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Good sickles don’t grow on trees!

Books

Asterix and the Golden Sickle
(1962)

 

(1960-1 Pilote/1975 English edition) The little Gaul’s second outing, in which Asterix and Obelix volunteer to obtain their druid Getafix a new golden sickle after his gets broken. To which end, they trek to Lutetia, Gallo-Roman predecessor of modern-day Paris (allegedly), in search of Obelix’s distant cousin and metalsmith Metallurgix (Obelix takes a menhir along as a present: “You can put it anywhere you like…” he advises, when they eventually meet. Earlier, pointing to it, he instructs a stunned innkeeper “You can take our luggage to our room”). 

I stress “eventually meet”, as the chief problem the merry duo encounter is that Metallurgix is nowhere to be found, and an extortionate sickle-trafficking business has sprung up in his place. Getafix has earlier emphasised that a golden sickle is required in order to make his patented magic potion (in respect of cutting mistletoe specifically). This is doubtless to preserve the potion’s alchemical properties, but there’s an additional motive in that he needs a sickle in order to enter the Great Annual Conference of Gaulish Druids (in the forest of the Carnutes). Not specifically a golden one, except if he’s to brew up his intended entry (something that becomes clear in Asterix and the Goths – in anticipation of which, some barbarians appear on the final page, bruised and beaten). 

By the by, I doubt you’d want to use a gold cutting edge for a great many purposes; while it would be commendably corrosion resistant, it would also surely, much less advantageously, be a pain to have to sharpen regularly. Getafix, generally regarded as venerably wise and noble, isn’t above a veneer of faux-principles here, insisting the proposed trip to Lutetia is far too dangerous until Asterix responds “Oh, well in that case…

Surplus Dairiprodus: Just when I was so nice and bored!

The now-familiar plotting of continually frustrated Romans is transposed to the big city, where the Gauls are repeatedly apprehended and then released – when they aren’t releasing themselves – by Prefect Surplus Dairiprodus, an oh-so-bored Charles Laughton lookalike. It eventually transpires that the Prefect is the big cheese in the sickle trafficking business – there’s something of a mystery plotline here, what with whoever is behind the trafficking and wherever Metallurgix has ended up – an enterprise he involved himself with because he’s so bored. Such is his Roman perversity, when he and Navishtrix, the nominal head of the traffickers, are banged to rights, he is positively upbeat at the prospect of being forced to row in a galley or be eaten by lions (“A bit of fun at last!.. We’re going to have a few laughs”). The means of trafficking – in common with such dark businesses generally – involves dodgy deeds beneath the ground (“Shall we take the subway?”) Ones adjacent to sacred sites (dolmens).

Goscinny and Uderzo – and Bell and Hockridge – naturally bring much contemporary humour to their depiction of city life. “These Romans are ruining the landscape with all these modern buildings” Asterix observes en route (of a bridge under construction). He’s entirely unimpressed with the hustle and bustle (“Talk about pollution… Fancy living here!”) A fisherman opines on all the muck in the river: “I’ve caught nothing but empty amphoras all morning”. City living is costly too (“What a price boar is Lutetia! And the butcher said prices were going to rise even higher!”), reflecting a keen ongoing axe the series has to grind with the absurdities of economics and capitalism (“What does he do with all the gold coins he gets for his sickles?” asks Asterix at the outset, “Oh, he makes more sickles” replies Obelix airily). Then there are intrusive entertainments at pubs when you just want a quiet chat (“A table for three, not too near the bards…”)

Upon returning to the village, one of the women is keen to speak to the pair (“They’ll be able to tell us what’s being worn in Lutetia this season!”) Elsewhere, vehicular transport comes in for some parody, including The Suindinum 24 Hours (a Le Mans like great ox-cart race) and Obelix speculating that, on the crowded road to Gergovia, there must be frequent “amphora-necks” on fine days. A road sign reads “Slow! Slaves at Work”. In Lutetia, one cart driver yells “Get out of the way there, barbarian!” And another responds “Who do you think you are, Ben Hur?” Which is no less anachronistic – providing, of course, you’re buying all this Roman Empire business as legitimate history in the first place – than Asterix yelling to a centurion “I fear I am about to break the pax Romana!” (being as the Roman peace lasted from 27BC to 180AD and this is set in 50 BC).

Asterix: You make me sick, going on about boars all the time.
Obelix: And you bore me, going on about sickles

Plays on words are present and correct: “A Roman raid! And all raids lead to Rome and the Circus Maximus!”; “X to I they’re after us!” A Roman discourse in Latin leads to the response “Just a parsing fancy” (we had one of those in the last volume too). The main names (Metallurgix, Surplus Dairiprodus, Navishtrix and kidnapper Clovogarlix) are up to a fine standard. There’s an inn called The Contrite Barbarian (the one mentioned below). Of which, an encounter with some less contrite ones leads to some unapolgetically pidgin German (“Zat vos kein nice zink to do!”; “Nein, it nicht vos!”)

Where Asterix and the Golden Sickle most demonstrably improves on the debut, however, is in pairing Asterix and Obelix throughout. Asterix is the straight man, so he needs Obelix’s petulance, childishness and insouciance as an effective contrast (Obelix hasn’t yet achieved the corpulent proportions that make for quite the same visual dissimilitude). Always leading with his stomach – “Two boars” requests Asterix on entering the inn. “For me too” agrees Obelix, who also references a willingness to eat it “served raw as a simple little salad” – or showing unbridled glee (“Goody gumdrops!” when it comes to the prospect of a scrap; last time it was uttered by a Roman), despair (“BOOHOOO! Poor Metallurgix!” he wails after his vanished cousin) or a capacity to sulk (“It’s always me who loses bets!”)

Asterix and the Golden Sickle is also more playfully plotted. Which isn’t so much down to having a “reveal” of the villain than a rhythm in the back-and-forth of capture and escape, and trails to follow to the goal (through inns and forests and contacts) that keep things lively and blessed with momentum. There’s the favourite – in the 1970s especially – of drunk gags too (Dairyprodus, an incarcerated inebriate, is eventually rewarded with magic potion for giving Asterix, his hands tied, a glug) and a neatly paid off routine about failing to pay for a steak (Navishtrix only wants it to press to his swollen eye and promptly runs off; the butcher, complaining to an increasingly peeved centurion – “What about my prime steak?” – receives a black eye for his troubles. On returning home, his wife asks the butcher if he got the money owed, and he responds “No, give me a nice steak”). 

A nice undercutting of Gaulish bravery too, when Asterix claims “We Gauls don’t know the meaning of fear” and the old chap warning them of the dangerous forest (at night) replies “Speak for yourselves! I’m a Gaul, and I’m afraid!” I’ve never been keen on this one’s cover; indeed, I’d suggest it’s one of the poorest, owing to the scrappy representations of our duo, Asterix especially. But it belies that the series found its feet and rhythm very quickly.

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