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Humour in Asterix

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The humour encountered in the Asterix comics is typically French, often centering on puns, caricatures, and tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of contemporary European nations and French regions. Much of the humour in the initial Asterix books was French-specific, which delayed the translation of the books into other languages for fear of losing the jokes and the spirit of the story. Some translations have actually added local humour: in the Italian translation, the Roman legionnaires are made to speak in 20th century Roman dialect. The newer albums share a more universal humour, both written and visual.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this stereotyping and notwithstanding some alleged streaks of French chauvinism, it has been very well received by European and Francophone cultures around the world.

Contents

Stereotypes and allusions

Wherever they visit, Asterix and his friend Obelix encounter people and things borrowed and caricatured from 20th century real life. In the early album Asterix and the Goths for instance, the Goths (early Germans) are represented as militaristic and regimented, reminiscent of the German empire. The helmets worn by these Goths even resemble the German Pickelhaube helmets worn up to World War I and one of their leaders bears an uncanny resemblance to Otto von Bismarck. The British are shown as polite and phlegmatic, drinking warm beer or hot water with a drop of milk (before the first tea was brought by Asterix to what would later become England); they boil all their food and serve it with mint sauce, and they drive their chariots on the left side of the road. Spain is the cheap country where people from the North go on vacation to the south and the locals are proud and hot-blooded. Portuguese people are always depicted as short and plump - Uderzo once said that every Portuguese immigrant he knew was like that. All the tribes represented are treated humorously as prototypes for their modern counterparts, and many aspects of them are satirized. However, the French are not exempt from satire, and almost all of the peoples Asterix meets are portrayed positively, even the Romans. The only tribe depicted completely unflatteringly is the Goths, possibly a result of the Second World War. In later books, such as Asterix the Legionary and Asterix and Obelix All at Sea, the Goths were depicted much more sympathetically.

Some caricatures of the traits of certain French regions are also used: people from Normandy smother their food in cream and cannot give a straight answer; people from Marseille play boules and exaggerate matters, and Corsicans do not like to work, are easily angered and maintain generations-long vendettas that they settle violently, and make cheese that smells so bad that it actually turns explosive.

Minor characters often resemble famous people or fictional characters, usually caricatures of existing French people of the same era, particularly from television and the spectacles. In Obelix and Co., for example, the young Roman bureaucrat is a caricature of a young Jacques Chirac, and it includes two Roman legionaries drawn to the likeness of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Similarly in Asterix and the Roman Agent, the Centurion Platypus is a caricature of the French actor Lino Ventura. In Asterix and the Falling Sky, the super-clones are a caricature of both Superman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and their leader, Toon, resembles Mickey Mouse. Likewise the planet which Toon hails from, Tadilsweny, is an anagram of Walt Disney, in homage to the late cartoonist. At the back of the issue Uderzo also writes a short testimony to Walt Disney and gives away the anagram by mentioning "... Tadsil..., I mean, Walt Disney...".

Other side characters allude to people related to the place Asterix is visiting. Notable examples include a very Elizabeth Taylor-like Cleopatra in Asterix and Cleopatra; Britain's most famous bards in the story Asterix in Britain, who are four in number and look remarkably like the Beatles; a pair of Belgian warriors in Asterix in Belgium who resemble and also speak like Dupond and Dupont (Thomson and Thompson) of Tintin-fame (the two characters are drawn in Hergé's typical ligne claire style, which is atypical for Uderzo), also in this album Eddy Merckx, the cyclist, as a messenger; and both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are depicted in Asterix in Spain. More recently, this spoofing has occasionally extended to major characters as well: in Asterix and the Black Gold, a Roman spy is a young Sean Connery named Dubbelosix drawn in James Bond style, and in Asterix and Obelix All at Sea, the leader of the escaped slaves (named Spartakis, being Greek) is based on Kirk Douglas's portrayal of the title character of Spartacus. In Asterix and the Cauldron, the head of the theatre is Laurensolivius, based on the actor Laurence Olivier. In the same book, there is another theatre actor of the name Alecguinius, based on the actor Alec Guinness.

The stories also feature allusions to major artistic works (such as Pieter Bruegel's Peasant Wedding and Victor Hugo's story of the Battle of Waterloo from Les Châtiments, in Asterix in Belgium; and Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa), as well as historical personalities (Napoleon, Louis XIV of France), and famous places (the Moulin Rouge, Bethlehem) and the Statue of Liberty (played by Asterix).

