Monday, 27 June 2011

Asterix the Gaul: Asterix and the Banquet

It's been years since I read any Asterix the Gaul, which my parents sometimes used to buy for my brother (in English) when we went to France on holiday. What I'd remembered most was the wonderfully punny names - the old man Geriatrix, Poisonus Fungus, Getafix the druid and so on (there are lots of jokes about drugs around, a clear sign of Asterix's '60s origins!*). Asterix and Obelix themselves, of course, are designed as literal 'footnotes in history', asterisk and obelisk, an idea I love, since I always enjoy stories about the minor characters and side stories of history, even entirely fictional ones like these two.

For those unfamilir with the comics, Asterix and Obelix live in a Gaulish village that has held out alone against the Romans following the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. This is largely thanks to the magic potion brewed by Getafix, which allows our two heroes to beat up entire legions without breaking a sweat (though Obelix doesn't need to take any, as he fell into a cauldron-full of the stuff as a child). The village is in northern Brittany, and Obelix has a regular job as a menhir delivery man. The translations are excellent, mostly successfully translating the puns and Christmas-cracker level jokes into something appropriate (you only occasionally find something that isn't quite as effective as English).

In this story, Astrix and Obelix travel all over France collecting regional delicacies to win a bet with the new centurion who has blockaded the village. Apparently inspired by the Tour de France, the story provides a chance to see them travel all over France, and each Latin or Celtic name is accompanied by a footnote explaining which modern town or city they're in. This provides the chance for a few regional jokes - my favourite is the joke about the traffic jams on the way to Nice in the summer. Although I haven't ever been to Nice, I have been to Devon by car and lived in Bristol for a year, so I'm very familiar with the inevitable traffic jams caused by the summer getaway!

The plot provides a nice opportunity for the French authors to revel in two of the things the French are most proud of - their cuisine, and the Resistance. There is an attempt to stick vaguely to the period with the specialities by not naming champagne and calling white Bordeaux, white Burdigala, but since the whole point of the Asterix comics is to satirise modern Europe in the guise of an ancient-set story, this is largely a celebration of modern French cuisine, and thoroughly mouth-watering it is too. Other elements of the story, meanwhile, are pure Word War Two, with various helpful townspeople sabotaging Roman transport to help our heroes get away, while a couple of traitors get their comeuppance.

The Romans here tend to come across as rather inept and not very bright, though several are presented fairly sympathetically. Plus, of course, no one actually dies, as this is a children's comic - they just get knocked out and see the obligatory stars floating above their heads. It's nice to see some Latin included as well, though readers would probably prefer it to be accompanied by a translation rather than left by itself.

I love France, so I really enjoyed this story, though the Romans featured were really too stupid to provide an effective enemy for our heroes. I'll have to get hold of one of the books featuring Caesar or Cleopatra who, while losing in the end, might give the main characters more of a run for their money!

A Breton menhir, as delivered by Obelix

*Yes, I know the first comic was written in 1959. That was a joke.


  1. The drug joke was more on the part of the British translators (who were generally funnier than Goscinny and Uderzo). They rather boringly called the druid Panoramix. The Americans chickened out and called him Magigimmix and when the Brits did a newspaper version, he was Readymix. For the Germans, he's Miraculix, which puns on Miracoli, a just-add-water spaghetti sauce.

    It's interesting to look at the various character names in the different languages. The French are often puns on words that have nothing to do with the characters themselves (Cacofonix is Assurancetourix, comprehensive insurance. Huh?). The English names tend to be the best.

    Traffic is also a very popular gag with them, especially in Lutetia. Every single time they go there in every book, they get caught in the exact same jam with the exact same people.

    Stay away from the last few books. Uderzo was OK the first few years after Goscinny died, but he just isn't as good a writer by a long shot.

  2. I thought I might try to get one volume in both French and English to compare them, though altough my French is OK, my knowledge of French culture probably isn't strong enough to really get the French versions of the jokes - still, it might be fun!

  3. Great post Juliette! It brings back fond memories! I'm pretty sure the Asterix comics was the first series of anything I read from start to finish.

    Even as a kid, I remember having many laughs, often from the pictures alone. English was not my first language so these comics ability to do that says much about their universal appeal.

    Have you seen the 2008 Movie


  4. No, I haven't seen the movie - I was a bit dubious about it as movies of classic comic strips don't always work too well!

  5. >>Other elements of the story, meanwhile, are pure Word War Two<<

    This would be the campaign against “improper” use of 'decimate', I take it?

    >>they just get knocked out and see the obligatory stars floating above their heads<<

    Not a symptom covered in Acta Neurochurigica, apparently. If you don't have your copy to hand, you can find a summary of its discussion of brain injuries caused by Asterix and Obelix here.

  6. I don't remember decimation coming into this one - but there were references to the Resistance, by name a couple of times. They certainly do seem fond of inflicting head injuries!


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