By the time I was 12, all I knew about ancient history, I had learned from Asterix comics. Ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration – afterall I pretty much knew that Obelix was not the one responsible for the destruction of the Sphinx’s nose, and I was all but certain that Asterix was not the one who introduced tea to the English. But those and the other multitudes of historical twisting aside, Asterix and ancient history were one and the same.
I guess the more accurate representation would be to say I gained my interest in ancient history from Asterix. In Year Six we had to do a project on a country, and I chose Egypt purely because Asterix and Cleopatra was my favourite Asterix comic. They are perhaps the only reading material of my childhood which I can still read and gain genuine enjoyment. My six year old daughter now reads my Famous Five books, and while there is a certain nostalgic joy to them, I would not ever sit down and read one to find out whether Dick, Julian or George will be the first one to discover that those men who were doing something mysterious near the lighthouse at Demon’s Rocks are actually smugglers.
But Asterix remains enjoyable for adults because it has humour that often flies way above kids, in much the same way that The Simpsons has for the last 20 years. René Goscinny (the writer) and Albert Uderzo (the illustrator) came up with characters and stories that never excluded kids, but never made it too easy for them either. While growing up, I liked reading the comics because I liked the jokes that rewarded those who knew a bit more than the average kid – like Caesar often asking Brutus’s advice by saying “Et tu Brute”. There aren’t many comics that a 10 year old who knew a bit of Shakespeare (mostly I should add from “Classic Comics”) could read and have him thinking himself clever for getting the joke.
I wasn’t that clever, though. For many years I didn’t get the jokes of all the Gauls’ names. The Roman ones – like Encyclopaedicus Brtiannicus – I found easier. For some reason the Gauls’ names often read like some dyslexic nightmare. I think I was well into my teens before I realised that the leader of the village was Vitalstatistix, and not (as I for some reason read it in my head) Vistalistatix (no wonder I didn’t get the joke). I had no idea what Cacofonix meant, let alone Impedimenta and Panacea.
But still I read the books with religious devotion. At my Primary School there were always mad rushes during library lessons to get to read them, and I recall my friends’ and my excitement when the new story – Asterix and the Black Gold – came to the library (it was published in English in 1982, so that would have been Year 6 or 7).
Oddly it was not until a few years ago that I discovered that the English translators of the series (Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge) not only translated the story, but also came up with Anglicised names for the characters. It had never occurred to me that unhygienic is not the same word in English and French, and thus the name of the Gauls’ fishmonger, Unhygenix, would be nonsensical in French. In fact his original name is Ordralfabétix which means Alphabetical order, and is thus a rather odd name for a fishmonger (and a hell of lot less funny than the English version). Similarly the village bard Cacofonix, whose English name wonderfully describes the noise he makes is Assurancetourix in the French version, which means comprehensive insurance, again a rather meaningless joke.
So yes credit to Gosciunny and Udeerzo, but big props to Bell and Hockridge) for superb translating (I ask you is there anyone who thinks the original French of Idefix is a better name for Obelix’s dog than the English Dogmatix, or that Panoramix is a better name for a Druid than Getafix?). The brilliance of Asterix comics is also realised in their current price – they are still anywhere form $20-$30 depending on the bookstore, and they are rare finds in a secondhand bookstore (in a decent condition at any rate).
What I also did not realise about Asterix, was that the English version came out in a different order to the French. Thus one the back of the English version of the comics the list of names imprinted on Obelix’s menhir started with Asterix the Gaul, then Asterix in Spain, Asterix in Britain, Asterix and Cleopatra and Asterix and the Goths. While the Asterix the Gaul was the first in the French series, Asterix in Spain was the 14th published, Asterix in Britain the 8th, Asterix and Cleopatra the 6th and Asterix and the Goths the 3rd. The story behind the odd publishing order is relayed in this great New Zealand site on Asterix. The site also gives excellent synopses and reviews of each book.
Since 1977 (and the death of René Goscinny) the series has been written and illustrated solely by Albert Uderzo. Many fans consider the series to have fallen off in quality since that time, and I must admit that I have little time for bothering with those books in the series after Asterix and the Black Gold but that may be as much to do with the fact that after that edition any that came out would have come out once I was in High School and thus felt myself above such childish things (fool I know). I was going to rank them all, but given that I have not read many for a number of years (I only own a couple books), I decided to stick to picking my favourite five:
1. Asterix and Cleopatra
The original title page described it as the greatest story ever drawn, and who am I to disagree?
