huge source of support and encouragement throughout his career and was no doubt very influential on the comic, so I feel as though she got the short end of the stick in all of this. In fact, one of the primary things that had put a strain on their relationship was that Germaine had severely injured in a car accident that Hergé was also in, shattering her leg and requiring mobility assistance by wheelchair to get around. I’ve seen Tintinologists say that they had never wanted to marry in the first place, and had been urged to by their old boss, Abbot Wallez, at Le Petit Vingtième, but I’m not sure I believe that as it sounds very much like an excus
It wasn’t just issues over his divorce that were bothering Hergé. Although the war had ended a decade ago, he was still haunted by the accusations of cowardice and collusion that had been (rightly or wrongly) leveled at him in the wake of his comic production under the rule of Nazi Germany. Further back than that, he felt he had strayed from the original Boy Scout aura of the early stories, and for a short while considered taking Tintin back to America to redress an early story, much as The Red Sea Sharks and The Calculus Affair had acted to counter his very first two stories. He eventually decided against it, believing that he could not come up with a sufficiently original new plotline. Considering how much of Cigars of the Pharaoh had been redone by both Land of Black Gold and The Red Sea Sharks, the next book to re-examine was The Blue Lotus.
This was not a quick and easy creative decision. Hergé imagined and then threw away a large number of potential ideas before finalising Tintin in Tibet. Apparently, some of these ideas included:
- The Bird brothers from The Secret of the Unicorn, back for revenge, which would give him more room to explore Nestor as a character. Nestor does get some time to shine in The Castafiore Emerald.
- Tintin and Calculus must rush to the far north in order to save some explorers from a food-borne illness, which would give Hergé the opportunity to do more with Calculus as a character.
- Receiving a mysterious SOS message attached to a duck while traveling on a boat. This would explore the role of ducks in the series, which up to that point had been critically under-utilised.
- A group of Pasifika people being kept in a prison on an island.
- Le Thermozéro, an abandoned book idea that he chipped away at for quite a few years. It was plotted out by the cartoonist Greg, and Hergé really hated working on other people’s scripts, so he eventually shelved it. It seemed to be some kind of spy thriller where Haddock got kidnapped; I’m almost glad that Hergé didn’t continue with this story, since he had walked this ground pretty well by this point.
So, with all of that scrapped, it was time to think about East Asia. Way back when he had finished it in 1935, The Blue Lotus had represented a massive turning point in the Tintin series. Firstly, it garnered a not-insignificant amount of international press due to how much Japan hated the book; Hergé had portrayed how badly they were treating the Chinese with some accuracy, and Japan had demanded that the Belgian government pull the story from publication. This accuracy had come from Hergé’s friendship with Zhang Chongren, who had traveled to Belgium from China as a student, and who Hergé had struck up a strong friendship with. They had spent their Sundays together, sharing culture, exchanging artistic techniques, and planning out The Blue Lotus. Indeed, Hergé learned a lot from Zhang about Chinese calligraphy and art, and this had strongly informed his artistic development. More than that, Zhang had shown Hergé a glimpse of the real world, full of political intrigue that he could use his platform to report on, bringing the issues of the Sino-Japanese war to the attention with Europe. In many ways, Hergé was becoming a boy reporter, just like Tintin was, and the idea of this Boy Scout-style adventure hero appealed to him as strongly as always.
I often wonder if Hergé ever looked at his creation in his later years and compared himself to Tintin. Back at the beginning, Tintin had been a creator self-insert, but the years that had passed had shown pretty clearly that Hergé lacked Tintin’s boldness and courage to stand up for the little guy. Hergé often resented his creation and indeed there are plenty of sketches in existence that Hergé drew, showing Tintin whipping or beating him while he was at his writer’s desk. This is something I’ll be discussing in greater detail in a later essay.
