Astérix and the Historical Interpretation

Introduction

The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well not entirely! One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium…

And especially so given that one of those indomitable Gauls is the legendary fictional French hero Astérix [Verdaguer, 1988], who has fought many battles and defeated numerous opponents (including many Romans) since he first appeared on the comics scene in 1959… But may he have met his match in this historical interpretation? Can his magic potion save him and his friends from being analytically dissected for the purposes of this article? We shall see… 

Before Astérix

The Astérix series was co-created by Alberto Aleandro Uderzo (1927 – 2020), a French comic book artist and scriptwriter [Wikipedia Uderzo, -], and René Goscinny (1926 – 1977), a French comic editor and writer [Wikipedia Goscinny, -]. 

Both of Astérix’s creators, Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, knew something of being a stranger in a strange land, with Uderzo’s family having come from Italy and the Goscinny family originally from Poland. 

Perhaps Astérix et al.’s far flung adventures around the world (and poking fun at those crazy Romans) are less of a surprise in this context…

Albert Uderzo was to be named after his predeceased brother Albert, but his father’s strong Italian accent meant that the French registry office only heard ‘Alberto’ when he meant ‘Albert’, and they registered him as Alberto instead. As Uderzo said:

I once asked [my father]: “Why did you give me an Italian first name, considering we live in France?” His reply was typical for him: “I didn’t try to register you as Alberto, but instead as Alberto.” It was hopeless. Without noticing it, my father pronounced ‘Albert’ the Italian way. [Uderzo et al., 1985]

Goscinny had also spent many years in Argentina where he grew up, but he lived for some time in the United States. He is also known for a prolific amount of writing work including his creations Le Petit Nicolas and Iznogoud, and from when he joined Belgian cartoonist Morris to work on the Lucky Luke series for many years.

Goscinny and Uderzo met in the latter’s Paris apartment to come up with an idea for a comic book that they hoped would entertain the growing market of teenage bande dessinée readers. They looked for inspiration in the different epochs of French history as was taught to them in school, gradually seizing on the time of the Gauls as being the perfect setting for their new series [Dandridge, 2008] and that would liberally mine cultural references and identities from both historical and present (at the time) French and European society [Mutta, 2016].

The resulting series abounded in contemporary cultural references, literary allusions, anachronisms, satire, and caricature. Don Quixote, James Bond, the Beatles, Jacques Lacan, the Statue of Liberty, Louis XIV, William Tell, Zorro, the Moulin Rouge, Napoleon the First, the M1 motorway, Jacques Chirac, and Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris in the Springtime’ all made appearances in Astérix, as did textual or visual references to the cultural masterpieces of Fellini, Shakespeare, Pagnol, Rembrandt, Rodin, Géricault, Hugo, and Bruegel. [Dandridge, 2008]

1959-1968

And so it was that in 1959, the comic strip Astérix was launched on an unsuspecting French public. It was the year that the French Fourth Republic was replaced by the Fifth Republic, with Charles de Gaulle beginning as President on the 8th of January 1959 and taking the reins from René Coty. It was de Gaulle, of course, who had led Free France against Nazi Germany some 15 years earlier.

Neither Uderzo (who at 12 was too young to fight) or Goscinny (also too young, and who was still living in Argentina at the time), had an active part in World War II, but they would almost certainly have felt its effects as did most of the world. (Also at the age of 12, Uderzo’s parents discovered that he was colour blind. For his later artwork, he got around this by applying labels to indicate what colours he wanted to be used.) [Wikipedia Uderzo, -]

Uderzo’s brother Bruno fought in the war for France and survived, and Goscinny (whose family were Jewish) later joined the French Army in 1946.

Something of a parallel can be seen, therefore, in the tale of the small Gaulish village that resisted the Roman imperial forces who had control of much of Europe in 50 BC (Figure 1), just as the Third Reich occupied much of Europe and France in the prior decade, with the themes of resistance, occupation and collaboration seen throughout.

Figure 1: Map of the Roman Republic in the mid-1st century BC, around when Astérix is set. Image used under the GNU Free Documentation License.

In the 1963 comic Astérix and the Banquet, the fifth in the series, Astérix bets Caesar’s inspector general that he and Obélix will be able to escape a stockade erected around their village by the occupation army, and collect regional food and drinks from around Gaul for a banquet. Many of the towns and cities they visit on their culinary ‘Tour de France’ happen to be those found on various map of Nazi-occupied France [Kalita, 2014].

The collaborators Unpatriotix and Uptotrix may be in the minority of the Gauls, but there are clearly echoes of Vichy here [Roll-Pickering, 2017]. We also have the ‘Resistance Movement’ appearing in Lugdunum (the later site of Lyon), no doubt a reference to the French resistance that was active in Lyon during World War II.

In 1960s France, scientists René Dumont [Wikipedia Dumont, -] and Philippe Lebreton  [Wikipedia Lebreton, -] were two of the most prominent environmental voices to be heard in the circles of media and politics, highlighting the world’s environmental plight at the time, growing pollution issues, and even globalisation, with Dumont being one of the first French people to explain its consequences.

