Last week I discovered that Erich Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? and Hergé’s Flight 714 had been published in the same year. Naturally this led to great silliness.
At some point in school, when we were about twelve or thirteen, some of my classmates discovered Chariots of the Gods?, a book by Erich Von Däniken. I suspect the discovery of this book, or of others like it is a teenage ritual of sorts. I suppose one could pontificate about the teenager’s attraction to finding his or her place in the world, to questioning ideas that were previously taken for granted, and how this book might seem attractive to someone in this position.
Von Däniken’s book points out strange phenomena found in ancient cultures across the world and suggests that they might be explained by the ancients having access to advanced technology. This is not a particularly new idea – even now one encounters people who cite the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as evidence that ancient Indians had flying machines and nuclear weaponry and that therefore Our Culture is Better. But Von Däniken’s theory was that the gods and other supernatural figures of myth and legend were in fact alien visitors to the Earth.
Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968. Another book published in 1968 had probably been read by most of the classmates who were so taken with Von Däniken. If so, their enthusiasm is rather surprising since this other book would already have introduced them to some of the same ideas. The book I’m referring to is Flight 714, one of Hergé’s Tintin adventures.
A strange book need not necessarily be an obscure one. The Tintin books certainly weren’t short of sheer weirdness – consider the dreamlike scenes at the beginning of The Shooting Star, in which the end of the world seems inevitable. Yet Flight 714 is one of the less popular books in the series, and I’ve occasionally had to argue with people who had forgotten its very existence.
Tintin, Haddock and Calculus are on their way to an astronautical convention in Australia, when they fall in with the unscrupulous billionaire Carreidas. Finding that Calculus is the first man in years to make him laugh, Carreidas invites the travellers to fly to the conference with him in his personal plane. Unfortunately, a plot is already afoot to hijack this plane. The travellers are taken to a mysterious island in the Lesser Sundas where the evil Rastapopulous attempts to extract information from Carreidas regarding his considerably large bank accounts.
Thus far, this all sounds like a typical Tintin adventure. Until the travellers escape through a cave, down which the native Sondonesians refuse to follow, claiming (in broken English, obviously) that it is not allowed, and that “gods” who “come from sky in fire lorries” will punish them. Meanwhile, Tintin appears to be receiving instructions telepathically from some force. It turns out that the island is a centre of human-alien interaction; its temples built to resemble the space suits and ships of visitors who arrived thousands of years ago.
An earthquake, some explosions and a volcanic eruption later, the island no longer exists. Our heroes are hypnotised into forgetting the whole story, and apart from a few puzzling memories and a piece of metal never seen before, the whole thing might never have happened.
Which brings me to the title of the book. Flight 714 is the plane that our protagonists would have caught had they not become mixed up in Carreidas’ adventure – and the flight they are seen boarding in the last panel. Yet this flight is mentioned only twice or thrice in the book; it is never seen by the reader. So why this title? Perhaps we’re meant to think about what would have happened if Tintin and his companions had taken the original flight. Perhaps, like the characters themselves, we’re meant to forget that the entire story ever happened; this would certainly explain the confusion exhibited by some Hergé fans when the book is mentioned to them. I suspect that aliens are involved in some capacity.