In which an escapist Ruritanian fancy turns into an ominous allegory for Nazi aggression. On one of those strolls with which Tintin often commences a new book, the reporter notices a mislaid book on a park bench. He returns it to its owner, the chain-smoking, Freud-lookalike Professor Alembick, an expert on seals (of the heraldic variety), who is about to visit the Balkan principality of Syldavia to look at some rare treasures. When Tintin notices some sinister types hanging around the Professor's apartment, and what seems to be a conspiracy plotting in a Syldavian restaurant, he decides to accompany the Professor. On the eve of their departure, a phone call to Alembick is interrupted by screams, but all seems normal as they leave for Klow, the Syldavian capital. Except that now the short-sighted academic can see sheep from thousands of feet in the air, and no longer smokes.
This extraordinary and unique entry in the Tintin canon is priceless for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is the utterly convincing creation of a non-existent realm so consistent in its internal details you can't believe it's not real. Central to this is the travel brochure Tintin reads on the plane to Klow, reproducing in three dazzling full-length pages the history, geography and culture of this great country, including the most amazing pastiche miniature illustrating a medieval battle and an account of the incident that accounts for the importance of the titular sceptre, Byzantine in their colour and beauty. Syldavia is a Ruritanian realm of benevolent monarchs, toy-soldier uniforms, quaint rituals, emblems and customs, all under threat from modernity in the shape of totalitarian imperialism. Its exotic magic is subtly prepared by the lengthy contrasting prelude in Brussels, all drab brown interrupted by the heavy black of the bungling Thom(p)sons. Herge is no sentimentalist, he is alive to the conformity and social rigidity of Syldavian society, but he is also in love with its precarious culture, its nobility and generosity, and makes us love and fear for it too.
The topography of Syldavia, with its castles, river-valleys and fir-lined mountains, and its culture, including the part-Byzantine, part-Modiligiani mural surrounding the throne room, offers unending pleasure to the eye. The action sequences, perhaps because the stakes are so high, reach an agonising pitch. Once again a story of such potential gravity is primarily driven by Snowy's appetite, his search for bones providing a feast of visual jokes. The Thom(p)sons are their usual luckless joy, this time a winking Tintin joining in with us in the laughter. Making 'Sceptre' even more perfect is the introduction of another recurring Herge character, the prima donna Signora Bianca Castafiore, that overweight interpreter of operatic waifs whose piercing voice tests even Tintin's goodwill, and prompts the exodus of animal life from forests whenever she drives by.