ZHANG CHONGREN AND TIBET
Zhang had been missing from Hergé’s life for twenty years, as they had lost contact when Japan invaded China in 1937. China had been turbulent in the years since, not least because of the Cold War and the Communist revolution, and it seemed impossible to him that he could have his friend back. Indeed, the two would not meet again until 1981, when both were quite old. I’ve been informed that this meeting was somewhat awkward, which I can’t say is surprising considering how many years they spent apart and how different their lives were. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Zhang had been relegated to sweeping the streets throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and then in a sharp reversal of fortune had been made the head of Fine Arts Academy in Shanghai in the late 1970s. He was a highly skilled oil painter and sculpturist, and is fondly remembered these days as a prominent figure in modern art in China.
Hergé channeled his feelings of isolation and loss and snow and self-doubt and longing and everything else into one simple story. It would be called Tintin in Tibet, the first Tintin book to use the ‘Tintin in….’ format since Tintin in America, reflecting the solo nature of the story. The previous book had encompassed a genuinely ridiculous number of previous characters and settings; this one would feature only Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy, and would take them somewhere totally new.
Well, not totally new. Technically Tintin had been to Tibet before, although not canonically; he had briefly appeared in the country in 1941 in a play called Mr Boullock’s Disappearance, which was written by Hergé and his friend Jacques van Melkebeke and featured Tintin doing a bit of globetrotting to find some missing dude. The play is now pretty obscure and as I said, non-canonical, but it’s an important puzzle piece in figuring out how Tintin in Tibet came to be. Melkebeke had suggested sending Tintin back to Tibet some years prior, when he and Hergé were still friends.
At this time, Tibet was a country poorly understood by the rest of the world. It was probably best known for the fact it contained some really, really tall mountains, and sat between China and India. Throughout the last few hundred years, Tibet had fluctuated in and out of autonomy as a nation, frequently falling under China’s rule, and in 1951 was annexed once again. Despite a significant political uprising in 1959, Tibet has remained a part of China until the present day. This is a subject of much political discourse, to say the least. In fact, when this story was published in China for the first time in 2001, they attempted to rename it Tintin in Chinese Tibet until the Hergé Foundation forced them to keep the original title.
During the time period in which this story was published (1958-1959) Tibet was a country in political turmoil. Ever since the country had been annexed in 1951, two of the three regions had been resistant to Chinese authority, as the Chinese system of government did not do a good job of respecting their land rights as the indigenous residents of Tibet. In 1956, this dissatisfaction had turned into outright guerilla warfare, and things only got messier in the following years. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso fled the country in order to avoid capture or harm from the Chinese government. Things didn’t settle down until 1962, and many of the people of Tibet still strongly oppose Chinese rule.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Once he had decided to set this story in Tibet, Hergé threw himself into reading about the country. This linked into his interests in yoga and spiritualism, and his new girlfriend’s interest in extra-sensory perception and the mysticism of Buddhism, which were integrated into this story. Tintin stories were not averse to showing vague supernatural elements, especially when it came to ‘foreign’ religions, such as the fakirs from Cigars of the Pharaoh and the Incas from the Incan two-parter, and this story is no different. Tintin has prophetic dreams that lead him to believe without doubt that Chang is still alive, and the Buddhist monks exhibit similar prophesying abilities, as well as some sweet levitation.
The other vaguely supernatural element was the inclusion of the yeti. European stories of the yeti predated this one by at least a century or two; they have their roots in the Himalayan folklore surrounding a pre-Buddhist deity that looked like a big ape. Over time, and through multiple accounts and sightings of strange footprints or hair, the tale of the Abominable Snowman became a staple of stories set in the Himalayan mountains, and in many ways is tied to other tropes regarding the wildness and mysticism of the area. Indeed, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Mt Everest in 1953, the pair were asked many questions about the yeti and at times claimed that they had seen footprints matching the descriptions given by others.
Hergé wasn’t a big cryptozoologist, but his friend Bernard Heuvelmans was. Heuvelmans had previously helped with a number of other stories, starting with the very end of Prisoners of the Sun, and aside from his not-insignificant scientific credentials, he was also obsessed with cryptids. His best known work, On the Track of Unknown Animals, had been published in French in 1955, and was hugely influential on the field of cryptozoology in general. The book contains a pretty significant section on the yeti, and it’s not at all a reach to assume that this is how and why Hergé ended up including the yeti in his story.