However, in many other respects the series reflects life in 1st century BC fairly accurately for the medium. For example, the multi-storied apartments in Rome — the insulae — which have Obelix remarking that one man's roof is another man's floor, and consequently, "These Romans are crazy": his favourite line. This line itself is also an intrinsic joke on Rome and the Romans, as its Italian equivalent is "Sono pazzi questi romani", which, like the banner of the Roman Empire ("Senatus Populusque Romanus"), abbreviates as "SPQR". On the other hand, the presence of chimneys in the Gaulish huts is not accurate, as they used gabled openings in the roof to let smoke escape. Also it is now believed menhirs were erected long before the Gauls.

It was reported in September 2007 that an archaeological dig in Corent near Lyon, France, revealed the society of the Gauls to be, in reality, more advanced than the Asterix series of books had suggested.[1]

The text also makes relatively regular use of original Latin phrases, and allusions to Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, a book about the conquest of Gaul, often used as an introductory text to Latin. Some jokes are made about Caesar's use of the third person to write about himself. Other Latin phrases used by the legionaries are quotations from the Vulgate which have passed into proverbs, or Latin quotations from more modern historical figures such as 'Cogito ergo sum' (René Descartes), which is used as a password in Asterix the legionary. Such allusions were likely to be well-received by the better-educated sections of the French and Belgian public in the 1960s, when the teaching of Latin was still widespread in high schools.

Puns in names

This section deals with puns in the English translations, which are usually different from their French counterparts.

A key feature of the Asterix books in all translations are the constant puns used as names: the names of the two protagonists come from asterisk and obelisk. Asterix's name is a double-pun. An asterisk (*) is normally used to denote a footnote or an exception to the rule. In the Asterix books, the Roman Empire has conquered all of Gaul, with the exception of Asterix's village. The village is therefore a "footnote" to the Romans' complete conquest of Gaul. As Asterix is the person most responsible for the Romans' continuing failure to conquer his village, he is the personified "exception to the rule" that keeps the Romans from submitting all of Gaul to their rule. Also, since an asterisk is symbolized by a star (*), Asterix's name is a pun on his being the star of the books (Latin aster — derived from the Greek word αστήρ (aster) [star] and Celtic rix [king, cognate to Latin rex, Sanskrit rājā and related to German Reich and English reign]).

Obelix, the menhir delivery-man, also has a double pun on his name. As well as meaning a stone monolith, the word obelisk can also refer to the typographical dagger (†) that is often used to denote the second footnote on a page after an asterisk (*) has been used to reference the first. (Although Uderzo has said that "Goscinny just wanted to make sure that our work would appear first in an encyclopaedia of comics."[2]) Some people make the mistake of saying "asterix" instead of the English "asterisk" or French "asterisque".

Each cultural group in Asterix has a characteristic ending for names (though there are occasionally notable exceptions). Nearly all the male Gaulish characters' names end in -ix (probably a reference to real-life Gaulish chieftains such as Vercingetorix although only the names of Gaulish kings — and not even all of them — ended in -ix, and when they did, it was always -rix). Other English language examples include the chief (Vitalstatistix), the druid (Getafix), and an old man (Geriatrix) with a young wife, who is never named.[3] Most Gaulish women's names end in "a', such as Bacteria, Impedimenta, and Influenza. Roman characters' names end with -us as in Noxious Vapus, Crismus Bonus, Nefarius Purpus and Dubius Status. Normans use -af (Bathyscaf, Toocleverbyhaf, Timandahaf), Vikings use "-ssen" (Herendthelessen, Haroldwilssen), Egyptians use -is (Edifis, Artifis), Greeks use -es or -os (Diabetes, Thermos), Britons use -ax (Hiphiphurrax, Dipsomaniax, Valueaddedtax, Selectivemploymenttax) and occasionally -os (Cassivelaunos, Mykingdomforanos), Goths use -ric (Rhetoric, Choleric, Electric, Metric) and Spaniards use Spanish-sounding names such as Huevos Y Bacon ("Eggs and Bacon").

Many names stand as solitary puns on their characters, like Getafix (who provides medicine and potions for the village) or Geriatrix — particularly with recurring characters, while others are simply absurdist such as "Spurius Brontosaurus", and some in groups play on each other, as in the example of a Roman guard talking through a closed door to another guard: "Open up, Sendervictorius! It's me, Appianglorius!" This is a pun on lines from the UK's national anthem God Save the Queen: "Send her victorious, happy and glorious...".

