Asterix The Gaul
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Ah, the translations. Asterix owes his success in the English-speaking world to the brilliance of the translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. They've been responsible for all the Asterix books since 'Asterix the Gaul' first appeared in English in 1969, an astonishing record of continuity. So true is their work to the spirit of the French originals, that it's as though Goscinny and Uderzo had produced the books in English in the first place. Some of the jokes are arguably better in English than in French, especially the names.
24 books were written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. Then in 1977 Goscinny died at the tragically early age of 51. Uderzo has since produced seven more books on his own, as well as some collections of other material, and they're very good. But Rene Goscinny's genius is sorely missed.
The French versions have never been out of print - hardly surprising as Asterix is a French national icon. But the first 24 in the series, the classic books, have been unavailable in English for several years. Now British publishers Orion Books have put that right, and - for the most part - they've made a very good job of it. The work of re-coloring and re-inking the pages has transformed them, especially the earliest book, 'Asterix the Gaul'. The typefaces have also been recast, and are more legible and closer in style to the French edition. And the books are now printed on high quality glossy paper in the classic hardback format. All in all, it's a vast improvement and the English-language books are now produced to a higher standard than the current French edition from Hachette. That's quite an achievement.
But there are flaws. Many of the jokes come from the imaginative use of different typefaces, an area in which both Goscinny and Uderzo had a special interest. So the Goths speak in Gothic script, the Egyptians in hieroglyphics (which are often really symbols from the Michelin Guide) and so on. Some of this has been lost in the new Orion versions. So whenever Obelix shakes someone, their words should appear twice, overlapping, to suggest vibration. In the new books they don't, and a good joke has been missed. And the cover of 'Asterix and Cleopatra' no longer boasts it's 'the greatest story ever drawn', in a deliberate echo of movie posters, Uderzo being a big Hollywood fan. And there are some other silly mistakes that weren't there before.
But these are quibbles. The Asterix series is triumphantly back for a new generation to enjoy. Buy all 31 (and 'Asterix and the Class Act', an excellent collection of shorter material). And then get them all again in French while you're about it, for more than double the fun. You, and your children, will be glad you did.
This specific episode begins with the Romans sending a spy in to the village to discover their secret source of strength. Very soon, the Romans kidnap Getafix in the hopes that they could cajole the potion's formula out of him. However, the Romans are lined up to pay dearly because nobody lays one over on the Gauls without receiving a serious pounding on the skull!
Most Asterix titles are aimed at a teen/adult audience and they cleverly integrate many historical events in to their plots. There is also a deeper satirical presence throughout these books, and for that reason I feel that children under the age of 12 or so would not quite appreciate the humor. The violence is more along the lines of black eyes, dented armor and missing teeth, and hence should not worry a parent too much. This is one of the best Asterix comics, and since it started the chain reaction, this is the one to get FIRST!
The very names provide example of brilliant use of dialogue. Asterix- a small, seeming addition. Obelisk, who delivers menhirs. Getafix, the Druid. (Remember, this series began in the 60's.) Cacaphonix, the Bard, and Vitalstatistix, the chief. In the same vein, the authors use contemporary differences between cultures and play them upon the ancient Gaulish-Roman dispute. This is about the only place one can find swearing in Latin- "ipso facto", "sic", etc. Or the taking of Toutanis' name in vain.
The first of the Asterix books , it is a very clever and witty piece of work on the Roman occupation of Gaul in 50 BC-with a fair amount of Latin quips in too -read Asterix and you'll soon become familiar with 'Quid' , 'Vae victo , vae victus' and 'Morituri te salutant'.
It begins with the familiar scene of well thumped Roman legionnaires reporting their defeat to an incensed Roman centurion (in this case Crismus Bonus) who then hatches a plan to deal with the Gauls which our heroes always in the end foil.
It also includes such recurring themes as Cacofonix and his hated singing , the magic potion (and why Obelix cannot have any ) and a guest appearance by Julius Caesar.It ends as always without he Gauls feasting their heroes 'under a starry sky...victorious over their enemies , thanks to magic the protection of the gods and low cunning'.
Unlike all of its successors in this book , Obelix does not even offer to accompany Asterix on his adventure (which is so unlike the Obelix we know from all of the other Asterix books).
There are some gaps in the dialogue and there is unusually not one woman or girl in the first book . drawbacks which will be made up for in the other Asterix books.
Nevertheless it is a great start to your Asterix collection and an amusing little book.
But quite possibly this is the sort of book that still sells most of its copies in bookstores--because it's the kind of read where one might pick it up because of the pictures, and then, as one gets deeper in, one realizes "Hey, this is amazingly silly, intelligent, and fun. I'm halfway through and already I know I'm going to have to read it again because there are still some new jokes for me to pick up on. I'd better buy it and bring it home so I can read it through a second time." And when you bring it home--it's quite possible for Asterix to become an obsession, and you find yourself returning, time and time again, to the bookstore, to try to find copies of other books in the series.
The early books in the series are without question the best (I say "books" advisedly, these are short graphic novels ie classy comic books). As the series ballooned in popularity, the stories began to fall into an established pattern that is less interesting than the brilliant twists and turns that are hallmark of, say, Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and Cleopatra, and Asterix and the Olympic games (certain 'tics' were possibly brought on by aggressive fan mail, one can't help but feel). The puns and wordgames of these earlier books range from subtle to screaming and are a sort of "gift that keeps on giving"--some of them will certainly pass you by until you pick up some scraps of Latin and Classical history and advanced education in general. Better still, the historical material is slipped in in such a sly way that as one reads it, one starts asking questions. "Did Cleopatra really have a big nose?" "What *was* the Roman occupation of Gaul really like?" The series sparks a lovely desire to know more--and is also, I would suggest, an unacknowledged idea source, a la Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for many fantasy writers actively working today.
But what none of my words above capture is the sheer demonic sense of FUN in these books. Read these books--you may not even like them the first time through. Try them again later--suddenly you'll get it. Like most classical works of art and literature, it is how you perceive these books over time that matters--and over time, Asterix holds up.