As was typical of this period of his writing, Hergé threw himself deep into research for this story, and assigned the various members of Studios Hergé to researching highly specific individual elements in order to ensure that every detail was as perfect as he could get it. Indeed, some of the richest elements of the art of this story are during parts that display the local peoples of Tibet and the Buddhist monastery, painting a picture of a beautiful and complex culture that was highly praised for how it introduced Tibet to the wider world. Indeed, in 2006 this story received an award from the current Dalai Lama due to the work it did in portraying their culture to people all over the world.
Hergé even buddied up with the real-life Air India to get his hands on research materials that would allow him to reproduce their planes in high detail. However, in the final publication of the story, the crashed plane does not have an Air India logo like it did in the initial serialisation; Air India didn’t want the story to make their airline look bad by showing their plane crashing. Other Tintinologists have reported that Air India had never had a crash before, but this isn’t true; they had several prior crashes, most notably on Mont Blanc in France in 1950, which killed all 48 people on board and which may have influenced this story. In 1966 they crashed again in almost exactly the same spot, once again killing everyone on board. As they say in my country, shit happens.
One blip that occurred during the development of this story was the fact that Hergé got fired as the artistic director of Tintin magazine in this time. This might sound a little absurd, but in reality, Raymond LeBlanc, the guy running the magazine who had helped Hergé’s career recover after the war, was sick once again of how ludicrously unreliable Hergé could be. The two had often butted heads due to Hergé’s resentment about how he was treated after the war and his negative feelings towards LeBlanc holding him accountable for deadlines. Hergé would not be reinstated as artistic director at the magazine until 1965.
This story was eventually published from September 1958 to December 1959, just over half a year since the previous story had ended. Once again Hergé made it through the entirety of this one without taking any breaks, and it was published as a volume in 1960. It was published in English two years later in 1962. I’ll be reading the 1962 version today, since French is still not in my lexicon. It’s certainly for lack of trying.
This time period represents the peak of Tintin’s popularity, a golden era commercially that would continue through the early 1960s with the publication of The Castafiore Emerald. The first Tintin live action film would be produced in 1961, Tintin and the Golden Fleece, which Hergé was heavily involved in. This is also the point at which Hergé stopped regularly producing books; after The Castafiore Emerald, only two more books were made, with significant time gaps between the publication of each one. Hergé was secure in his income from sales of his previous volumes, and having scrubbed his soul slightly cleaner through publication of Tintin in Tibet, dove into his largely unsuccessful abstract art career, as well as working on other adaptations of Tintin such as the Belvision cartoon and the live action films.
This story has always been a popular one for adaptations. An animated series of the show was produced by Belvision starting in 1957, which in my opinion is largely pretty terrible, as most cheaply-made animation from that time period (or any time period) was. Note that this is different from the much better-made and more accurate cartoon adaptation produced by Nelvana and Ellipse in the 1990s. Aside from the cartoon adaptations, it has also been made into a radio series, a theatrical musical (what?), and a video game, and it has been the subject of many, many documentaries. I am absolutely planning to play that video game, by the way, and I’m completely willing to upload the footage of me doing so. I refuse, even on pain of death, to watch the musical.
THE PART WHERE AMPTON ACTUALLY READS THE DAMN BOOK
The first thing that strikes me about Tintin in Tibet is that it’s the only Tintin story without an antagonist. Chang is missing due to a freak accident, and the yeti isn’t an antagonist, he’s just a kindly mountain ape who saved Chang’s life. Tintin needs to overcome the lethal conditions of the Himalayas and dig deep into his soul to find the courage to keep going. There’s no one along the way who tries to stop him out of maliciousness, only love. The local Nepalese and Tibetan people are sympathetic towards Tintin and are portrayed sympathetically in turn. The story kicks off with Tintin relaxing and minding his own business, and the inciting incident is simply finding out that an old and dear friend is probably dead.
