Perhaps Tintin’s most controversial adventure is that of Tintin in the Congo, but wherever Tintin travels throughout his journeys it is the darkness at the heart of the European Twentieth Century that he confronts.
What Mark Mazower described as “the nightmarish revelation of the destructive potential of European civilization” (The Dark Continent) is the latent fear throughout Hergé’s albums and the one Tintin’s morality seeks to counter.
The root of all evil
No matter how far he travels, Tintin is always confronted with the barbarity of European civilization in the twentieth century.
One common thread to all of Tintin’s adventures is that they start in Western Europe. Here Tintin identifies the evil which he then chases to all four corners of the world – and beyond. In fact, this evil which he chases abroad is only symptomatic of a larger one operating from home.
Whether Tintin’s opponents are diamond traffickers, drug cartels, oil moguls or revolutionaries, all are in collusion with organisations that are Western and seek control of various regions of the world. Even when Tintin must venture to uncharted lands – as is the case in the Lunar expedition or a journey to recover samples from a fallen asteroid – his opponents follow him from his European home.
As such, Tintin’s victories are only superficial. He defeats evil in its particular expression in one land or other, but the broader forces behind it are still in operation in the continent from which they originate: Europe.
The true dark continent
Most manifestations of evil are, as such, culturally located: they lie in the deep fear Europe, and particularly 20th Century Europe, holds to phenomena falling out of the realm of reason. Whether it is through hypnosis, a spell, or poison: the common ground shared by all evil is its opposition to reason.
Rather than being interpreted as an assimilation of irrationality with foreign lands, Tintin’s greatest obstacle is the one that Europe had to overcome in the Twentieth Century: the rise of a romantic ideal which found truth deep within rather than in the observable, quantifiable discourse of scientific inquiry. The same ideal which momentarily eclipsed democracy and brought barbarity of an unprecedented scale in a period of yet unsurpassed technical progress: a full eclipse at high noon.
A post-war hero
Tintin’s sparse moral code reflects the moral ambiguities of his time:
Beyond the trials of Nazis and local collaborators which established a spectrum of responsibilities in the atrocities of the Second World War, Tintin sees only Right and Wrong.
Circumventing discussions about when to intervene or not – the infamous Munich syndrome – Tintin’s only response is to always act, regardless of the danger or of a supposed lack of information.
And lastly, rejecting the idea that the individual holds no bearing over good and evil, Tintin fights evil where it manifests itself and at his own individual scale – with no pretension of inflicting it a lethal blow.
Operating in the moral desert of post-war Europe, Tintin has to rebuild the modest edifice of civilization while avoiding the temptation to build a machine that will bring devastation should it fail.
Reaffirming the Enlightenment project
In 1944, Europe’s faith in the Enlightenment project is shaken: scientific progress had been employed to commit mass murder and the rationalization of society had been the guiding rationale of eugenicist attempts to redraw the racial contours of continent.
Tintin stands as a reaffirmation of the commitment to the legacy of Enlightenment. The hero’s ethos of pragmatism and empiricism matches a trimmed-down, post-war expression of Enlightenment virtue as does the imagined relation between the different component parts of society.
A social fable
Beyond Hergé’s own political convictions, a model of society is drawn in the relation between the main characters that constitute Tintin’s enlarged cast to combat evil.
Captain Haddock: the captain is a strong force for tradition in the Tintin fable, looking back to his ancestors as his main well of identity. However, without Tintin’s intervention he is useless. He will remain in a drunken stupor and even be exploited by the forces of evil as is the case in The Crab With the Golden Claws, the first album in which he appears.
Calculus: the scientist shows that for Hergé and European society at large, science is a force to be reckoned with in the Twentieth Century. All the more so because it is socially unengaged as mirrored by the professor’s deafness. His inventions can serve good or evil, depending what hands it falls in. It thus requires a moral compass, which is the role Tintin fulfills for Calculus.
Tintin: only a hero like Tintin is suited to lead the trio. His ascetic life-style appears a guarantee of his judgement. His eagerness to act can counter-balance the inertia of tradition. And his thirst for justice and to fight evil on the most modest of scales is a safeguard to keep evil in check.
Snowy: last but not least, Tintin’s dog is also an important component to the equation. Although his bravery doubles that of his master, his flair – or luck – also assist Tintin’s team. As if to highlight what Mazower describes in The Dark Continent as the utter contingency of the return of peace and democracy in Europe, the little white dog’s salutary interventions always reverse an otherwise hopeless situation.