Other names are puns derived from historical or literary quotations. An example is the British chief Mykingdomforanos whose name is a reference to the line "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" from Shakespeare's play Richard III.

Representing languages

The speech of characters is written using lettering according to the language spoken (although no difference appears between the language of the Romans and the Gauls themselves (nor the Britons), unlike in the Italian translation, where the Romans are given 20th century Roman accents). The Gauls cannot automatically understand certain languages even though the reader will understand.

The names of characters in Asterix, aside from being puns, usually have suffixes representing their nationalities.

In the original it is more consistent (-is)
In Roman times Gaul, while centred on modern France (which includes Corsica), also included modern Switzerland, most of Belgium, and parts of western Germany and northern Italy — a fact the authors acknowledge by using the same suffix for the Belgians, Swiss and Corsicans.
In the original (and most translations) -ine is most often used for female names
Cultural references indicate these (in Asterix and the Great Crossing) are Danes rather than the Norsemen of Asterix and the Normans

Running gags

A number of running gags recur in various albums. One of these is that the bard Cacofonix is inspired to sing whenever Asterix and Obelix leave or come back from a grand journey, but is usually forcibly prevented from performing by Fulliautomatix (the blacksmith). When an adventure concludes, the village holds a banquet, but the bard is nearly always seen tied up and gagged so as not to disrupt the festivities (most notable exceptions in Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield, where it is Chief Vitalstatistix who is missing from the banquet, Asterix the Legionary where a love-struck Asterix is sitting in a tree dreamily, Asterix and the Normans, where Cacofonix's help proved vital in stopping the Normans, Asterix at the Olympic Games, where he is merely held at bay by Fulliautomatix's hammer, Asterix and Caesar's Gift, where he is given the unique opportunity to court a pretty girl, Asterix and the Magic Carpet, where he, Asterix and Obelix were in another country at the time, and Asterix and the Falling Sky, where his hut had been destroyed and Unhygienix and Fulliautomatix were tied up instead as 'punishment').

There is also Obelix tapping his forehead and muttering "These [people] are crazy" every time he learns something new about the land he is visiting and their people. His most common targets are the Romans, which is ironic because they consider the Gauls as being the crazy ones.

Another running gag among legionaries is to express their discontent with a military life far less interesting than what was promised with (in French) “Engagez-vous, rengagez-vous, qu'ils disaient!” (tentative translation: "enlist, re-enlist, they told us!"). In the official English translation, this is stated as "Join up, they said! It's a man's life, they said!". In the Dutch translation it is written as "Teken bij, zeiden ze!" ("Sign up, they said"!), which used to be a standard phrase on Dutch army recruitement posters.

It was revealed in the first volume, Asterix the Gaul, that Obelix fell into a cauldron of magic potion as an infant, giving him super-human strength for life. Yet no matter how often Getafix explains that due to this exceptional circumstance, he cannot have any more potion, Obelix is jealous of Asterix and the other villagers and always tries to sneak some anyway. His various schemes to trick Getafix into letting him have a dose of potion are an ongoing joke in the series. Despite feeble attempts at disguising himself or simply begging, Obelix is always stopped by Getafix before he can drink any (the disastrous effects of Obelix ingesting any potion are seen in Asterix and Obelix All at Sea). In Asterix and Cleopatra, Getafix gives him some, but only a few drops, in order to escape from the inside of a pyramid. Obelix claims to not feel very different afterwards.

Another running gag is a group of pirates that tend to get caught in the middle of conflict and have their ship sunk. Despite their best attempts to steer clear of "any Gaulish vessels", the hapless pirates inevitably encounter a ship with Asterix and Obelix in it and wind up getting sunk. Sometimes the pirates lose their ship without Asterix or Obelix, however. In Asterix and the Roman Agent, they attack a ship carrying a Roman agent, who points at a random crew member and states he gave him a bagful of gold if he would not attack the agent. In the ensuing battle over the nonexistent bag of gold, the pirates sink their own ship. In Asterix and the Cauldron, tired of being sunk, they give up pirating completely and open a ship-themed restaurant. Asterix and Obelix arrive in search of something and despite their initial attempts at being good hosts, they are soon persuaded to return to the oceans. A rare exception to the rule was Asterix in Spain, where the ship survives, though the Gauls have taken all the food on board. As their ship slips inevitably beneath the waves after an encounter with the Gauls and they cling to floating debris, the elderly mate always makes an observation in Latin, usually a well-known aphorism or verse lifted from a famous author like Horace or Virgil. The pirates were originally conceived as a one-shot parody of the comic-book Barbe-Rouge but proved so popular that they were fully integrated into the Asterix series.

