May 21, 2020   5 mins

Just as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Europe we lost the master illustrator Albert Uderzo, aged 92. He was of course the co-creator of Asterix, the plucky Gaul who holds out against the Roman conquest (with a gulp of magic potion to confer superman strength).

If he himself had held out a week or so longer, he would have seen his publishers Hachette issue a free weekly online Asterix magazine, promising that the moustachioed warrior in the winged helmet would “passer un savon au virus” — give the virus a soaping.

I was informed of the download by the diminutive woman who runs our local maison de la presse in the Charente, as she handed me my neatly folded Le Monde under her plate-glass anti-coronavirus screen. She announced the news with the proud jut of the jaw of a lover talking about her secret beau.

Think Asterix is a just cartoon character who, with his portly pal in stripy keks Obelix, duffs up Caesar’s legions in a swirl of head-banging stars ad infinitum? Oh ! In France Asterix is a national icon, sitting somewhere in the pantheon of Our Saviours between Joan of Arc and Johnny Halliday.

The Asterix tales, to put you in the picture, are the creation myth of the Fifth Republic. Its Iliad. Its Cowboy and Indian. Its Epic of Gilgamesh.

Asterix and I were published into the world in the same year, 1961. Courtesy of my mother, a French teacher, I got my eager little hands on Astérix le Gaulois before the others at my sleepy Herefordshire village school. What was instructive was the division among my classmates. Stuart the Swot, with his pens arranged in his blazer top pocket, was obsessed with the brain-wearing internalities of Tintin; while I (detention for blow football with lunch’s marrowfat peas) held a torch for rambunctious, lad-on-the-lash Asterix. He touched my nascent anarcho-traditionalism.

Which leads us across the Channel, and to exegesis of the Asterix phenomenon. Hectares of sub-Derridean deconstruction have been applied to the critical question: why does Asterix so appeal to the French?

Goscinny and Uderzo repeatedly claimed that the mega-success of the books — 380 million copies sold, thus besting Balzac, vanquishing Voltaire, passing Proust — was  because  Asterix and Obelix do “funny things, and that is all”.

Of course, the books are a laugh. There are slapstick sight-gags for the kids, parodies of the classics and current affairs for the adults, wrapped in vivid, dynamic, bright technicolour, almost cinematic graphics. (Uderzo’s pics were a big BOUM! behind the elevation of the bande dessinée to High Art in France. I once lived across from the Musée de la Bande Dessinée in Angouleme. The queues! The reverence!)

Actually, the Chaplin-meets-Candide humour of the books explains solely their international appeal,  their translation into one hundred and one tongues. (Say this sotto voce in the Francophonie, but the English language versions by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge are sharper, wittier than the originals, hence the druid Panoramix becoming Getafix, the pooch Idéfix becoming Dogmatix.) Globally, only the Americans have withstood the world-wave of Asterixia; the French, typically, attribute Yankee indifference to lack of taste.

Goscinny and Uderzo were having a blague with their avowals of purely humorous intent, their equally frequent disavowals of ideology. It’s the ideology, stupid, of Asterix that particularly possesses the French. The wisest observation ever on the relationship between the French and Asterix came not from a prof at Sciences Po but a member of the public, who told the visiting New York Times that the comics’ Gauls were “like us, exasperating but endearing”.

Culturally contumacious. Or, what Charles de Gaulle called “our old Gaulish propensity for division and quarrelling”.

The gilets jaunes were but the 50BC bagarreurs villagers from Asterix in hi-vis jackets.

France is the most authoritarian country in Western Europe, a place where La Poste dictates the size of your letter box. In the Asterix oeuvre the Roman Empire is a perennial stand-in for the dirigiste French state. (And who is Macron, he who compares opponents of his reforms to “unyielding Gauls”, but a latter day Caesar?) Asterix is France’s Ego. Asterix is France’s literary Catharsis.

More: The Roman Empire is metaphor too for the external threats to the l’hexagone; Asterix the product was born in a France consumed by Collaborator Syndrome from the Second World War, the imperial military disaster at Dien Bien Phu, and the war in Algeria. Goscinny and Uderzo stripped back French history to the clean beginning, to “nos ancêtres les Gaulois”, with a hero modelled explicitly on Vercingetorix, the real-life anti-Caesar rebel. With a sweep of a brush and the line of a pen, Goscinny and Uderzo rearranged collective memory of the war to become honour-saving Resistance against Nazi Occupation  (read Gauls vs Romans), while simultaneously creating a French national identity as a people forever proud and pugnacious. Indomitable.

By toutatis! A real magic potion for the tribe!

In case, any reader missed the French connection to the war, Asterix and the Goths (1963) featured Germans with pressure cookers used for torture. Gas chambers, in other words.

Goscinny was Jewish.

Two thirds of the population of France have read at least one Asterix book, the figure rising to nine tenths of men. And they have supped deep the mythology in its pages. In France life has come to imitate cartoon art; the citizens of the Fifth Republic are not the people of Vichy, but the uppity résistantes of a little village in Lucretia. Dispense with the de Beauvoir, give Houellebecq the hump; it is in the works of Goscinny and Uderzo that you read the mind of the French of the Fifth Republic.

France is in thrall to Gaullism. Asterix the Gaullism, that is. Thus, one medium-sized European country remains heroically unconquered by the mondialisation of everyday life.

The Gaullist resistance is everywhere, from the exclusive totality of ‘Origine France’ meat at Leclerc hypermarket to the anti-Anglo-Saxon language patrols of  l’Académie Francaise.

Of course, the French are their antimonies, the phrase “c’est compliqué’’ a staple of every conversation. Since The Mansions of the Gods in 1973 Asterix has repeatedly biffed consumerism (in the above volume patrician Roman wives scramble to buy authentic antiques from perfect little chichi shops — in reality the humble shops of the Gaulish village selling their everyday items). Oh, the irony.

Despite  Goscinny dying prematurely in 1977 — “like the Eiffel Tower falling” in the words of one obituarist — and then Uderzo retiring to leave relative unknowns Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad continuing the series, the Asterix commercial empire has burgeoned bigger than one of Obelix’s wild boar dinners. Aside from Parc Astérix, there are Asterix video games, movies (with Gerard Depardieu as Obelix, a role you feel he was born to play), product endorsements, et cetera, et cetera.

Even as a staunch Gaullist, I  admit that the book-output of the Ferri-Conrad tandem has been variable. They deserve laurels, though, for 2017’s Asterix and the Chariot Race, which contains a  prophecy Getafix would have been proud of. Ferri-Conrad conjured up  a character called… Coronavirus. He is Caesar’s pet charioteer and, naturellement, the evil Emperor leans on race organisers to let him win for the honour of Rome.

Does Astérix le Gaulois beat Coronavirus the Roman?

Are baguettes long? Is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time unreadable?

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.