Asterix the Gaul
(1959-60 Pilote/1969 English edition) Asterix is of course, based on faked history, that of the Roman Empire and an occupation of France (at least, by said empire) that never existed. Which shouldn’t be an impediment to enjoying its frequently very witty and intentionally anachronistic storytelling (René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s respective words and images oft-enhanced by English translations courtesy of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge). Set in 50 BC, or the period following, Julius Caesar makes frequent cameos, portrayed as an irascible but not entirely unreasonable sort, and one usually displaying a grudging respect for/ resignation with regard to the indomitable Gauls. Others historical figures appearing – also made up: the Stolen History forum makes for a good starting point in considering the fabrication of the past – include Cleopatra and both Brutuses.
The premise is formed around a cheat, of course, The (poor) Romans are hopelessly outmatched in their attempts to subjugate the little Gaulish village holding out against them as there’s no chance of a fair fight; the Gauls have a magic potion on their side (they are not, however supermen, in a Luciferian sense. Only Obelix has permanent “super powers”, and his obsessions are strictly prosaic: sating his appetite). In fairness, however, on occasions where above-board competition is the name of the game (most singularly Asterix and the Olympic Games), the wily wee (titular) Gaul may be seen employing his brains rather than a snort from his hip flask/ gourd. Albeit, one might level the charge that his tactics there are also rather underhand.
Asterix the Gaul is the one that started it all. In which the Romans, convinced there’s something’s very fishy (pre-Unhygienix) about the Gaulish village’s indomitability, send a spy to ferret out the truth. When he returns, duly dosed up with magic potion, his superiors want some of that – with designs on becoming Caesar themselves – and kidnap druid Getafix to that end (Getafix lives in a kind of tree cave at this point – perhaps they should have run with that). They get more than they bargained for, however, particularly when things turn hairy.
The first tale is on the rudimentary side in some respects. The artwork is still in search of the eventual classic designs – Obelix is positively svelte! – and the Romans are the utmost dupes, even by their standards (it doesn’t take much to convince them they’ve been imbibed with super strength, thanks to Asterix acting as a fake-out test subject… until it becomes clear they’ve actually consumed an extremely powerful hair lotion).
Infiltration of the village would later elicit some of the most inspired Asterix plotting, but in this case, it’s simply about gleaning facts – as indicated, the Romans don’t even know a potion is the source of their invincibility at this point – rather than machinations that would impinge upon or corrupt their established way of life. Apart from anything, in this context, following an outsider makes an ideal way to introduce us to village life. The spy, Caligula Minus, is reluctant at best in his efforts, so it’s little surprise that his covert game is up by page 20.
In terms of lore, the potion, while it’s as unsustained as it would later be (“the effects wear off quite quickly”), appears to be provided to villagers in a quasi-regimented fashion; “The time has come for me to have my dose of magic potion” Asterix relays to his druid. Perhaps it was their equivalent of methamphetamine – villager’s, rather than mother’s little helper – so Getafix, like governments, reined in its availability (he also says it increases their strength “tenfold”, a yardstick has little relation to some of the feats seen in later tales. Certainly not where Obelix is concerned. To wit, he carries a menhir one handed even here, so Goscinny and Uderzo clearly weren’t seeking to quantify its potency with any degree of consistency. It’s also established that it “makes you very strong, but not invulnerable…”)
Boar hunting, menhirs and golden sickles are all present and correct, although a very different Fulliautomatix is the only main-cast villager identified besides Chief Vitalstatistix (he’s less portly and less buffoonish at this stage) and Cacofonix the bard. Presumably potion-enhanced, he uses his bare hands to bash iron into shape: splatch that! While Cacofonix’s crooning is roundly ridiculed, he is not yet customarily tied to a tree and gagged in the final panel to prevent him from letting loose (further still, and somewhat disconcertingly, he’s shown providing accompaniment to enthusiastic villagers during a country dance). But then, the favoured tree is also conspicuously absent.
Most noteworthy is that Obelix, equipped with an axe for this outing only and bearing more resemblance to his live-action Gerard Depardieu incarnation than he would subsequently, barely features; the bulk of the action concerns Asterix and Getafix in the Roman camp. Nevertheless, Asterix mulling what to do in response to Caligula taking offence (and being off his food) when told the secret of their invincibility is off limits elicits a very Obelix “We could always eat his wild boar?”.
Caesar, looking rather different in the prologue, also puts in an appearance at the end, sending centurion Crismus Bonus to Outer Mongolia when Asterix shops his plans (Bonus had the idea of using the potion to oust Julius). No one in the Roman camp is volunteering to get beaten up, even at this early stage (“I’ll roast you alive if you don’t” Caligula Minus is told, upon initially passing on the proposed spying mission).
Tullius Octopus: Goody gumdrops! I’m going to the circus!
Inventive guest character names are in evidence from the off. The best of these is the aforementioned Crismus Bonus; his No. 2 is Marcus Ginantonicus (they should really have kept that one back for Asterix in Britain). Caius Flebitus is mentioned in passing, and there’s a legionary Tullius Octopus (a big lug of the type who will be seen again: most memorably Magnumopus in Asterix and the Roman Agent). Tenansix is a villager (a predecimalisation riff).
Puns and plays on words are scattered liberally throughout, particularly on the Latin front (“Ipso factor sic” comment some defeated legionnaires: “We decline” states another, clarifying the declension). “I’ll be loquacious all right! I’ll loquace like no one has loquaced before” promises Asterix; “This is bad grammar” corrects an asterisk. “That was a fruitful suggestion of yours, sending him for strawberries” is very much in the groaner pun(net) of gags often found in these books. And the magic hair inevitably extends itself to numerous one-liners (“Here’s hair on your chest”; “They’ve got us by the short hairs!”; “Let’s not split hairs!”; “All right, keep your hair on”; “Try a hair of the dog?”; “He’s a bit hare-brained sometimes”).
The germs of the next couple of volumes are also present; most obviously Getafix’s sickle, but Goths show up in the third panel (hence, they do indeed “komm back!”) “Hieroglyphic” speech makes its first appearance – “Ancient Gaulish swear-words” – when Getafix is captured, and it’s the first of numerous “render unto Caesar…” references (no, I haven’t totted them all up). Asterix the Gaul is more than adequate on its own terms, but the plotting, presentation and punning would only get more sophisticated going forward. Well, maybe not the punning so much, but that comes with such groan-worthy territory.