The Secret of the Unicorn

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For the film adaptation, see The Adventures of Tintin (film).
The Secret of the Unicorn
(Le Secret de la Licorne)
Captain Haddock is acting out as Sir Francis Haddock and Red Rackham to Tintin and Snowy.
Cover of the English edition
Date 1943
Series The Adventures of Tintin
Publisher Casterman
Creative team
Creator Hergé
Original publication
Published in Le Soir
Date of publication 11 June 1942 – 14 January 1943
Language French
Publisher Methuen
Date 1959
  • Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper
  • Michael Turner
Preceded by The Shooting Star (1942)
Followed by Red Rackham's Treasure (1944)

The Secret of the Unicorn (French: Le Secret de la Licorne) is the eleventh volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the comics series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Young reporter Tintin, his dog Snowy, and his friend Captain Haddock discover a riddle left by Haddock's ancestor, the 17th century Sir Francis Haddock, which could lead them to the hidden treasure of the pirate Red Rackham. To unravel the riddle, Tintin and Haddock must obtain three identical models of Sir Francis's ship, the Unicorn, but they discover that criminals are also after these model ships, and are willing to kill in order to obtain them.

The story was first serialized in Le Soir Jeunesse, the children's supplement of Belgium's leading francophone newspaper Le Soir, between 11 June 1942 to 14 January 1943 and was published in book form later that year. The Secret of the Unicorn is the first volume in a two-part adventure concluded in Red Rackham's Treasure (1944).

Written while Belgium was under German occupation during World War II, The Secret of the Unicorn is the first book in the series to avoid political themes, instead focusing purely on an adventure story, and has been described as being the first book in Hergé's middle period. It is also one of only two books in the series set entirely in Belgium.[1]

Hergé heavily researched the background to his story, ensuring that the various ships, buildings, and other features illustrated in it were based upon real life counterparts. The Secret of the Unicorn was Hergé's favourite Tintin adventure until he made Tintin in Tibet (1960).[1][2] The story has had adaptations including a radio series (1992), two animated television series, Hergé's Adventures of Tintin (1959–63) and The Adventures of Tintin (1991), and the Hollywood movie The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011).


The flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels where Tintin buys the model ship

Whilst browsing in a market in Brussels, Tintin purchases an old model ship which he wishes to give to his friend Captain Haddock as a gift. Two strangers, a model ship collector called Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine and a mysterious figure known as Barnaby, immediately both try to persuade Tintin to sell the model to them. He also meets two policemen, Thomson and Thompson, who are on the look out for a prolific pickpocket operating in the area.[3]

Returning with the model to his flat, Snowy accidentally knocks it over and breaks its mainmast. Repairing it, and showing the ship to Haddock, Tintin discovers that it is a model of the Unicorn, a 17th-century warship captained by Haddock's ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock. While Tintin is out, the ship is stolen from his apartment and, attempting to get it back, he discovers that Sakharine owns an identical model, although this too is soon stolen. Returning to his flat, Tintin discovers a rolled-up parchment hidden under furniture, on which is a part of a riddle that points to the location of treasure, and he realises that this must have been hidden in the mast of the model which Snowy had broken.[4]

Informing Haddock about the riddle, the captain tells him of how Sir Francis Haddock battled with the pirate Red Rackham somewhere in the West Indies, before killing him in single combat and blowing up his ship. He also reveals that three models were originally built and distributed among Sir Francis' sons.[5]

Captain Haddock reenacting the adventures of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock

Barnaby asks to see Tintin, but is gunned down on Tintin's doorstep before he can speak to him and leaving only a cryptic clue as to his assailant. Later Tintin is kidnapped by the perpetrators of the shooting. They are revealed to be the Bird brothers, two unscrupulous antique dealers who own a third model of the Unicorn. They are behind the theft of Tintin's model and Sakharine's parchment, knowing that only with all three parchments can the location of the treasure be found for the following book Red Rackham's treasure. Tintin escapes from the Bird brothers' country estate, Marlinspike Hall, while the Captain arrives with the police officers Thomson and Thompson to arrest them. However, it is found that they do not have two of the parchments which were lost when their wallet were stolen.[6]