The story works to set up the two main characters and their personalities and motivations from the start. Tintin is here in the mountains to climb them, get exercise, and generally love adventuring, while Haddock goes on a long rant on the first page about how mountains should be abolished since they are dangerous and untrustworthy. This rant about the dangers of mountains leads smoothly into the announcement of a downed plane in a local newspaper, which initially doesn’t mean much to the main characters except inspiring sympathy.
However, Tintin is plagued by thoughts of Chang out of nowhere. It’s not often that we see Tintin in enduring distress, and this book is one of the few that show his weak spots. We also get to see that the location in which they are staying is for rich white people, a sharp contrast to the later parts of the story. Tintin has been struck by the deeply unsettling image of Chang lying in the snow, begging for his help, and it’s here that Hergé managed to work out his issues with his own snowy, white dreams.
When Tintin receives a letter from Chang the next day, we get another taste of something often lacking in the Tintin universe: chronology. Tintin’s past residence at Labrador Road is mentioned as the initial address the letter was sent to before it was redirected forward to Marlinspike and then their current location. The Red Sea Sharks was a story firmly set in the people and wider space of the Tintin universe, while Tintin in Tibet is set in the chronology of the Tintin universe. It is established that time has passed, probably a lot of it, since Tintin met Chang, and we almost get the feeling that Tintin was young when he met Chang and is in the prime of his life now. Tintin is a man with no family, almost no friends, no backstory, and no last name, so to have Chang firmly moored in Tintin’s personal narrative is a deeply significant element introduced to this story.
Other characters such as General Alcazar and Rastapopoulos have been around in Tintin’s life story since forever, but they are just recurring plotlines, who pop up occasionally in Tintin’s life to make a little mischief. This is significant since Rastapopoulos dates from the same era as Chang. However, Rastapopoulos is just some enemy to defeat, while Chang is one of the rare moments of Tintin’s past genuinely influencing his current self.
The letter tells Tintin that Chang is coming to live in London with a family member and will be able to visit Tintin and hang out with him, and Tintin excitedly dances around the place and gushes to Haddock about what a brilliant person Chang is. Again, Tintin has sung the praises of characters in the past, but this is Tintin espousing love, which is different from his camaraderie towards General Alcazar, for example. You must see what I mean when I said this story is one of love and loss and grief. It should also be noted the significant similarities between Chang’s intentions to come to London to study and chill and make friends, and the real Zhang’s period of studying abroad in Belgium, during which he met Hergé.
Tintin puts two and two together to realise that Chang was on the plane that crashed, and is momentarily overcome with grief before remembering his dream and deciding that Chang absolutely survived. He refuses to take no for an answer in his quest to go find him, and Haddock repeatedly tries to not go, but comes along in order to protect Tintin.
While travelling to Kathmandu to set off into the mountains, they stop over in New Delhi and see some sights, which gives Hergé the opportunity to modernise a country he last portrayed in Cigars of the Pharaoh. His new vision of India is a modern city, albeit one with a sacred cow blocking a road, a far cry from the Maharajah-led ancient culture found in the previous portrayal, which admittedly took place before the war and before the independence of India, which was gained in 1947.
Page 8 ends with the most shameless cliffhanger Hergé probably ever did in his later career. Actually, this book is full of them, at the end of every page or two, and most of them are very contrived. I do wonder if Hergé did this because his plot wasn’t as thrilling as it had been in previous adventures, especially in the early parts when Tintin is just working through grief and preparing to set out. I would be curious to see a pared-down version of this story that has had the majority of these unnecessary scenes removed, since I think the redundancy of them becomes very grating after a while.
We are introduced to the remaining significant character to the story, the Sherpa named Tharkey, who went with the original rescue party to see the plane. He tries to dissuade Tintin, since he saw the plane crash for himself and knows that there’s no chance anyone could have survived. Tharkey says that Tintin is too young to die as well. Like I said earlier, the people who stop Tintin are never doing so out of malice, and Tharkey respects him but doesn’t want to see him dead. Tintin decides to go alone, since he decides it would be irresponsible to risk anyone else’s life, but Haddock won’t let him go and convinces Tharkey to take them as far as the plane wreck and no further. They set off with a group of porters to take their equipment.
