When you’re growing up, you don’t really have the insight or emotional maturity to fully understand why something matters to you or why you like it so much.
But when you reacquaint yourself with a much-loved childhood book series like Asterix or The Adventures of Asterix, originally written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo (from 2013, writing by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrations by Didier Conrad), you begin to realise why many of the things that you love about it spoke so profoundly to you.
Take the friendship between protagonist Asterix, described in the books as “a shrewd, cunning little warrior”, who handles all the perilous missions for his village in Gaul which is surrounded by Romans, and his best pal Obelix, who’s addicted to wild boar, loves fighting and carries heavy stone menhirs without aplomb.
Like any two best friends in the world, they are inseparable, have each other’s back always, and while they might bicker here and there, at the end of the day they are there for each other when it matters, which is always fighting humourously-named Romans (such as Surplus Dairiprodus, the Prefect in The Golden Sickle).
They’re a delight to watch, no matter they’re doing, and it’s this friendship between plucky, super-capable Asterix and more impetuous Obelix that is the emotional heart of this French comic book series that launched in 1959.
As a bullied kid who had few real friends growing up, and lived in a world defined by books and insular, indoors activities, seeing a friendship like that play out reassured me that such a thing was possible.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, and only knew that I like seeing the two of them do all sorts of stuff together, but they mattered, far beyond the humour, the ever-present puns and the hilarity of facing up to the Roman Empire.
But hark you say, how could a beleaguered bunch of Gaulish villagers find anything amusing about standing up, successfully I might add – thanks to the potion brewed by their druid Getafix which granted everyone temporary, superhuman strength – to the overwhelming superpower of 50 B.C.?
Well, when you have Popeye-like strength any time you swig a concoction, you’re bound to not feel daunted by anything, and no matter whether they were facing the Romans in Egypt (Asterix and Cleopatra), or attempts to usurp their tribal lands for a Roman condominium complex (The Mansions of the Gods), they came out, gloriously and with great good humour on top.
They were a joy to watch, making me feel like anything was possible, including long-sought after close friendships.
The other appealing aspect of Asterix was the fact that took on the Romans and won; outside of the Scots and the Huns and some other “barbarians” on the fringes of the empire, no one really managed to do that.
As someone who had to deal with an army of bullies at school mostly every single day, it was too easy to feel like there was no way to ever overcome that kind of unceasing, remorseless force.
I had no real choice but to buckle down, keep the lowest profile possible – which meant I missed out on lots of things growing up such as an athletic career or being part of extracurricular activities like debating – and hope that I could escape the virulent attention of my oppressors.
So it was exciting, nay thrilling, to watch Asterix and Obelix (who fell in a vat of potion as a child and was perpetually super strong) triumph over and over and over again.
Want a golden sickle for Getafix after his old one broke? Bash your way into Lutetia (present day Paris), stare down the Centurion and Prefect and get one. Stuck inside your free Gaulish village – the only free Gauls around mind you – by a giant Roman-erected stockade? Knock a hole in it and go do whatever you damn well please, outlaw status be damned (Asterix and the Banquet). Someone think your village is theirs? make it clear it’s staying that way (Asterix and Caesar’s Gift).
No matter the obstacle, or how clever the Romans thought they were, or how many troops they assembled in futile attempts at intimidation, the Romans always came up second best, with Asterix and Obelix always the ones in the winner’s circle.
They were never arrogant about it, just understandably very sure of themselves, as was just about everyone in their small, quirky village.
What added to the appeal of the Asterix was the gorgeously-detailed art, rife with comic touches and a lovely sense of time and place, puns a-plenty – The Flintstones had nothing on the capacity of Goscinny and Underzo to make merry with history – and a winning way with dialogue and narrative, which were always long enough to be interesting but not so long they overstayed their welcome.
Did I ever wish I was Asterix? Maybe deep down. But then and now what made them so lovely to be around was simply that they were in great stories with humour, intellgence, a keen eye for history and an understanding that many people have felt oppressed at one time or another, and that having someone like Goscinny and Uderzo’s pluckish hero mightn’t have fixed things but went a long way to inspiring some hope that things would one day get better (which they did.)
Oh, and the biggest lesson of all? Never hire a bard to sing anything (sorry Cacofonix).