In the strange world created by the coronavirus swirling around the world, some other items of news have been getting less attention than they deserve (and some far more, frankly, but that’s another story). Near the end of March, Albert Uderzo died. Some readers will for sure know of him; for the others, he was, together with René Goscinny (who died a long time ago, in the 1970s), responsible for the Astérix series of comic books. Comic - or cartoon - books for adults have never really been a particularly common form in the UK; we have cartoonists, for sure, but largely producing single images and mostly with a fairly heavily political purpose. That stream of cartooning dates back a long time (think perhaps Hogarth). But Goscinny and Uderzo, and others, like Hergé for example, took what was on the surface a medium for children and turned it into something with an appeal that stretched way beyond childhood.
There is certainly an adventure story for children in the Astérix books. It’s a safe place, with stylized violence and the inevitable happy ending of a feast in the Gallic village. But above that there are layers of subtlety which raise the books to a different level.
I first came across them not that long after they began to appear, as a young English schoolboy sent to stay with parental friends in France in 1964 (the characters first appeared in comic strip form in 1959, and the first book in either 1961 or ’62). Then, I read them as children’s comic stories, adventures in Roman Gaul a bit like cowboys and indians. I’m guessing I probably understood no more than about 25% of the puns. But then, over subsequent summers, I began to understand more and more, to see the subtlety of the names, to grasp that this was proper, intelligently written French. There is no question that my French was helped by reading Astérix, as was my knowledge of classics, because - like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series - the broad brush history against which our heroes’ tales play out is accurate. It’s bent to fit the story, but that doesn’t detract from the truth.
The other layer we have to look at is that of the changing French society. The 1950s was not a particularly a happy time, as France tried to extricate itself from its colonial possessions. Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the subsequent disorganised withdrawal from Indo-China was a scar on the country, and things got worse later in the decade as the vicious war in Algeria wound on and the colonial army became more and more fractious. But in 1958 the old hero came back, as de Gaulle was elected the first president of the newly-formed Fifth Republic. His schtick was always French exceptionalism (nothing wrong with that, of course) and that exceptionalism is exactly what Goscinny and Uderzo presented to us in the characters of Astérix and the other Gaulois irreductibles. As a non-Frenchman and at more than fifty years distance, I’m slightly hesitant about saying this, but I believe they struck absolutely the mood of the moment. The difficult second world war years and the discord of the Fourth Republic were gone, a new future beckoned, where France stood back in its expected position of world importance. It was the era of the beginnings of autoroutes and high-speed rail, the Facel Vega was the acme of automobile elegance, the Mirage fighter was sold successfully abroad, despite US competition.
Of course, 1968 was lurking……
At the same time, the books abound in other national stereotypes. The Goths always march with a goose-step. The Vikings live in permanent darkness and swig their drink from the skulls of their enemies, before setting off to pillage. The Britons drink hot water (tea not yet having arrived in Europe), and knock off from the battle at five o’clock every afternoon for that purpose. Yet it is all done with a lightness of touch and a good humour that makes you laugh, even when you’re the one being stereotyped.
So they’re not just to be dismissed as comic books. They’re amusing, witty, subtle and they mirror back to us something of their time.
But this site is supposed to be about metals…….is there any relevance? Well, in La Serpe d’Or Astérix and Obélix are charged with locating and purchasing a new golden sickle for their druid to cut his herbs. They go to find Obélix’s cousin in Lutèce (Paris), who manufactures the items. They take with them gold coins to pay for the sickle.
“What,” asks Astérix as they are on the road, “does your cousin do with the gold we give him?” “
“Oh,” replies Obélix, “he makes more golden sickles to sell in exchange for gold coins. To make sickles. And so on…….” When we see the interior of the golden sickle shop, the sickles are stored as in a vault; sort of the old story of digging it up to bury it again……..
And then, in Astérix Chez les Bretons we have the Britons’ currency explained - there are ingots of iron which weigh a pound, and are worth three and a half sesterces plus four pieces of zinc which are worth one and a half pieces of copper, and the sesterces are worth twelve pieces of bronze…….neatly mocking the (then) non-decimal currency of the UK and at the same time - for us metal traders - ranking the value of our metals.
We all need entertainment, escapism and humour under coronavirus-beating rules; I would suggest Astérix provides those in spades. Requiescat in pace, Albert Uderzo, you brightened our lives.
Or, of course, maybe this is just me being nostalgic for a time when I was schoolboy and undergraduate, and all was possible.