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Is Captain Haddock the Ultimate Hero of Hergé’s Tintin?

I think it’s safe to agree that Captain Archibald Haddock was the breakout character of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin. Introduced in The Crab With the Golden Claws, one of three adventures to form the basis of Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Haddock has rarely been absent from the series in the time that followed. Indeed, Hergé even went back and wrote him into the end of a story (The Land of Black Gold) that he began before Haddock was even created. Haddock’s appeal seems to be incredible, with the blue-turtleneck-wearing sea-captain almost as iconic as Tintin and Snowy. Returning to the series for the first time in years, as the release of the new movie approaches, I couldn’t help but wonder if Haddock was the real hero of the series.

He'll never desert Tintin...

Sure, the title of the book series is The Adventures of Tintin, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that the boy reporter is the most important character in the saga. After all, Hergé didn’t rebrand them “The Adventures of Haddock.” However, what’s remarkable about Tintin as a character is how little we know or learn about him over the course of the collection. Author Philip Pullman remarks of the lead character:

I like Tintin’s blandness, his blankness, his lack of depth; he is an empty page on which adventures can be drawn. He is clearly a friendly and honourable chap; his dog is loyal, his friends dependably amusing, his way of life both comfortable and interesting.

It’s a hard charge to counter. Hergé invented Tintin as the ultimate boy scout. He seldom drinks or smokes. He always seems to do the right thing. He’s quick-witted and inventive, but also fundamentally decent.

Does Haddock have a (cork) screw loose?

However, we know next to nothing of him. We don’t know anything about any family he might have had. Indeed, given how closely Tintin remains in contact with the people he’s met over the course of his adventures (come Tintin in Tibet, he’s still corresponding with Chang from The Blue Lotus), it’s remarkable that there’s never a hint of contact between Tintin and any member of his family or a social circle that existed before the first book. Discounting Snowy, there’s not one person who seems to know Tintin from before The Adventures of Tintin began, and yet he’s famous in-story for his early adventures by the time we get to Cigars of the Pharaoh.

You could even make the case that, despite spending more than twenty books with Tintin, we don’t even know the character’s first or last name (depending on whether Tintin is a first name, a last name, or even a nickname). You can understand why Hergé would adopt such an approach – Tintin exists purely as a vehicle for adventure, a blank stand-in for the reader, unencumbered with a complicated pre-existing history or a complex moral psyche.

Taking a stab at analysing Haddock...

Captain Haddock is quite different. When he’s introduced in The Crab With the Golden Claws, he already has a very significant back story, with his ship effectively hijacked by his sinister subordinates, who keep the good captain liquored up and incapable of action. Indeed, over the course of the adventure, Haddock is incredibly unreliable and prone to outrageous and dangerous actions, to the point where he seems like more of a liability to Tintin than an ally – seemingly of the verge of killing the young reporter on more than one occasion.

While Tintin is the very model of a boy scout, Haddock is a man with any number of flaws and vices. He’s quick to anger, he smokes a pipe like nobody’s business, and he drinks like a fish. He’s shown to occasionally derive great happiness from the misfortunes of others, particularly the opera singer Bianca Castafiore. While Tintin is more than capable with a gun, Haddock is a character who seems very easily provoked.

He always was a colourful character...

Haddock spends the first few adventures as one of the supporting cast, arguably no different from Thompson and Thomson, for example. He’s part of the crew in The Shooting Star, for example, and he’s part of the expedition in Red Rackham’s Treasure or The Prisoners of the Sun. At these points, Tintin is very much the focus of the story. While Haddock plays an increasingly large role in each iteration, he never completely eclipses the lead of the series, the reporter who lends the adventures their name.

However, Hergé does afford Haddock a very rare privilege, only not really extended to the rest of the cast (or even to his lead). Captain Archibald Haddock is given a back story. In The Secret of the Unicorn, we discover quite a bit about Captain Haddock’s lineage, including his distant ancestor. In The Shooting Star, we meet Chester, a former shipmate of Haddock’s “for more than twenty years.”There’s a genuine sense that Haddock existed in this fictional universe before Hergé drew the first panel to feature the good captain, and a sense that he has roots – which is more than you could say of Tintin.

All at sea!

I think that Hergé focused on Haddock’s evolution as a way of reflecting his own uncertainties. Tintin is undoubtedly the lead of earlier stories, a kid with a completely unambiguous sense of right and wrong, with a very simplistic view of world affairs. That’s not a criticism, but an observation. The earlier adventures aren’t necessarily especially morally complex, with King Ottokar’s Sceptre seeing the lead foiling a coup or Cigars of the Pharaoh seeing the lead dismantle a drug smuggling operation. There’s a lot of absolutes, and some understandably so – drugs are bad, gangsters are bad. On the other hand, Tintin’s moral absolutism reads very strangely when one returns to Tintin in the Congo or Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

After the Second World War, Hergé found himself taking a lot of flack for some of his earlier comments and stories, something that he acknowledged. He had a brief flirtation with fascism, which he later denounced as foolishness:

“I recognise that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order.”

Being extremely diplomatic, the Hergé Foundation also describes Tintin in the Congo as “a naïve depiction of the colonial times and paternalistic views as they existed in Belgium in the early 1930s.” The portrayal of Jewish characters in The Shooting Star (and the suggestion that master villain Rastapopoulos was a Jewish stereotype) also brought the writer under fire, as well as allegations of collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium.

Tintin opens new doors for Haddock...