Tintin, Thomson and Thompson track down the pickpocket, Aristides Silk, a kleptomaniac who collects wallets. As the pickpocket is cornered, his cache of stolen wallets is found, including the Bird Brothers' wallets containing the missing two parchments. By combining the three parchments, Tintin and Haddock discover the coordinates of the hidden treasure, and begin to plan for an expedition to find it.[7]


The Secret of the Unicorn was the first of the Adventures of Tintin to which Hergé's collaborator Jacques Van Melkebeke had contributed to in a significant manner; biographer Benoît Peeters suggested that Van Melkebeke should rightly be considered the story's "co-scriptwriter".[8] It was Hergé's discussions with Van Melkebeke that led him to craft a more complex story than he had in prior Adventures.[9] Van Melkebeke had been strongly influenced by the adventure novels of writers like Jules Verne and Paul d'Ivoi, with this influence being apparent throughout the story.[8] The inclusion of three hidden scrolls has parallels with Verne's 1867 story, The Children of Captain Grant.[10] Hergé acknowledged Van Melkebeke's contribution by including a cameo of him within the market scene at the start of the story; this was particularly apt as Van Melkebeke had purchased his books in Brussels' Old Market as a child.[11]

The Secret of the Unicorn was to be the first part of a story arc that was concluded in the following adventure, Red Rackham's Treasure; this was the first two-part arc that Hergé had utilised since Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus (1934–36).[12] However, as Tintinologist Michael Farr related, the connection between these two 1940s stories would be far closer than the earlier two-part arc, in which the stories were largely "self-sufficient and self-contained".[13]

Sir Francis Haddock fighting Red Rackham's pirates.

To produce the varied backgrounds and other illustrations for The Secret of the Unicorn, Hergé drew on a much wider variety of pictorial sources, such as newspaper clippings, than he had done for any of the earlier Tintin adventures.[14] To produce an accurate depiction of an old naval vessel, Hergé consulted a friend of his, Gérard Liger-Belair, who owned a Brussels shop specialising in model ships. Liger-Belair produced plans of a seventeenth-century French fifty-gun warship for Hergé to copy; Le Brillant, which had been constructed in Le Havre in 1690 by the shipwright Salicon and then decorated by Jean Bérain the Elder.[15] He also however studied other vessels from the period, such as the Le Soleil Royal, La Couronne, La Royale and Le Reale de France, in order to better understand 17th-century ship design. It was from the latter vessel that he gained a basis for his design for the Unicorn's jollyboat.[2][16] No ship named the Unicorn had ever been listed in the annals of the French navy, so Hergé instead took the name, and also figurehead, for Sir Francis Haddock's fictional vessel from a British frigate which had been active in the mid-18th century.[2][16]

The character of Red Rackham was partly inspired by Jean Rackam, a pirate who appeared in a story alongside female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read that Hergé encounteredin a November 1938 edition of Dimanche-Illustré.[17] The name of Marlinspike Hall—Moulinsart in French—was based upon the name of the real Belgian town, Sart-Moulin.[18] The actual design of the building was based upon Cheverny, albeit with the two side wings removed.[19]

The Secret of the Unicorn was set entirely in Belgium, and was the last Adventure to be set there until The Castafiore Emerald.[20] It would also be Hergé's favourite story up until Tintin in Tibet.[21]

By introducing the character of Francis Haddock, Hergé made Captain Haddock the only character in the series (with the exception of Jolyon Wagg, who would be introduced later) to have a family and an ancestry.[2][22]

Historical parallels[edit]

A 17th-century engraving of Sir Richard Haddock.

After publishing the book, Hergé learned that there had actually been an Admiral Haddock who had served in the British navy during the late 17th and early 18th centuries: Sir Richard Haddock (1629–1715). This Haddock was in charge of the Royal James, the flagship of the Earl of Sandwich during the Battle of Solebay of 1672, the first naval battle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. During the fighting, the Royal James was set alight, and Haddock escaped with his life but had to be rescued from the sea, following which his bravery was recognised by the British monarch, King Charles II. He subsequently took command of another ship, the Royal Charles, before becoming a naval administrator in later life.[16] Coincidentally, Admiral Haddock's grandfather, also called Richard, commanded the ship of the line HMS Unicorn during the reign of Charles I.[23][24]

