Anyone who was searching for me around the age of eight knew they had two places to look: either in our garden in Geneva crouched under an oak tree or in the guest bedroom hidden under a fortress of pillows, grasping one of my brother’s tattered copies of Asterix and Obelix. A French comic originally written in 1961 by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the tales follow the shrewd, wiry Asterix and his robust friend Obelix on quests to save their Gaulish village from Roman invasion, often with the help of a magic potion brewed by the village druid. The popular series has sold over 350 million copies worldwide and has been translated into hundreds of languages.
I read every single one. Sadly, the reputation of the comic dwindled after Goscinny died in 1977 and although Uderzo carried on releasing new versions for over 20 years, many fans felt things weren’t quite the same. The plots seemed superficial, story lines regurgitated, the magic… gone.
A week ago a cardboard box landed on my doormat. Inside was an unexpected present: Asterix and the Picts, the 35th instalment of the series released this October by two new faces, closely supervised by Uderzo. Set in Scotland, the book follows the Gauls’ attempts to rescue a member of the Pict tribe and help him save his kingdom from MacCabeus, a decidedly Shakespearean king who looks suspiciously similar to French actor Vincent Cassel.
That evening I sat down and delved back into my childhood. But something was amiss: the names were all wrong. As a child I had always read the cartoon in its original French but the book I held was in English. All the subtle puns and humorous caricatures – had those been lost in translation? The Merlinesque potion brewer Panoramix becomes drug-peddling Getafix. The unhygienic fishmonger’s wife goes from a delightfully witty pun of a Beatles song – Lélosubmarine – to the much more literal Bacteria. And Obelix’s faithful canine Idéfix becomes Dogmatix, a vacuum cleaner.
Translation aside, time flew by. I realised the book contained a vein of sophisticated humour – allusions to political asylum, systems of democracy and even a wink to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – that would have passed me by in my heyday.
The classic Asterix stories, written in the years following the Second World War, revolved around the theme of foreign occupation. In one episode, Caesar tries absorbing the Gaulish village into Rome by building a luxury complex right next door, transforming it into a tourist trap filled with antique souvenir dealers until the slaves unionise and everything implodes. A political satire of 1970s France, it criticises technocratic urban planners, artificially created cities of high rises and empty promises of golden real estate. In another, Gauls protest and barricade Roman roads with their menhirs - something the French still do today!
These wonderful books, interwoven with the political and social debates of their time despite appearing frivolous on the surface, aren’t just for children. It’s worth remembering that the first French satellite launched into space was named in Asterix’s honour – and the US later followed suit with spaceships Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I’d advise anyone to take a little time to dive back into their childhood favourites; wipe off the dust and return with eyes that might be just a little wiser.
Alexa Firmenich is a researcher for Monocle 24.