On the trail of the Yeti

Dossier ~ Thursday 12th February 2009
Tintin in Tibet (1960) - Page 57 ]

It is now fifty years since Tintin in Tibet was created, and yet today the Yeti and the political situation in Tibet remain current affairs. Tibet is the subject of fierce debate, and devotees of the ?abominable snowman' are still hot on his trail !

From abominable snowman to Yeti

One thing is certain: Hergé’s portrayal of the Yeti thawed the common myth of the abominable snowman. Before Tintin in Tibet (1960), this unique creature was seen as a wild, bloodthirsty beast, yet Hergé painted a picture of a very different being, lonely and misunderstood, and thus unable to enjoy normal communication with the outside world. Nevertheless, the gentle care and attention the animal shows as he looks after Chang, wounded in an aeroplane crash, is heroic by human standards. Hergé’s message is clear: we should avoid snap judgements and prejudices, which are often rooted in stories and myths stretching far back in the human psyche. This advice is complemented by a reflection on the meaning of friendship: that of Tintin and Chang as it overcomes time and space, and that of Captain Haddock, ready as he is to lay down his life to save Tintin.

The Yeti, Ranko and a bear: what’s the difference?

Enthusiasts of the work of Hergé never miss the chance to make comparisons between the Yeti in Tintin and Tibet and Ranko, the fearsome gorilla from The Black Island. So what is the difference between them? The Yeti cuts a solitary figure, fiercely attached to his freedom, while Ranko has been groomed to kill. In the latter’s case, it is Tintin’s kindness that brings him back to his true nature; that of a being capable of feelings and emotions. The Catholic Church created its own pariah, using a bear as its animal of choice. A long time ago, the Celts (the ancestors of Europeans today) celebrated the bear as king of the animals. It’s easy to understand why: standing up on its hind legs, a bear has a passing resemblance to a human being. The Celts considered the bear, moreover, to be the link between the animal kingdom and humankind. This correlation caused such consternation in the Catholic Church that they transformed the bear into a servant of Satan, and promoted the lion to the position of king of the animals.

Return of the Yeti

Believing himself to be at the centre of the universe, man has been quick to pass judgement over animals and the world around him. Thanks to, among others, the Englishman Charles Darwin (1809–1882), we know that human beings and animals are in a perpetual process of evolution. Species are constantly appearing and disappearing, with humankind making up part of the latter group. These days we understand that life hangs in the balance, and that the extinction of species can be avoided if each person works to find a way to weigh up their own desires against the needs of the world we live in. After all, wasn’t it Einstein who said, and with good reason, that if bees were to disappear, life on earth would cease to exist within four years ? In this regard, Tintin in Tibet and its humanist message remains one of the key works in the Hergé’s œuvre. Seeing as it is once more a topical subject, let’s have a little more sympathy for the Yeti !

The Yeti "hunters"

In 1994, while trekking through the Himalayas, a Japanese man called Yoshiteru Takahashi caught sight of a creature that he thought was the Yeti. It was a kind of hairy ape-man, around 1.8 metres tall and of considerable girth. In August 2008, Mr. Takahashi, who was now 65 years old, convinced a Japanese newspaper and a drinks manufacturer to sponsor a new expedition to the mountains of Nepal. He was in charge of three teams aiming to find and photograph the Yeti. At 4500 metres altitude, the expedition stumbled across tracks showing large footprints, which they followed for around 50 metres. Despite the excitement, the tracks were still not considered conclusive proof of the Yeti’s existence.

Yetis everywhere !

Although described as solitary, the Himalayan Yeti is not alone. Each continent has its own "Yeti". North Americans speak of a mysterious animal they call ‘Bigfoot’, also known as "Sasquatch". Australians have caught sight of "Yowie", a huge, disgustingly smelly beast! In Europe, in the upper reaches of the Caucases, shepherds report sightings of an ‘Almasty’, which eerily resembles the Yeti. It was in 1936 that a Swiss geologist on an excursion in the Himalayas found himself face to face with a Yeti – the name given to the creature by the Sherpas (a Nepalese ethnic group who are also agile mountain guides). In 1951, the famous mountaineer Eric Shipton returned from a trek with the first photos of footprints, discovered somewhere on Mount Everest. The Frenchman Maurice Herzog, conqueror of Annapurna, gave an account of his brush with the Yeti to Hergé. After Tintin in Tibet sightings became more frequent, contributed by such explorers as Reinhold Messner (1986), Alexandre Poussin and Sylvain Tesson (1997), to name but a few.

Tibet and the events of 1959

Was it a coincidence that Hergé’s story was published in 1959, while in December of the same year the spiritual leader of the Tibetans left his country to go to India? He was obliged to flee from advancing Chinese troops taking over a land that China considered to be one of its provinces. Since that time the Dalai Lama has become a symbol of Tibetan independence and the standard-bearer for those opposed to Chinese occupation. He works hard to bring to light the terrible suffering of his people, and his efforts were recognised when he received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. If one thing is sure, it is that Tintin in Tibet opened the eyes of readers to this vast and mysterious country, located on ‘the roof of the world’. If we are a little wiser now in regard to our understanding of our relationship with the animal kingdom of the Yeti, and if the hymn of friendship between Tintin, Chang and Captain Haddock could encourage a positive turn of events in the political situation of Tibet, no doubt Hergé would raise a big smile.

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