Curiously, this book is one of the few later books that has a significant role for Snowy. Snowy has been everywhere with Tintin, even to the moon, but in most books he is literally just a dog that is very loyal to Tintin, and while this is lovely, it’s not quite the same as his behaviour in early books where he was a snarky talking sidekick. In this book Snowy saves the day more than once and has a lot of personality, daring Haddock to fall off a log, getting drunk, and dragging a note with Tintin’s plea for help all the way to the monastery. It’s an interesting throwback to the early stories.
Hergé makes it clear throughout the story that this is a place with a veritable shitload of culture and history, and often uses Haddock’s comedy value to show this. For example, chortens are introduced and the correct behaviour for dealing with them is made clear, and then reinforced by Haddock screwing up and almost passing on the wrong side of it. He slams into it instead. Members of Studios Hergé were concerned that this particular scene would be offensive to the culture they were trying to portray, although as far as I am aware this criticism has never been raised.
The group has their first encounter with the yeti, which leads the porters to want to turn around and head home. The creature is introduced when his wailing is heard in the distance, and the folklore and history around him is quickly shared by the porters, which I think is a great way of introducing this important player naturally. Incidentally, finding footprints up in the Himalayas from a mysterious bipedal beast is a very well-documented occurrence, although most of these sightings can be attributed to local bears walking on their hind legs, which they are sometimes wont to do.
The sight of the downed aeroplane in snow haunts me. One of the reasons for this is that we had The Adventures of Tintin animated version of this book on VHS when I was a young’un, and instead of Tintin falling asleep and then shouting ‘Chang!’ at the beginning of the story, it instead actually shows his dream and the plane crash with Chang screaming for Tintin, with chilling music playing. It really sticks with me. After finding the plane, Tintin digs up a teddy bear and stares at it, wondering if it was a gift Chang was taking to his cousins. Tintin searches, using his survival skills to guess where Chang might have gone, and eventually locates a cave where Chang carved his name in English and Chinese, proving he survived the crash. Tintin confirms in this moment that can read enough Chinese to recognise Chang’s name in that script, which is an interesting tidbit.
Even with Chang’s survival confirmed, it has been days since the crash and he probably lacked the survival skills to stay alive, and they have no further leads instructing them on where to go to find him. They are about to give up and go home, around halfway through the book, when Tintin sees a scarf caught on a cliff face and is determined to follow it, although Tharkey thinks that it’s unlikely that it means much, and heads back regardless.
We get our first glimpse of the yeti, although due to a blizzard Tintin mistakes him for Haddock, which leads him to fall down a crevasse. Hergé had some debates with his studio about whether or not it would be appropriate to show the yeti, which he actually does towards the end of the story. His reasoning was that he didn’t want to disappoint his child readers by leaving the yeti’s appearance a total mystery.
While climbing, the Captain falls, and Tintin has to use his whole bodyweight to support and preventing from dropping to his death. There’s a genuinely emotive page where Tintin desperately tries to think of a solution and Haddock tries to cut himself loose to prevent him from pulling Tintin down with him. Tintin is forced to confront the fact that his quest to save one of his oldest friends might mean the death of another of his dear friends.
Tintin, in previous stories, has been largely invulnerable. Even getting shot isn’t quite enough to keep him down for any length of time and the people who die in his adventures are the bad guys. Both in-universe and out of universe, Tintin has this feeling of being unkillable and all-enduring, so seeing him frozen to a rock face trying to decide whether he can handle the idea of watching Haddock die is a lot to contend with. Although Tharkey rescues them, since he chided himself for being a coward, it’s one of the most tense scenes in the whole series, in my opinion.
