Universal soldiers

Asterix and Obelix, 50 years on

For the past couple of weeks, Asterix the Gaul's 50th birthday has been the subject of sustained media attention, thanks largely to the tributes that erupted all over Paris throughout October. (In 1959, a short Asterix and Obelix comic strip in the magazine Pilote was published -- it wasn't until 1961 that the first full "album", Asterix the Gaul, started a ball rolling that soon became known as "le phénomène Astérix". So be prepared for further celebrations come 2011.)

But, depressingly, most commentators have seen the golden jubilee of René Goscinny's and Albert Uderzo's greatest creation as an opportunity to explore the way in which the Asterix brand has become a little tarnished in recent years -- following the mediocre film adaptations starring Gérard Depardieu, for example, as well as Uderzo's decision to sell the series rights to the mega-publisher Hachette and the high-profile feud with his daughter that ensued -- and to ignore the undiminished brilliance of the books themselves. A piece that appeared in the Times is typical. "It happens to plenty of men," it suggested. "They turn 50 and all the vim disappears. But it shouldn't happen if you have access to a magic potion that revives your powers faster than Viagra."

An excellent essay by Mary Beard that appeared in the LRB a few years ago does a better job of celebrating Goscinny's and Uderzo's genius. It even reserves praise for the several albums that Uderzo has composed alone since Goscinny's premature death in 1977 (which have been the focus of some particularly scathing birthday criticism).

But having spent the weekend rereading my collection of Asterix and Obelix titles, I think that something rather important has, for some reason, gone largely unacknowledged in all the furore: how extraordinarily well both men's work (and, of course, Anthea Bell's and Derek Hockridge's English translation has aged. Far better than, say, Tintin in the Congo, yes. But, more than that, in a manner which makes the fact that they were written decades ago almost entirely irrelevant.

Which raises the question: why is it that Asterix stories feel as fresh as they do, thirty or fifty years on? Here are three suggestions of mine. Feel free to make any of your own in the comment box below.

Literary references: The stories' penchant for referring to cultural touchstones -- Asterix in Belgium (1979) opens "with apologies to: George Gordon, Lord Byron, Mr Wm Shakespeare, Mr John Milton and Peter Breughel the Elder" -- is well known. That these references invariably come from canonical classics -- from Horace's Odes to Cervantes's Don Quixote (the eponymous knight-errant and his squire make a cameo appearance in Asterix in Spain (1969) -- ensures that Asterix's adventures feel timeless.

Metanarrative: Asterix in Belgium and Asterix and Son (1983) feature flourishes of an altogether contemporary literary postmodernism. "Look, we're only just starting this story," Asterix explains early on in the former. "It's much too soon for a banquet."

Well-chosen modern touches: Instead of alluding to 1960s- and 1970s-specific issues that might have quickly lost their relevance, the books ingeniously make use of durable modern ideas. So, a character in Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974) suggests that "if anyone ever decides to go digging up the past behind this house, he'll have a few archaeological problems on his hands". And Obelix points out in Asterix and the Banquet (1965) that, compared to boar, "Oysters are all right, but you can eat boar even when there isn't an 'r' in the month . . ."

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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