Asterix’s Magic Potion

Asterix co-creator Albert Uderzo once admitted that he didn’t know why the character has been so successful:

“[it’s] a question I’ve been asked many times, and I asked [co-creator René] Goscinny many times also. I still don’t really know the answer.

“Why are these characters popular with the public in comparison to other characters we created together, where it seems to us that we have used the same ingredients, the same talents, if you like, the same pleasure above all?

“We are like magicians who don’t know how they do a trick.”

I can’t explain why their other creations were not so successful, but there are lots of reasons why Asterix remains hugely popular among people of all ages, all over the world.

First of all, there is the friendship between Asterix and Obelix themselves. Argumentative though they may be, these two stick together through thick and thin, and never even question their friendship. It’s encapsulated here in a scene from Asterix and the Cauldron:

Asterix and the Cauldron (c) Dargaud Editeur 1969

That’s not all. Asterix’s village is a peaceful haven where everyone’s work contributes to the good of the whole community. Their world of blacksmiths and fishmongers, druids and chiefs seems perfect. However, like real people, they squabble all the time. Although the life of the Gauls is idealised, the villagers are just as flawed as anyone else.

As are their opponents. The Gaulish village is the last outpost of resistance to an all-powerful foreign power, rather like the French resistance in the Second World War. Nevertheless, the Romans are never treated as a faceless, emotionless foe. The legionaries in Asterix are always moaning and bickering. This also shows the authors’ classical training. The Roman historian Tacitus describes legionaries at the point of revolt because of having to build those interminable straight roads.

Even when showing the Romans in a group, Goscinny and Uderzo still pick out individuals. In this scene from Asterix in Britain, the Romans are seeking a stolen barrel containing the magic potion.To do so, they have to break open every barrel of wine in the local area and taste the contents (check out the legionary who is sixth from the left):

In every Asterix volume, the images are full of detail. They are also extremely funny.

Unlike The Flintstones with its foot-powered cars et al., the humour in Asterix does not depend on anachronism. The jokes work both in the context of the story and for present-day readers. Take for example, this scene from Asterix in Corsica. A Corsican sits down to dinner in a tavern where the innkeeper is an old friend:

This means that the books have a universal humour that appeals to all people in all times. A lot of the humour also comes from a clever use of fonts and speech bubbles. One of my favourite characters is the Egyptian in Asterix the Legionary, who only speaks in hieroglyphics. He accidentally joins the Roman army thinking he’s checked into a hotel, and is not impressed with the quality of service:

A huge part of the humour comes from word play and here the translators have played a big role in Asterix’s global success. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge are widely praised for their magnificent English versions of the books. Has there ever been a better translation of a name than the English Dogmatix for the original French Idéfix?

There is one other great strength to the stories, which is their plotting. Each one of Goscinny’s scripts has enough depth to be adapted as a film treatment. Although we remember Obelix swatting Romans away with one swipe of his hand, every time you revisit the books, you are immediately absorbed in the story. With each successive read, you are astonished once again by all the twists and turns in the narrative, making an Asterix book not just a pleasure in childhood, but something you can return to time and time again.

Those are my guesses as to why the Asterix stories have remained so popular, though the answer may be more simple. Perhaps Goscinny and Uderzo fell into a cauldron of magic potion when they were babies…


7 responses to “Asterix’s Magic Potion

  1. Another great post, you always remind me of books i own but haven’t looked at in ages. I loved all the names of characters, all clever puns. I need to dig these out again. Are you familiar with Les Tuniques Bleues? Although I haven’t read them I hear it’s a good series and basis for old skool computer game North and South.

    • Thanks! I have a few more blogs coming in 2013 about other 70s and 80s characters, books and comics too so I hope they pique your interest.
      I’d never heard of Les Tuniques Bleues before but I’ve just read up on them. It sounds like a fun series so I’ll have to try and get hold of a few of the books. It’s funny how there are so many French and Belgian series like this, but only Asterix and Tintin managed to make that cultural leap into the English-speaking world.

      • Waterstones have started to bring a few more into there quite frankly poor graphic novel section, so next time i am there with some cash to spare I shall pick a couple up and give them a go. Someone once said that the English translations were actually more witty than the original Flemish, which amused me greatly.

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