Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls

“Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” went the byline of one of the most famous recruitment posters produced during WWI.

Tintin creator Hergé’s answer for WWII would have been “writing and drawing The Seven Crystal Balls“. Written in the hate-filled atmosphere of occupied Belgium, Hergé concentrates on comedy and magic rather than real-life conflict.

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It’s one of the funniest books in the series, despite the fact that Hergé always uses the same jokes (Haddock getting angry; Snowy getting into mischief and Professor Calculus mishearing everything). He gets away with it because of his perfect comic timing.

One of his other great gifts is the ability to make interesting panels that draw in the reader’s eye despite not actually containing anything of note (see the third panel below for an example). This book has the slow pace of old-fashioned storytelling, but it takes us from the familiar domestic environment of Belgium into the hurly-burly of a cross-continental caper.

The Seven Crystal Balls also has all the elements of a Victorian potboiler: supernatural threats from abroad menacing wealthy Europeans in their mansion houses. However, the mystery is unique.

Seven archeologists return from Peru having found an ancient Inca mummy still adorned with its gold jewellery. One by one, they slide into a coma, with the only clue as to its cause being a small scattering of crystal shards by their side. The last three members of the expedition remain at large as the story opens, although one of them has the misfortune to be under twenty-four guard by the hapless detectives Thomson and Thompson.

European arrogance in the seizing of these precious objects gets a firm reprimand from Hergé. It feels all the more powerful coming from an ordinary man reading about the archaeological find on the train.

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If the man on the street is so incensed, how can the so-called experts act with such disrespect for the property of other peoples and cultures?

As a further surprise, the story is not actually resolved in this volume. The Seven Crystal Balls is one of several two-parters in the Tintin canon, with the action picking up again in Prisoners of the Sun.

No reader can seriously leave the plot at this stage because it hinges on one of the things that makes the Tintin series so precious. People love it because it is ultimately about unconditional friendship, friends who will do anything for each other.

In The Seven Crystal Balls, Professor Calculus goes missing, and Captain Haddock is distraught at the loss. He and Tintin resolve to travel to South America to find him and solve the mystery of the explorers who still linger under the mummy’s curse. They never even discuss whether they have any other option.

Although I prefer The Crab with the Golden Claws, some people say The Seven Crystal Balls is the best of the Tintin books, and it certainly delivers everything you would expect in one of the boy detective’s adventures, with a few surprises thrown into the mix as well.

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22 responses to “Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls

  1. I love Tintin and this post has made for a marvellous start to my morning! The fact he uses the same jokes has never seemed to be a problem, as you say, and the characters are genuinely engaging. I shall be smiling all day, thinking about Tintin! 😀

    • I’m a bit tough on him there – I suppose we all use the same jokes! I’ve read a couple of books in a row so it kind of jumped out at me.
      There is a really funny sequence at the start of this book where Haddock has become a pretentious country gent due to his sudden inheritance of Marlinspike, but things don’t go entirely to plan!

  2. Reading these as a kid was fun but as an adult, there is so much more to appreciate. I was really impressed with The Broken Ear where Colonel Fawcett gets a cameo. I picked up a couple of TinTin omnibuses up and this and its follow up were in them and thankful I was that they put both parts in together. Great story and wonderful series of books,

    • You’re one up on me then because I haven’t got round to part 2 yet. I think The Prisoners of the Sun has a rare cultural error by Hergé when Tintin tricks the locals into thinking an eclipse represents the wrath of the gods. Of course, the peoples of the Americas had been expert astronomers for centuries!

      • Perhaps he was playing on the clichés of an ignorant West and therefore being ironic or something. It has been way too long since I indulged in TinTin, as soon as I find them I am rereading them again.

      • Enjoyable post and one of my favorite Tintin books. I hope you will or have gotten around to reading Prisoners Of The Sun. It has perhaps my favorite segment of ‘travelling’ in all the stories. Meaning it really does a great job taking its time showing the characters journey to the Temple Of The Sun, with trademark Herge wit and wonderful art. I will just say that I don’t think the cultural error you mention is particularly rare. He made many in the course of the series. Some came from a jaded western viewpoint, some were honest mistakes, some may have been deliberate but were altered as social norms changed. Though I am aware of most of these (and somewhere I have a neat little book which analyzes each book in some detail) and cringe at some of the portrayals, over all I absolutely adore my Tintin books still in my late 40’s. I still remember the joy that Secret Of The Unicorn/Red Rackham’s Treasure gave me years ago, and it has never left me.

      • Thank you! I have now read the Prisoners of the Sun and I agree with you about the artwork. It’s really spectacular. The only thing is that so much of the adventure comes from Tintin and Haddock blowing the local wildlife to smithereens, in the shape of crocodiles, condors, an anaconda … I guess attitudes have changed quite a bit since the 1940s!

      • Yes the attitudes sure have changed but perhaps because it is a comic and you can just go BAM! and then show a dead crocodile floating it does not seem so bad. The artwork is really wonderful in this one. The lush forests and up to the mountains. Maybe a precursor of sorts to my favorite-Tintin In Tibet. I’ll try to find the book I mentioned when I am home later because it was filled with lots of interesting information for fans of the books.

      • ‘Tibet’ has a very deep story behind its creation, and of course it is the only story that is more serious. No bumbling Thomson & Thompson, or Calculus’ silliness. No Nestor and acrobatic pet avoidance gymnastics. No Jolyon Wagg and only a brief appearance via radio of the Castafiore. If you haven’t guessed by now, I could ramble on about these in greater detail. They were very influential to me in terms of adventure stories, and I’ve touched on them in at least one of my posts awhile back. I’ll get the book and post the title in the reply in any event.

      • The Pocket Essential Tintin by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier is a useful book by book guide though I don’t always agree with the conclusions. Also there are two coffee table books full of insight. One by Benoit Peeters and one by Michael Farr. Both recommended

  3. My son discovered Tintin after finding one of the books at a second-hand store as a child. He still reads them now. We were surprised how many kids his age had never heard of Haddock. Thanks for the reminder. I’m going to have to see if the son has this one.

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