Historians have also highlighted the existence of another Captain Haddock who lived in this period, one who had commanded a fire-ship, the Anne and Christopher. It was recorded by David Ogg that this captain and his ship had got separated from their squadron whilst out at sea and so docked at Malaga to purchase goods that could be taken back to Britain and sold for a profit. For this action, Haddock was brought before an admiralty tribunal in 1674, where he was ordered to forfeit all profits from the transaction and suspended from his command for six months.[16]


La Secret De La Licorne began serialisationa s a daily strip in Le Soir from 11 June 1942.[25] As with previous adventures, it then began serialisation in the French Catholic newspaper Cœurs Vaillants, from 19 March 1944.[25] In Belgium, it was then published in a 62 page book format by Editions Casterman in 1943.[25] The first printing sold 30,000 copies in Francophone Belgium.[26]

The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure were the first two Adventures of Tintin to be published in English-language translations for the British market. Published by Casterman, these two editions did not sell well, and have since become rare collector's items.[27] They would be republished for the British market seven years later, this time by Methuen with translations provided by Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper.[28]

The series' Danish publishers, Carlsen, later located a model of an early-17th-century Danish ship called the Enhjørnigen (The Unicorn) which they gave to Hergé. Constructed in 1605, Enhjørnigen had been wrecked in an attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage.[29]

Tintinologist Harry Thompson referred to The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure as "the most successful of all Tintin's adventures".[20]

Critical analysis[edit]

The Secret of the Unicorn resembled the earlier Tintin adventures in its use of style, colour and content, leading Harry Thompson to remark that it "unquestionably" belongs to the 1930s, believing it to be "the last and best of Hergé's detective mysteries."[20] He asserted that this story and Red Rackham's Treasure marked the third and central stage of "Tintin's career", also stating that here, Tintin has been converted from a reporter into an explorer to cope with the new political climate.[12]

Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier asserted that Sir Francis Haddock was "the best realised character" in the story, conversely describing the Bird Brothers as "relatively uninspired villains".[30] They went on to state that The Secret of the Unicorn-Red Rackham's Treasure arc represents "a turning point" for the series as it shifts the reader's attention from Tintin to Haddock, who has become "by far, the most interesting character".[30] They praised the "truly outstanding stroytelling" of Secret, ultimately awarding it a rating of four out of five.[31]

Hergé biographer Benoît Peeters asserted that both The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure "hold a crucial position" in The Adventures of Tintin as it establishes the "Tintin universe" with its core set of characters.[8] Focusing on the former tome, he described it as one of Hergé's "greatest narrative successes" through the manner in which it interweaves three separate plots.[8] He felt that while religious elements had been present in previous stories, they were even stronger in The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel, something which he attributed to Van Melkebeke's influence.[9] Elsewhere he asserted that it "explores this prelude with extraordinary narrative virtuosity."[32]

Biographer Pierre Assouline asserted that the story was "clearly influenced[...] in spirit if not in detail" by Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Treasure Island in that it "seemed to cater to a need for escapism".[33] He described the adventure as "a new development in Hergé's work, a flight from the topical to epics of pirate adventures set in distant horizons".[33] Assouline also expressed the view that the ancestral figure of Sir Francis Haddock reflected Hergé's attempt to incorporate one of his own family secrets, that he had an aristocratic ancestor, into the story.[34]

Michael Farr believed that the introduction of Sir Francis Haddock (François de Haddoque in the original French) was what made the book "most remarkable" due to the fact that both visually and in his mannerisms, he is "scarcely distinguishable from the captain".[35] He also highlighted that the scenes in which Captain Haddock relates the tale of his ancestor carries on the "merging of dreams and reality" that Hergé had "experimented with" in The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Shooting Star.[35] Noting that unlike The Shooting Star, this two-book story arc contains "scarcely an allusion to occupation and war", he praised the arc's narrative as "perfectly paced, without that feeling of haste" present in some of Hergé's earlier work.[14]

In his analysis of the Adventures of Tintin, the academic Jean-Marie Apostolidès characterised the Secret of the Unicorn-Red Rackham's Treasure arc as being about the characters going on a "treasure hunt that turns out to be at the same time a search for their roots."[36]