In many ways, a lot of Hergé’s later books feel like conscious responses to these insinuations and allegations. In The Red Sea Sharks, Tintin and Haddock break up a slavery ring, proving them friends to Africans. In Flight 714, Hergé has Rastapopoulos surround himself with Nazis, as if to rebut the suggestion the villain is a Jewish stereotype. Bianca Castafiora, the opera singer, has several unfortunate run-ins and misunderstandings with various evil-doers (in stories like The Calculus Affair or The Red Sea Sharks), perhaps standing in for Hergé’s own earlier artistic mistakes.

Hergé even tried to steer the books aways from political subject matter, to the point of having Tintin leave that planet in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. The last few adventures in the series are far more introspective than what came before, and demonstrate an artist reflecting on the impressive body of work he has left behind him. It has been argued that Tintin in Tibet was the first story to treat Tintin as a real character rather than merely a vehicle for adventure, and The Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 and Tintin and the Picaros are all attempts to take apart and examine classic Tintin stories.

He's come a long way, baby!

And I think Haddock emerges as the hero of the series at around this point, a character who – while not always entirely right – seems to have better judgment and a keener sense of humanity than Tintin. Tintin himself doesn’t necessarily come out particularly well in the last few books, as Hergé seems to embrace the criticisms leveled at him and his creation. Tintin in Tibet portrays Tintin as something of an irrational loon, risking life and limb based only on the faintest hope his friend is alive, with no objective proof to back it up – it’s only thanks to the existence of the Yeti that he is proven right.

In The Castafiore Emerald, Tintin’s paranoid fantasies about plots and conspiracies over-complicate what should be relaxing “down time”, perhaps illustrating how out-of-touch he is. In Tintin and the Picaros, Tintin wilfully abandons Haddock and Calculus to a trap, refusing to accompany them to South America. When he does arrive, he stages a coup, but leaves San Theodoros having made no real difference at all. Even in the unfinished Tintin and the Alph-Art, Tintin harasses and accuses two innocent women of trying to kill him, reducing one to the point of tears. Suddenly, Tintin doesn’t appear quite so infallible anymore.

Great white hope...

In contrast, Captain Haddock remains flawed, but he also appears increasingly humanist, while Tintin has grown somewhat dispassionate and detached. In The Castafiore Emerald, it’s Haddock who invites the Roma Gypsies, a disenfranchised group frequently subjected to racial prejudice, to stay on the grounds of his estate, over the objections of those around him. In The Red Sea Sharks, it’s Haddock who frees the slaves in the ship’s hold, and is hailed as a hero. Perhaps the very flawed Haddock was being written as a means of rehabilitating Hergé?

However, we see the depth of Haddock’s moral decency in Tintin in Tibet. Tintin is in the grips of an almost fanatical belief that Chang is alive, prompted by a dream. He has absolute faith in his attempts to find the lost little boy. Haddock, on the other hand, strongly suspects (along with everybody else) that the kid must have died in the crash. And yet Haddock stays with Tintin. He threatens to leave, trying to force his friend to come to his senses, but he never does. Tintin is guided by faith in a belief, but Haddock is anchored by his faith in his friend. Indeed, Haddock seems more concerned about Tintin’s safety and comfort than about Chang, suggesting that he’s only going this far so Tintin is not alone, reassuring the reporter, “C’mon Tintin, old lad. You’ve done everything humanly possible…”

Haddock doesn't take any bull...

Even more than Tintin at this point in the series, Haddock seems driven by fundamental human decency, while Tintin grows increasingly detached. Though he is far less fond of Bianca Castafiore than Tintin, to the point where he claims to hate her, Haddock is the person who flies to her rescue in Tintin and the Picaros, while Tintin remains at home. Haddock comes to realise the country is a fascist police state, and seems offended by it, while Tintin seems to remain coldly dispassionate throughout. It seems that Tintin partakes in the coup as a means to an end, and only because he’s an old friend of Alcazar’s. That said, even Haddock is oblivious to the fact that nothing has changed.

However, there is one key scene in Tintin and the Picaros where it seems most obvious that Haddock holds the moral high ground. Calculus has produced a “cure” for alcoholism, which he “tested” on Haddock without the latter’s consent. Haddock is disgusted, correctly citing it as “a monstrous attack upon the freedom of the individual!” Tintin remains silent on the matter, and then suggests administering the cure to Alcazar’s army, without their knowledge or consent. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem that far removed from the use of the “truth serum” in Flight 714, where the unethical application of a medical treatment is justified because it allows a character to accomplish their ends.

Haddock at his most Crab-by...

Haddock is the only character to take any action to stop Calculus from applying a mostly untested drug on an unwitting population, hiding the pills from the Professor. It’s only after Tintin admonishes Haddock that the sea-captain hands them over. It’s a very telling reversal – where Tintin is condoning an immoral action, while Haddock tries to prevent it. I think that this represents the moment where Haddock’s moral compass clearly outshines that of his closest friend, and it’s somewhat fitting that it happens in the final completed book in the series.

I think you can make a strong case for Haddock as the ultimate hero of The Adventures of Tintin, if you look at the series as one long story. From The Crab With the Golden Claws onwards, it feels like Haddock is trying to become a better man, and is learning quite a bit from the people around him. While Hergé’s notes suggest he intended to reverse it, one can look at the Captain’s (admittedly forced) rejection of alcohol in Tintin and the Picaros and the fact that he embarks on the adventure solo, as a sign that Haddock has finally overcome his problems and become the sort of individual he always could have been. He’s flawed, but that just makes him more human.

One Response

  1. Splendid analysis, Darren. I’d not reflected fully on Haddock’s moral arc. Tintin’s course-change from idealist to cynic is also interesting — but, given that Tintin is a blank character, it’s Haddock’s journey that’s easier to chart.

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