Over the course of the adventure, the party loses more and more resources. At first they are well-stocked and they have porters carrying a lot of their equipment; after the porters leave, they must pare down their equipment in order to be able to carry it all. They drop more equipment before they climb the rock face in order to make it easier on them, and when they attempt to set up camp that night they lose one of their two remaining tents to the wind, where it hits the yeti. By this point, they must all cram into one tent, and they don’t fit, ripping it in the process. With nowhere to shelter, resting could be fatal, so they have to keep walking through the night. After two days awake and marching, they are heading down the mountain, hoping for shelter, when they spot the monastery. An avalanche is triggered and they are buried and knocked out, injured and totally exhausted. Tintin’s last hope after waking up to find himself too injured to go on is to send Snowy with a note to the monastery, begging for help.
We are introduced to the monastery and the monks within. Aside from Tintin’s prophetic dreams, this is where the mystical element of the story is introduced, with the monks shown as capable of levitation and prophesy. Snowy loses his message, but since his arrival was predicted by the monks, they know to follow him up the mountain to find their friends, and they are all rescued. The Grand Abbot of the monks dunks on Westerners for being so determined to climb up the world’s most forbidding mountains, and then tells them they would be best suited to head back to Nepal, since it’s unlikely Chang is alive. As they are about to leave they are gifted with another prophesy that states where exactly Chang can be found. Tintin sets off there alone, and Haddock catches up with him later.
I can’t decide if I dislike or like how often Haddock leaves Tintin only to turn around and accompany him once again. It’s a consistent pattern of behaviour throughout the story, and is of course in character, since while Haddock would die for Tintin he doesn’t want to go out of his way to do so. However, many of these occasions are used as cliffhangers, and feel like they are just included to provide more narrative tension.
Finally Tintin sees Chang. Chang is sick with a fever, skinny as a rake, and nearly dead with badly injured legs, but he’s alive, and he and Tintin reunite tearfully. Chang explains how the yeti kept him alive through everything, and we learn that the supposed antagonist of this story was a gentle animal with a spotty reputation. This part of the story truly cements the lack of villains in this narrative; in the end, even the yeti is redeemed, since without him, Chang would be dead.
They must overcome the yeti to leave. The yeti doesn’t seem to like intruders and doesn’t want Chang to be taken away, but is otherwise not particularly dangerous, in a fashion that reminds me of Ranko the gorilla from The Black Island. Both are apes with a terrifying, cryptid-like reputation who can be won over or babied in the right context. Indeed, Chang is only in danger in the yeti’s clutches because it has no way of treating his injuries or keeping him warm and fed.
And with those parting words, they leave Nepal. Many Tintin books end with their return to their home, or with news coverage of Tintin’s heroism. This one ends with the yeti looking sadly at the main characters as they leave as part of a caravan, heading back to the world they’re familiar with. It’s poignant, rather than triumphant.
The victory of this story is not about beating bad guys but is instead about how every main character of this story dug deep into every last well of strength and determination they had in order to bring Chang home. No one in this story hates or fears each other, with the exception of the terror people feel towards the yeti, and even the yeti is a gentle creature who does not hate. It’s a genuinely touching and hopeful story for this reason. The fact that this story forgoes much of the comical trappings of standard Tintin villains to present a love story about endurance is one of the reasons it is considered one of the best Tintin books. Hergé regarded this as his best story, and called it a celebration of the power of friendship.
Ultimately, this story ended up being the last story that was published as part of Hergé’s regular-ish schedule. The Castafiore Emerald would follow a few years later, and then the remaining two canonical books would be dispersed over a period of years. As I’ll explain, The Castafiore Emerald is also a book with no real antagonist, but it is also a book in which very little happens, which was an intentional gesture of relaxation on Hergé’s part. I feel that this book is a great way to end Tintin’s period of regularly adventuring. Indeed, in his last two stories he enters into the plot because he’s forced to – in Flight 714 his intention to peacefully fly from location A to location B turns into a whole mess, and in Tintin and the Picaros he only gets involved because he needs to rescue a bunch of people, and he does so grudgingly. This is the last story that involves Tintin desperately throwing himself into the jaws of death to try and save someone, and it’s one that truly showcases the depth and breadth of his abilities.