In Asterix the Legionary, after their ship was sunk, the pirates were left in a raft resembling the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. In this particular image the captain even makes the pun: "We've been framed, by Jericho!". In Asterix and Cleopatra the pirates scuttle the ship themselves rather than be attacked by the Gauls again, the captain reasoning once that it "Saves us a few knocks, and comes to the same thing in the end". Similarly, in Asterix and the magic carpet the pirate captain bribes Asterix and Obelix with food in exchange for not sinking the ship. However, when the Gauls leave it turns out that one of the pirates, unaware of what was happening on deck has scuttled the ship himself in an attempt to "keep their honour".

These pirates — most notably the red-bearded captain, the constantly Latin-quoting peg-legged second-in-command, and the African lookout — are caricatures of the characters of "Barbe Rouge, Le Démon des Caraïbes", a pirate series that was published at the same time in Pilote, the weekly comics magazine in which Asterix appeared, and which Goscinny also edited.

Another running gag is the rivalry between Unhygenix the fishmonger and Fulliautomatix the blacksmith, where Fulliautomatix taunts and teases about how foul-smelling Unhygenix's fish are. This inevitably leads to another recurring joke, the all-village fight, often with fish as a weapon.

In many books the village chief Vitalstatistix, who is carried on his shield by two members of the village, gets dumped by one or both of his shield bearers due to some misunderstanding or even by his own comments.

Revisionist explanations

In the albums, some historical facts are retold, and attributed to Asterix and Obelix.

