Herge always relied on coincidences in his stories but in The Secret of the Unicorn, he perhaps relied on them too much.
The Unicorn for Sale
The coincidences start on page one, where Tintin bumps into Thompson & Thomson. The detectives are investigating a pick-pocket who will, by chance, become very important towards the end of book. On page 3 of The Secret of the Unicorn, we have the next two coincidences. Firstly, as Tintin tries to buy the model Ivon Ivanovitch Sakharine also tries to buy the model. Then as those two argue, Barnaby joins in and also tries to purchase the same model.
If having three people (two of them who have been hunting for the model for years) all out shopping in the same place at the same time when the very object they seek happens to be for sale is not coincidence enough, there is more to come. The model is of the Unicorn, the ship of Sir Francis Haddock, Captain Haddock’s ancestors. After this, The Secret of the Unicorn settles down now that Herge has introduced all the characters and established the story line.
The True Unicorn
According to Tintin and the World of Herge, the Unicorn was not based on any specific ship but it was heavily influenced by Le Brillant. This 50 gun warship of the French Navy was built in Le Havre in 1690. A model of the ship can be seen here. Quite why Herge used this ship as the basis for the Unicorn is not clear.
The Secret of the Unicorn makes Captain Haddock unique in Herge’s cast. He is the only character to have any background. There is no mention of Tintin’s ancestry, ancient or modern, or that of any other characters. In fact, it is the only blood relation to a character to feature in the books except the children of various characters (e.g. the Waggs).
It is believed that the pirate Red Rackham in The Secret of the Unicorn was based on the pirate Calico Jack, whose real name was John Rackham. It was Calico Jack’s use of a jolly roger with two crossed swords that popularisied the design of the jolly roger as we know it today. This design was also used in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. This was fitting as Calico Jack was captured and hung in giblet. An image that is also referenced in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Pests, Marlinspike and Nestor
As well as having amazing ancestors, Captain Haddock has an amazing vocabulary. Reading his rage induced rants always expands your grasp of language. The Secret of the Unicorn is no exception as Haddock refers to the Thompsons as Phylloxera. This North American aphid like creature was responsible for near destruction of the European wine industry in the late 1800s. Brought across from America by accident, this pest destroyed many of the vines. Only with the introduction of vines crossed with resistant stock from America did European wine production survive.
Marlinspike makes its first appearance in The Secret of the Unicon. Later it is to become Captain Haddock’s and Calculas’ home and base for many Tintin’s adventures. But in the beginning it just a prison that Tintin wakes up in. One of the first things Tintin does in Marlinspike is damage it by combining ingenuity with a convenient wooden beam.
Along with Marlinspike, we also meet Nestor for the first time. Innocently caught up in the nefarious affairs of the Bird brothers, Nestor’s first meeting with Tintin results in a fight and almost ends in Tintin’s murder. Nestor’s saving grace is when, once Tintin is rescued by the Thompsons and Captain Haddock, Nestor replaces the Captain’s bottle of three star brandy. Nestor clearly understands the Captain’s needs and Nestor remains the butler of Marlinspike after it is purchased by Calculus and the Captain.