Maybe, in the process of trying to redeem his soul, the part of Hergé that needed to have Tintin prove himself over and over again healed a little bit too. Or maybe I’m getting a little too analytical here. We never actually see Chang again for the rest of the series, but he presumably lives on. Just the knowledge for Tintin that Chang is alive and safe seems to be enough – much as how he left Chang in the care of his friends back in The Blue Lotus. Tintin likes to leave things in the best possible condition at the end of a story, and the wrongness of Chang’s potential death by airplane has been righted.
On top of interpersonal affection, there’s something to be said about the way Tintin interacts with Himalayan cultures in this story. Since there are no antagonists, either foreigners (out to exploit the locals) or locals (out to murder foreigners), Tintin simply exists within their culture. He sees multiple cities and interacts with the people there, learning local customs, learning about their beliefs and religion, and even witnesses some mystical events at the monastery. This is mentioned by the Grand Abbot, who tells Tintin that many things happen in the Himalayas which wouldn’t seem believable to Westerners. Since these mystical events are nothing to be feared like they are in previous stories, they’re instead just some spice or flavour to the local vibe, and I like that. I like the harmony of the world of this story.
It’s interesting how Tintin finds himself at home so easily in the later parts of the story considering how the entire story was kicked off by him having prophetic dreams (much like the monks do later, although without the levitation) while staying in a very European hotel. It’s almost like he gets the call of Eastern mysticism and must draw himself out of his Western world in order to find Chang, which is interesting given how most earlier Tintin stories are very colonial. Normally, when Tintin visits a faraway land, there’s some automatic assumption that his status as a European adventurer (and often, a wealthy one) means that he has some degree of entitlement or status. In this story, his background instead just inspires curiosity from the locals, and it takes more than his money and insistence to stop the porters from dropping him like a hot potato once he stops listening to their advice. In this regard, I would say that this is probably the least colonial of the stories where Tintin leaves Europe. This coincides with Tibet being a country largely unknown to the Western world at the time, I feel. Most of the places that Tintin wants to go to have been under European control in the past or are now, but Tibet (while controlled by China) has never belonged to Europe, and this story evokes that quite nicely.
This book is borne from an intense amount of love and respect between fellow human beings. I do love to clown on Hergé’s personal life, because it’s very easy to do, but I can honestly respect him for the creation of this book. His personal agony and sense of loss created a work of fiction that brought together people from all over the world and stands as a lovely memorial to friendships, both current and long-passed. This story has flaws in rhythm due to the publishing format and I’ll gladly accept other criticisms of the story, but it shall remain my favourite one into the future.
And I didn’t touch on it, but the art in this book was phenomenal.
Thank you for your patience,
I actually watched that musical adaptation in London many years ago. Unfortunately I was very young at the time, so don’t actually recall any of the music or even much of it in general. All that stuck with me were two scenes. One scene was in the Khatmandu marketplace, filled with bustling bicycles and pedestrians.
The other was a chilling dream sequence new to the play, in which Tintin has a nightmare about the dead passengers in the crashed plane taunting and jeering at him. Quite memorable and unnerving stuff as I recall, even if I’m very hazy on it.
I watched 1991 tv adaptation the other day, and it has one notable advantage over the original – the haunting cries of the yeti, echoing out across the high mountains. It definitely enhanced the heightened emotions of this tale.
It also added a beautifully chilling dream sequence during the chess scene near the start, in which the board is gradually taken over by a blizzard of snow, before showing Tintin a glimpse of the hollowed out skeleton of the plane.
I’ve often thought the prevalence of hallucinatory dream sequences is one of the more memorable aspects of the series, perhaps stemming from all of Herge’s own complex private life. It’s interesting how adaptations of his work also seek to incorporate similarly surreal imagery. From the unofficial Alph-Art completion, to the Tibet stageplay, to the 2011 movie, and even (my favourite dark horse example) the co-op mode of the video-game version of that movie.
Seriously though, I could probably write a whole essay on that game, it’s a basic platformer at heart, but with some of the most dreamlike imagery imaginable (think fighting giant floating heads on ever changing landscapes that fold in on one-another and float in space).
Ah, should have finished re-reading the page first before commenting, since you already commented on the newly added dream in the tv version, silly me.