  • In Asterix and Cleopatra, when visiting Egypt, Obelix scales the sphinx. As he is about to mount the sphinx's nose it breaks off and falls to the ground. Immediately all the nearby souvenir-shops chisel off the noses of their souvenir sphinxes in order to maintain the resemblance to the real monument.
  • At the end of the same book, Asterix asks Cleopatra to call upon his countrymen if she needs anything built, such as a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea — describing the Suez Canal (which was built by a French company).
  • In Asterix in Spain, Asterix finds himself in a circus in front of an aurochs. He evades the bull nicely, and gets applause from the audience. A guest of the Roman general accidentally drops her red cape in the arena. When Asterix wants to hand it back, the bull reacts and is finished after some dancing moves of Asterix, who is trying to save the cape from getting dirty, giving the first bullfight.
  • In the same book, Unhygienix the fishmonger agrees to take payment for his boat rental in menhirs, as he wants to develop land on Salisbury Plain — which explains the mystery of Stonehenge. (In the French original, the land in question is at Carnac in Brittany.) An alternate explanation is proffered in Asterix and Son.
  • In Asterix and the Banquet (Le Tour de Gaule) Obelix travels with Asterix around Gaul with a yellow knapsack on his back, as if wearing the yellow jersey in the modern Tour de France, complete with a white square patch on the backside, where we can imagine the cyclist's number.
  • In Asterix in Switzerland, Asterix manages to carry an unconscious Obelix through the Alps, by tying ropes around himself, Obelix, and their guides, creating a famous technique in mountain-climbing. Asterix and Obelix also hide in the secure bank locker of Zurix (after Zurich Financial Services).
  • In the same adventure above, the precision of Swiss watches and clocks is alluded to by the fact that the innkeeper who helps the duo never forgets to remind his customers to turn their hourglasses.
  • In Asterix in Belgium, the chieftain of Asterix's Belgian hosts gains inspiration for frites (French fries) and mussels, Belgium's two most famous culinary ambassadors, from a vat of boiling oil prepared as a Roman weapon, and a damp wooden plank belonging to the pirates. This was from their ship that was sunk by a rock Obelix tried to throw at a Roman camp on the coast, but missed. (Note that potatoes were unknown in Europe at the time, but appear sporadically and anachronistically throughout the series.)
  • In Asterix and the Goths, Getafix makes sure that the Goths are pushed into political turmoil so that they may never again regroup as a powerful nation and attack others. This is a reference to the strategy pursued by Richelieu in the 17th century to prevent the various German principalities from uniting and posing a threat to the power of France. Particularly accurate is the use of equal support towards all contenders, reflecting the notion of balance of power that was at the core of Richelieu's strategy.
  • In Asterix and the Laurel Wreath, Asterix and Obelix accidentally invent the potion to get rid of alcoholic hangovers. This is still an active area of research with geneticists trying to identify the gene responsible for hangovers. In an epilogue, it is stated that the potion became so widespread, and the Romans so dependent on it, that it actually caused the decline of the Roman Empire.
  • In Asterix and the Normans, Justforkix, nephew of Vitalstatistix, arrives in an Italian chariot built for speed (a "sports cart"), an allusion to the famous Italian speedsters such as Ferrari and Lamborghini.
  • In Obelix and Co., the effect of globalisation on rural (Asterix's village) and urban (Rome's) economies is portrayed. At the end of the story, the Roman Empire is on the verge of bankruptcy due to buying menhirs which nobody wants.
  • In Asterix at the Olympic Games, the use of Magic Potion is banned in the games but the Roman contingent still uses it. They are caught and disqualified because Getafix added a blue dye to the potion which coloured the tongues of the Romans. This reflects the burning issue of the use of performance enhancing drugs and their detection in modern sports. A few panel in the books shows some of the references to the modern Olympic Games such as the parade of nations, the podium, the Olympic village, and the Olympic Oath.
  • In Asterix and the Black Gold, Asterix, Obelix and Dubbelosix rest for some time in a stable in Bethlehem (as in The Nativity). The first oil slick in history occurs when the oil collected by Asterix and Obelix squirts out in a struggle. A bird drenched in oil cries out "Oi! Don't say you are starting already?!"
  • In Asterix and the Secret Weapon, the village women "stand up" for their rights spurred on by Bravura, a female bard from Lutetia who wears breeches (trousers in the modern world). Caesar commissions a secret legion of women soldiers to exploit the famous Gaulish gallantry and thereby conquer the village.
  • In Asterix and Caesar's Gift, Cacofonix composes the protest anthem "We Shall Overcome", which became the US civil rights movement song.
  • A recurring joke is references to the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus. In Asterix the Gladiator, Julius Caesar orders Brutus to join in the crowd's applause for him using the famous Shakespearean phrase "Et tu Brute". In Asterix and the Soothsayer a fortune-teller vouches for Brutus's fidelity to Caesar ("And remember, Caesar: as long as Brutus is behind you, you will have nothing to fear!"). In Asterix and the Roman Agent, Caesar tells Brutus to stop handling his knife or he'll injure himself, and Brutus mutters threateningly under his breath, "One of these days..."; in the French version he referred to Brutus as "my son", something which some historians have suggested may have been the case.
  • In Asterix in Britain, Asterix's cousin speaks about building an underwater tunnel from Dover to France and says that it's a dream project which he hopes to achieve some day. This is a reference to the modern channel tunnel (which wasn't built at the time the album was written).
  • In the same book, Getafix gives Asterix some strange herbs. At the time Britons drink just hot water, sometimes with a drop of milk until the magic potion that is being transported to the village is destroyed by the Romans. When they reach the village Asterix simply adds the herbs to their hot water instead as a morale booster. When they return to Gaul, Getafix informs Asterix that the herbs are called tea.
  • There is also a scene where Asterix and Obelix are being chased by the Romans through Britain. There is a cutaway with the caption, "Somewhere near London", and a Briton cutting individual blades of grass with a finger-sized scythe. He says to himself, "Another 2,000 years of loving care and this will make a decent bit of turf!", a reference to either Wembley Stadium or Wimbledon. In the next frame Asterix and Obelix all trample over it, ruining the sod completely.
  • In Asterix and the Great Crossing, Asterix signals to a Viking ship, on a small island off the coast of North America. He stands with a raised torch atop a pile of stones, holding a folded map under his arm. This represents the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French to the Americans.
  • In Asterix and the Cauldron, Obelix suggests a good money-earner might arise from the telling of their adventures, a reference to the popularity of Asterix and Obelix. Obelix, however, assigns himself a more prominent place in the title of the series.
  • In Asterix and the Golden Sickle Asterix and Obelix travel to Lutetia (modern day Paris). A woman in the village remarks upon their return that they will be able to tell about the fashions in Lutetia, reflecting the key role of Paris in the fashion world.

References

  1. ^ Stares, Justin (September 2, 2007), "Revealedix: the Gaul of Asterix was no joke", Daily Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/02/wgaul102.xml, retrieved 2007-09-02 
  2. ^ BBC News: The vital statistics of Asterix
  3. ^ A common misunderstanding is that she is named Myopia, because of a panel in Asterix and the Soothsayer where Impedimenta said to her: "Oh, Myopia!". However, as explained in the album itself, Impedimenta was invoking the name of a Gaulish goddess, "acknowledging shortsightedness."

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All translations of humour in asterix


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