A wonderful parody of the film Cleopatra, and also a great adventure yarn as Asterix, Obelix and Getafix (and Dogmatix) venture to Egypt to help architect Edifis build a palace for Cleopatra to win a bet over Caesar.
I always liked the books that had Asterix and Obelix venture to other lands, and especially if it involved Caesar. This story was full of puns using hieroglyphics, great bickering between Asterix and Obelix, and an excellent villain in Artifus.
Just a great example of of the series and early enough in the order that it can be read first.
2. Asterix the Legionary
This one had everything I liked – the lads venturing off to other lands, Caesar, some reference to Ancient history – the Roman civil war, and lots of word play jokes.
The fun to be had as Asterix and Obelix join the Roman Army in order to rescue Tragicomix (betrothed to the beautiful Panacea) allows fun to be made of Army regulations and discipline, as well as the different cultures of the time (as they join a platoon filled with men from different countries).
On the site “Asterix around the World” this one comes in as the most popular. For mine it comes in second, but only just.
3. Obelix and Co
This one is perhaps the best satirical book of the whole series.
The plot involves the Roman economist, Caius Preposterus, being sent by Caesar to the Gauls’ village to disrupt life. He does it by bringing capitalism to the Gauls. He buys one of Obelix’s menhirs and promises more money (“heap big”) for more menhirs. Pretty soon he is rich (and wearing outlandish clothes) , and others in the village catch in on the game. With a huge store of Menhirs, Preposterus markets them to rich Romans, but soon the market is flooded with cheap Roman imitation menhirs, and results in tariffs and blockades against imports.
My best friend, who grew up wanting to be an architect, loved The Mansion of the Gods because it involved lots of pictures of planned cities and buildings – he wanted to design a new city. That I ended up studying economics at uni can probably account for my loving this book. The satire and the explanation of capitalism appealed to my sense of humour and my interest in politics.
It wasn’t till years later that I discovered the drawing of Preposterus was a caricature of French Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac.
4. Asterix in Britain
For some reason this book was not in my Primary School library until after most of the others had been read to the point of needing to be rebound with masking tape.
My friends and I wondered about this story – wondered if the library would ever get it. I guess because the story was to be set in a country that spoke English – and thus we felt some knowledge of rather than the more obscure Corsica or even Belgium – it was a book we held high hopes for.
We weren't disappointed. The story of Asterix and Obelix going to England to help out a similar village over there which is holding out against the Roman invaders is a pure joy to read. From jokes about the English stopping for drinks at 5pm, the Beatles, the tower of London and double-decker buses, the humour is spot on.
The plot is also quite excellent as the search for the barrel of magic potion taken by the Romans that ends with a rugby match and Asterix making a pot of tea is first rate (and let’s face it, any story that makes fun of warm English beer has got to be good).
5. Asterix and the Black Gold
This was the second book written by Uderzo, and it is actually a tribute to the Jewish Goscinny, as it is set in the Middle East and involves Jewish characters.
Asterix and Obelix travel to Jerusalem to get some “Rock Oil” which is a valuable ingredient of the almightily magic potion. They are accompanied by Roman secret agent Dubbelosix.
The artwork in this book is absolutely beautiful. Uderzo gave the characters crisper lines and more natural colouring and it certainly sets it apart from the earlier books.
The story is great as well – satirising the unending conflict in the middle east, and parodying James Bond films in the process.
As I’ve written above, this was the last Asterix book I read before leaving Primary School, and thus in a great sense, for me this is the last one of the series – there have been another 8 written, but this’ll do me.
Close runners-up would be Astrerix and the Laurel Wreath (my best friend and I at uni would often say “Zigzactly” when agreeing with each other in honour of the drunk Asterix and Obelix), Asterix the Gladiator – almost a companion to Asterix the Legionary), Asterix and the Roman Agent – especially for the drawing of the massive battle at the end, and Asterix and the Cauldron – a good mystery story.
But they’re all good and I really should put some more effort into rebuilding my collection – looks like it’s off to ebay and second-hand book stores again!