Belvision animation, 1957[edit]

In 1957, the animation company Belvision produced a string of colour adaptations based upon Hergé's original comics, adapting eight of the Adventures into a series of daily five-minute episodes. The Secret of the Unicorn was the seventh such story to be adapted, being directed by Ray Goossens and written by Michel Greg, himself a well known comic book writer and illustrator who in later years would become editor-in-chief of the Journal De Tintin.[37]

Ellipse/Nelvana animation, 1991[edit]

In 1991, a second animated series based upon The Adventures of Tintin was produced, this time as a collaboration between the French studio Ellipse and the Canadian animation company Nelvana. Adapting 21 of the stories into a series of episodes, each 42 minutes long, The Secret of the Unicorn was the ninth story to be produced into the series, with the story spanning two episodes. Directed by Stéphane Bernasconi, the series has been praised for being "generally faithful", with compositions having been actually directly taken from the panels in the original comic book.[38]

Hollywood movie and video game, 2011[edit]

A 2011 motion capture feature film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson was released in most of the world October–November 2011, and in the US on 21 December 2011.[39] The film incorporates elements such as the model ships, Sakharine, Mr. Silk, the story of Sir Francis Haddock and Marlinspike Hall. A video game tie-in to the movie has also been made.



  1. ^ a b Thompson 1991. p. 113.
  2. ^ a b c d Peeters 1989. p. 75.
  3. ^ Hergé 2002, pp. 1–4.
  4. ^ Hergé 2002, pp. 4–12.
  5. ^ Hergé 2002, pp. 12–27.
  6. ^ Hergé 2002, pp. 27–54.
  7. ^ Hergé 2002, pp. 54–62.
  8. ^ a b c d Peeters 2012, p. 143.
  9. ^ a b Peeters 2012, p. 144.
  10. ^ Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 54.
  11. ^ Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 54; Peeters 2012, p. 143.
  12. ^ a b Thompson 1991, p. 112.
  13. ^ Farr 2001, p. 105.
  14. ^ a b Farr 2001, p. 112.
  15. ^ Assouline 2009, p. 88; Farr 2001, p. 111; Peeters 2012, pp. 144–145.
  16. ^ a b c d Farr 2001, p. 111.
  17. ^ Farr 2001, pp. 108–109.
  18. ^ Peeters 1989, p. 77; Thompson 1991, p. 115; Farr 2001, p. 106; Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 53.
  19. ^ Peeters 1989, p. 76; Thompson 1991, p. 115; Farr 2001, p. 106; Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 53.
  20. ^ a b c Thompson 1991, p. 113.
  21. ^ Thompson 1991, p. 113; Farr 2001, p. 105.
  22. ^ Thompson 1991. p. 115.
  23. ^ ^ J. D. Davies, ‘Haddock, Sir Richard (c.1629–1715)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.
  24. ^ p.158 Lavery, Brian (2003) The Ship of the Line - Volume 1: The development of the battlefleet 1650-1850. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-252-8.
  25. ^ a b c Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 52.
  26. ^ Peeters 2012, p. 145.
  27. ^ Thompson 1991, p. 121; Farr 2001, p. 106.
  28. ^ Farr 2001, p. 106.
  29. ^ Thompson 1991, p. 115; Farr 2001, p. 111.
  30. ^ a b Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, p. 53.
  31. ^ Lofficier & Lofficier 2002, pp. 54–55.
  32. ^ Peeters 1989, p. 75.
  33. ^ a b Assouline 2009, p. 88.
  34. ^ Assouline 2009, pp. 88–89.
  35. ^ a b Farr 2001, p. 108.
  36. ^ Apostolidès 2010. p. 30.
  37. ^ Jean-Marc Lofficier, Randy Lofficier. The Pocket Essential Tintin. No Exit; 2nd edition (October 1, 2007), p. 87–88.
  38. ^ Jean-Marc Lofficier, Randy Lofficier. The Pocket Essential Tintin. No Exit; 2nd edition (October 1, 2007), p. 90.
  39. ^ Tom Huddleston (27 October 2011). "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Movie Review". Time Out Magazine. Retrieved 10 November 2011. 


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