King Ottokar’s Sceptre made its first appearance on August 4th, 1938, against yet more rising political tension in Europe. This adventure sees Tintin heading to Herge’s fictional country, Syldavia, for the first, but not the last time.
The story opens with the discovery of a briefcase. Tintin, trying to relax, as usual cannot resist trying to find out who it belongs to. After discovering the address inside of the briefcase, Tintin decides to deliver it back to its rightful owner. When returning the case, he meets Professor Alembick, a sigillographer, a man who studies seal – wax letter seals, not the animal! Herge reveals, in a clever split panel, that some men in the flat below are listening in on all the professor’s conversations, for a reason Tintin isn’t to discover until nearly the very end of the adventure. Alembick shows Tintin the seal of Ottokar IV, the King of Syldavia and when Tintin is leaving, the men from the room below rush out to try to take a secret photograph of him, using a camera hidden in a watch. He later overhears them discussing him and follows one of the men to a Syldavian restaurant. Trying to find the man inside, Tintin pretends he wants to use the bathroom and soon happens to stumble upon the men’s meeting place. He listens through the door, but soon the waiter catches him, soon going on to warn the men inside that he has been listening.
Later that day, Tintin is at home researching Syldavia, which according to his book, is a state in the Balkan peninsular. Syldavia was inspired mainly by two real life countries, Poland and Armenia. The Polish connection is seen in the names of places, mainly the “ow” endings, such as Klow and the black eagle of Armenia becomes the black pelican of Syldavia.
Tintin soon gets a phone call from ‘a man with a foreign accent’. Not long after this, his doorbell rings and instead of somebody being on the other side, a body falls inside as he opens the door. When the man comes round, he has no knowledge of why he could be there and the Thompsons, who have turned up at Tintin’s for no apparent reason take him away to hospital. Following this is a brilliant gag (though I’m not sure Tintin would call it that) where Tintin, who broke his window trying to look for the man’s attacker, gets it fixed only for it to be smashed again by a note being thrown through the window. The note says “For the last time, mind your own business!” – something perhaps Tintin should pay attention to in the future.
Tintin works out the note is something to do with the Klow restaurant and says he is going to become Alembick’s secretary and travel to Syldavia with him. The next day the men from the restaurant have discovered his plans and have sent a mysterious package round to his house. Tintin isn’t there to get it, but the Thompsons intercept it and discover a bomb – Tintin’s window is smashed again!
Undettered by this, the next day Tintin and Alembick head to Syldavia. We are soon treated to a three page spread from the brochure Tintin is reading on the place. According to the brochure Syldavia exports wheat, mineral water, firewood, horses and violinists. The detail in the brochure shows the immense detail that Herge went to with his world building and the effort he went to so he could make the stories rich in detail and believable. During the flight Tintin has decided that Alembick is an imposter (he can see without his glasses, he resisted buying cigarettes even though when they first met Alembick was a chain smoker) or that someone has slipped into Alembick’s place. Tintin tries to justify reasons he may be right or wrong but doesn’t seem to come to any decision.
That is until they are in a smaller plane between Prague and Syldavia and Tintin and Snowy are ejected from the place, landing luckily in a travelling hay bale. He heads straight to the police and says he believes the royal sceptre is to be stolen (not sure how he came to this conclusion). The story goes that if the King loses the sceptre, he will be forced to abdicate. Tintin soon fills in the police captain on his theories (we do not see what his theory is) and the captain order Alembick to be arrested. The gang get wind that Tintin is heading for Klow and try to ambush him. By the time they catch up with the peasant Tintin was travelling with, he has given them the slip and has got into a car containing the one and only Bianca Castafiore. Soon, Tintin is intercepted on his way to Klow (he has ditched out of Castafiore’s car as he can’t stand her singing!) and is told his papers are not in order. Guess what? He’s arrested. It’d be interested to count the amount of times over the entire 24 books how many times Tintin finds himself in jail – it’s got to be at least 50! In the meantime, instead of being arrested Alembick has managed to make it to Klow and has gained access to the royal archive.
While in jail Tintin receives a letter which reveals the prison guards plan – that they are going to stage a breakdown. The letter states the driver is a ‘friend’ and is doing this to help. Soon it becomes apparent that this is a trap, but luckily Tintin manages to escape. Back at the palace, Alembick has been given permission to photograph some of the royal documents. Tintin eventually reaches Klow and gets to the place, asking to speak to the King. It turns out that the King’s aide is a traitor but unaware of this Tintin still goes to his meeting with the King, assuming it to all be real, when he is ambushed again. He breaks into the hall where the King is supposed to be and tries to warn him of oncoming trouble, but finds himself in jail once more. He escapes from the jail and finds himself nearly being run down by the King’s car. He tells the King of his doubts about Alembick and fortunately, the King trusts him. They reach the room holding the sceptre only to find it gone. After an unsuccessful intervention from the Thompsons, Tintin finally solves the mystery of how the sceptre got out of the room (but I won’t tell you!)
After a bit of wild goose chasing, Tintin finally recovers the sceptre, avoiding being shot down in a stolen plane, getting caught on the Bordurian border and then nearly losing the sceptre at the final hour – only for it to be rescued by Snowy!
Our story ends with Tintin being given the highest Syldavian honour, the Order of the Black Pelican. He also discovers that the real Professor Alembick was found kidnapped and the man who travelled to Syldavia with him was his “evil twin” brother. They had been plotting against Syldavia, but once again, Tintin has saved the day!
Even though the story ended with Tintin saving the day, the real life prospects of Herge and Belgium looked bleak “on 1st September, 1939, just three weeks after the Syldavian adventure concluded with Tintin saving the kingdom from fascist takeover, Nazi tanks rolled over the Polish border.” (Farr, page 81) This attack lead to the Blitzkrieg, which in turn, sparked the beginning of the Second World War.
The Second World War didn’t bring hope for Herge, he was “on sick leave… stranded in France as it fell; in occupied Brussels, Le Petit Vingtieme which had launched Tintin and sustained the reporter for over 10 years, was shut down.” (Farr, page 89)
Farr goes on to say, quite poignantly that “Tintin had saved Syldavia, but in reality he could neither rescue his native Belgium nor the rest or Europe.” (page 89)
That’s all for now,
Next week: we meet Captain Haddock for the first time in The Crab With The Golden Claws!