Coming at the very beginning of the 1960s, the second Astérix volume Astérix and the Golden Sickle references pollution and traffic in another sign that it was somehow ahead of its time in terms of addressing issues of note.

As mentioned earlier, the creators of Astérix were fond of referencing not just current French and European society, but also many historical references, including their 1966 reworking (Figure 2a) of Géricault’s famous French painting The Raft of the Medusa (Figure 2b).

Figure 2: Art imitating historical art. (a) A frame from the 1966 comic Astérix the Legionary. The translated line “We’ve been framed, by Jericho” is a pun on the name of the artist Géricault. Image used under a fair use policy.
(b) The Raft of the Medusa by French painter Théodore Géricault from 1818–1819. Public domain.

1969-1978

It was at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games that athlete doping reared its ugly head for the first time. Bronze-winning Swedish athlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was found to have taken ethanol during the modern pentathlon event [Wikipedia Doping Olympic, -]. The number of athletes found to have taken illegal substances jumped from that one in 1968 to seven in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, which coincidentally was the period during which Astérix at the Olympic Games had first appeared in serial form in 1968 and then later in a single volume in 1972.

The comic is a thinly-veiled satire on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by sportspeople at that time (and still of relevance today). 1960s France had already seen a number of doping scandals in relation to the Tour de France, with cyclists refusing and failing tests over the years [Wikipedia Doping Tour, -]. Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour de France winning French cyclist in the 1950s and 1960s, had openly admitted to doping in 1971 [Mason, 2012].

Tying back into popular culture of the time, 1970’s Astérix in Switzerland also had a reference to the 1969 Satyricon, a film by famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.

1979-1988

One of the most seismic events in Europe during the late 20th century was the fall of the Berlin Wall in France’s neighbour Germany during 1989. Earlier that decade, Uderzo, who by now was writing on his own following the untimely death of Goscinny during a routine stress test at his doctor’s in 1977, produced a thinly veiled metaphor for (and condemnation of) the Berlin Wall in 1980’s Astérix and the Great Divide, under the guise of a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale.

In this comic, a ditch built between the warring tribes in a small Gaulish village represents an inversion of the structure which was still separating East and West Berlin at the time. The latest panel of the comic has the following conversation between two of the characters [Uderzo, 1980], again alluding to the perceived ludicrousness of the wall:

“All that about the Great Divide really does sound most improbable.”

“Yes…

It was so ridiculous I daresay future generations will never believe a word of it!”

1989-1998

Unfortunately, Uderzo’s treatment of feminism in Astérix and the Secret Weapon is less flattering and less sensitive than the earlier satires of war and strife in Europe. The 1991 comic parodies feminism and gender equality, and Uderzo’s sexist treatment of women in the book will almost certainly upset many readers today. 

Thankfully, developments in France during the 1990s as regards feminism and equality were slowly progressing, building on the previous decade’s improvements including the 1983 law that was passed against sexism, the reform of a father’s sole power over children’s property in 1985, and other legal reforms giving women equal rights and responsibilities in marriage (and later in PACS) [Martin and Théry, 2001].

The Court of Cassation authorised the prosecution of spouses for sexual assault after a landmark case in 1990, and in 1994 a French law was passed that criminalised all marital rape (overriding loopholes in the 1810 French Penal Code) [Wikipedia Feminism France, -].

Workplace sexual harassment was made a legal offence in 1992, and “Le Manifeste des Dix [Pour La Parité]” was published in L’Express newspaper in 1996 by both left and right-wing politicians as a manifesto for the equal representation of women in the French political arena [Barzach et al., 1996].

1999-2008

Only two volumes of Astérix were published during this period, although there were four Astérix and Obélix movies produced including three live action ones with Gérard Depardieu.

2005’s Astérix and the Falling Sky was Uderzo’s last volume. While it was the first to contain science fiction elements (aliens), it was also seen as a satire of the earlier 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies on the premise of removing the country’s (unconfirmed) weapons of mass destruction. The aliens have also been described as a “heavy-handed attempt to parody American cultural imperialism” [Schofield, 2009].

2008-Present

Writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad took over production of the Astérix series from Uderzo in 2013. To date, they have produced four volumes (one every two years).

In 2015’s Astérix and the Missing Scroll (which was also the last volume to be translated into English by long-time translator Anthea Bell), there are a whole slew of characters that allude to events of the time around whistleblowing and document leaks. The character Bigdhata is almost certainly a reference to whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The newsmonger Confoundtheirpolitix somewhat resembles Julian Assange, and was apparently almost called Wikilix [France 24, 2015]. Assange had also petitioned the French government to grant him refugee status in 2015 via an open letter to François Hollande in Le Monde.

