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Broken glass: Hergé and the Holy Grail

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

I know which Tintin comic is my favourite—I can tell because my copy has almost fallen to pieces and has a page missing, the others aren’t like that. It’s The Calculus Affair (1954)—and Benoît Peeters, biographer to Hergé, agrees that the comic is “Hergé’s masterwork”; and I clearly agreed with him as a child—yet as an adult I forgot that was so, and it was only when I saw that the comic I had as a child had fallen to pieces that I realised it was so—if you asked me consciously I would have never said that.

To be precise, as the Thompson Twins might say, the story is so fine because it is about the Holy Grail—Tintin is himself a Grail knight. He’s pure of heart (as described by Tibetan monks) and, after a certain point, he never kills anyone—Grail knights are forbidden to kill; and, just as with the Grail quest, the Tintin albums are suffused with puns—for example, The Calculus Affair features Professor Topolino, an Italo-Swiss expert in ultrasonics, and in Italian “Topolino” is a name for “Mickey Mouse”; it’s a reference to Disney. In fact, sound is central to The Calculus Affair—and that’s why it’s Hergé’s masterwork, the Grail itself is a sacred sound (the sound of justice, just as the Logos is a sound that sustains existence itself).

The plot is a Cold War thriller: Professor Calculus is kidnapped by the Bordurians, surrogates for the Soviet bloc—they live under the “Kûrvi-Tasch regime” (the curvy ’tasch, just like Stalin’s moustache—another pun); they want Calculus to help them complete an ultrasonic weapon that can destroy cities with sound (as demonstrated below, and not dissimilar to the power displayed by the “wyrding way” in Dune—it’s all the same idea).

There’s a mystery around the Calculus weapon at first—windows at Captain Haddock’s mansion break for no reason, milk floats have all their bottles smashed while the milkman’s back is turned for a second. It’s all down to Calculus; and yet Calculus is not original in his research—as Tintin and Haddock discover at Topolino’s house in Nyon, Switzerland. They discover a book—a real book—by an American major-general called German Research in WWII (1947); in it, accurately described, is a sound weapon developed under Albert Speer’s direction.

The Grail is a sacred sound—The Calculus Affair is about how sound can be used as a weapon, to change reality; and, in another mode, it features Hergé’s recurrent character Bianca Castafiorie—an opera singer, who happens to be on tour in Borduria and so helps Tintin and the Captain (she is infatuated with the Captain, much to his chagrin).

So The Calculus Affair is as close to the Grail as Hergé could get—and that is why it is his greatest and most compelling work. Hergé supported the Rexist cause in Belgium in WWII, and the Rexists supported the German occupation—so the German “sound research” ties back to the perennial German interest, found in Wagner and Hitler, in the Grail. Tintin’s main enemies are the Communists (his first adventure was Tintin in The Land of the Soviets) and, latterly, an “international banking concern” run by a man with a large proboscis—you see my point.

A later Hergé story, undertaken after recurrent dreams of whiteness sent him to a Jungian analyst, saw him describe, in Tintin in Tibet (1959), an adventure to rescue Tintin’s old friend Chang—who is apparently lost in an air crash but whom Tintin refuses to give up on due to a dream in which he sees him alive (he has actually been taken captive—rescued, arguably—by the Migou or Yeti; the “abominable snowman”). In this adventure, Tintin encounters the Buddhist monks who declare him “a great heart” and give him a white scarf to indicate this is so—again, the whiteness and the interest in Tibet, shared with the SS, returns Tintin to his Aryan roots.


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