Making up somewhat for its earlier poor depictions of female characters, in 2019 Astérix featured the first female hero in its 60-year span with the new character Adrenaline in Astérix and the Chieftain’s Daughter. Adrenaline is a rebellious teenager who is the daughter of Gaulish chief Vercingetorix. When questioned by a reporter, Ferri and Conrad said that any similarities between Adrenaline and environmental activist Greta Thunberg were purely by chance [Nandi, 2019]. Illustrator Conrad also declared:

We didn’t want to develop a character who would be based on her seductive side as we usually do with female characters in Astérix. Most of the time they are young attractive women who seduce Obelix and their role stops there.

The same comic also features a caricature of popular French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour who had died the previous year.

Conclusion

Like many popular books, movies and TV shows, comics often feature cultural references and historical figures that may sometimes go over one’s head, and certainly can go over the heads of some younger readers. As we have seen in this article, Astérix is full of historical references to events of the time, relevant to the decades during which the various volumes were published. We can see these comics as reflections of the world as observed by Uderzo and Goscinny, a practice that has been continued by their successors, and I am sure, this will continue well into the future by the later custodians of Astérix and his friends in Gaul.

References

  1. [Barzach et al., 1996] Michèle Barzach, Frédérique Bredin, Edith Cresson, Hélène Gisserot, Catherine Lalumière, Véronique Neiertz, Monique Pelletier, Yvette Roudy, Catherine Tasca, Simone Veil, “Le Manifeste des Dix”, L’Express, 1996. https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/politique/le-manifeste-des-dix_492498.html  
  2. [Chandrasekharan and Dippold, -] Sudhakar Thaths Chandrasekharan and Ron Dippold, “Astérix Annotations” website, retrieved 4th May 2021. http://asterix.openscroll.org/ 
  3. [Dandridge, 2008] Eliza Bourque Dandridge, “Producing Popularity: The Success in France of the Comics Series ‘Astérix le Gaulois’”, MA Thesis, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA, 2008.
  4. [France 24, 2015] France 24, “Astérix to Team Up with Assange-Like Character in New Comic”, 2015. https://www.france24.com/en/20151013-france-new-comic-asterix-missing-scroll-hit-stores-october 
  5. [Kalita, 2014] Jyotishman Kalita, “Historicising Astérix and Obelix: A Case for Graphic Literature”, Delhi University, 2014. http://ijellh.com/papers/2014/November/16-142-150-november-2014.pdf 
  6. [Martin and Théry, 2001] Claude Martin, Irène Théry, “The PACS and Marriage and Cohabitation in France”, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, Oxford University Press (OUP), vol. 14, no. 3, pp.135-158, 2001. https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00199963/document
  7. [Matson, 2012] John Matson, “When-if Ever-Was Cycling Drug-Free?” Scientific American, 2012. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/when-if-ever-was-cycling-drug-free 
  8. [Mutta, 2016] Maarit Mutta, “The Astérix Series: Gallic Identity In A Nutshell?”, Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016.
  9. [Nandi, 2019] Sonali Nandi, “Meet Adrenaline: Astérix gets first female hero in 60-year history”, The Guardian, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/24/meet-adrenaline-asterix-gets-first-female-hero-in-60-year-history 
  10. [Rivière, -] Stéphane Rivière, “Astérix Le Gaulois” website, retrieved 4th May 2021. http://www.mage.fst.uha.fr/asterix/
  11. [Roll-Pickering, 2017] Tim Roll-Pickering, “Astérix and the Banquet by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo – Volume 5”, The 9th Art Form, 2017. https:// ninthartform.blogspot.com/2017/09/asterix-and-banquet-by-rene-goscinny.html 
  12. [Schofield, 2009] Hugh Schofield, “Should Astérix Hang Up His Sword?”, BBC News, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8319196.stm 
  13. [Uderzo, 1980], “Astérix and the Great Divide”, 1980. https://archive.org/details/25AstérixAndTheGreatDivide_201805/page/n43/mode/2up 
  14. [Uderzo et al., 1985] Albert Uderzo, Christian Philippsen, Bernard De Venteronne, “Uderzo: de Flamberge à Astérix”, Les Editions Albert René, 1985.
  15. [Verdaguer, 1988] Pierre Verdaguer, “Le Héros National et Ses Dédoublements dans San-Antonio et Astérix”, The French Review, vol. 61, no. 3, pp. 605-616, 1988. https://www.jstor.org/stable/393846?seq=1 
  16. [Wikipedia Doping Olympic, -] Wikipedia, “Doping at the Olympic Games” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Olympic_Games
  17. [Wikipedia Doping Tour, -] Wikipedia, “Doping at the Tour de France” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France 
  18. [Wikipedia Dumont, -] Wikipedia, “René Dumont” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Dumont 
  19. [Wikipedia Feminism France, -] Wikipedia, “Feminism in France” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism_in_France 
  20. [Wikipedia Goscinny, -] Wikipedia, “René Goscinny” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Goscinny 
  21. [Wikipedia Lebreton, -] Wikipédia (en français), “Philippe Lebreton” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Lebreton 
  22. [Wikipedia Uderzo, -] Wikipedia, “Albert Uderzo” article, retrieved 4th May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Uderzo 

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