The 33rd Asterix book is published next week. Jeremy Sutcliffe follows diehard fans to Brussels and finds out why wordplay travels so well
Harry Potter is not the only fictional hero who can attract 20 camera crews to a book launch. A measure of the popularity of this other literary phenomenon is in the title, Le Ciel lui Tombe sur la Tete, though for most English-speakers recognition only comes with the translation, "Asterix and the Falling Sky".
So well known has Asterix become in his native France that for the first time in 33 outings his name has been dropped from the latest comic book title. Like Coca-Cola or David Beckham, the Asterix "brand" is so well recognised that the name is no longer needed. On October 14, the new book will go on sale simultaneously in 27 countries, including Britain. In France alone, 3 million copies are expected to be snapped up, while the book's UK publisher, Orion, hopes to exceed the 100,000 copies sold when the last Asterix title appeared four years ago. Since Asterix the Gaul was published in 1961, more than 320 million Asterix books have been sold in 110 countries. Two Asterix movies have been made (in French) and a third is in production.
If the little Gaul is a national institution in France, he is almost as revered in Belgium. Last month, television crews, journalists and booksellers from all over Europe descended on Brussels to hear Asterix's co-creator Albert Uderzo reveal the title of the new book. With the historic Grand Place transformed into a replica Gaulish village, Uderzo unveiled a giant mural depicting scenes from Asterix and opened a major exhibition, Le Monde Miroir d'Asterix. The Belgian post office even announced a set of six commemorative stamps in Asterix's honour, something not even Master Potter has achieved.
Asterix and his outsized chum Obelix made their first appearance in a children's magazine in 1959. His creators, author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, conceived the cartoon strip as France's answer to the American cartoonists who were threatening to dominate post-war Europe.
As Asterix's legion of fans know, the basic story revolves around a small village of indomitable Gauls who hold out against their Roman invaders, with the aid of a magic potion. Set in the year 50BC, the story derives its humour from contemporary French characteristics: a love of food, wine and liberty, and an innate sense of superiority. The first book, published in 1961, sold just 6,500 copies. There followed a rich seam of stories, chronicling Asterix and Obelix's adventures around Roman-occupied Europe, including Asterix in Britain (1966), the first to sell a million copies.
Despite the series' success in Europe, UK publishers initially fought shy of it, fearing British readers would find the Gallic humour impenetrable.
All that changed with the first publication in Britain in 1969. Anthea Bell, who with Derek Hockridge has translated all 33 titles, says the secret of Asterix's success is simple. "It's got one of the big, successful storylines of all time: clever little fellow outwits big brute. In this case the brute is the Roman invader. The historic setting adds to it. In Europe we like the humour of anachronism. Our equivalent in this country is 1066 and All That."
Right from the start Bell's translations of Goscinny's jokes proved a hit with British children and young adults. "In order to be true to the spirit of the original you have to be free in your translations," she explains.
"You have a picture on the page, you have the size of the speech bubble and you have to look for English words and word association."
In Asterix and The Big Fight, for example, a timid Roman patrol is trying to ambush Getafix the druid in the forest. Legionaries grumble about being forced to play "copse and robbers", complain they "can't see the wood for the trees", and much, much more. It was Bell who, in an inspired moment, decided to rename the druid, who in the original French is known as Panoramix, as Getafix. "Stonehenge was used as an observatory by the druids to 'get a fix' on the stars. It doesn't have anything to do, as many people think, with illegal substances."
The joking stopped, briefly, when Goscinny died in 1977, at the age of 51.
Uderzo initially said he would not continue without his friend (Asterix to the illustrator's Obelix), but two years later he had a change of heart.
The new book will be the eighth Uderzo has created single-handed. While the jokes might not quite sparkle as they once did, the books remain as popular as ever for children of all ages. For teachers, they remain a popular resource. One female language teacher writing in the TES online staffroom recently noted enthusiastically: "My Year 13 French students loved it as one of their literature options along with Camus, Maupassant and the existential writers. These days, my Latin students love it as a fun part of learning the language."
Any teacher thinking of using the Gauls in their lessons would enjoy the new Asterix exhibition, housed in a huge centre in Brussels. It includes original drawings by Uderzo and gives a valuable insight into the work of one of the world's great cartoon illustrators. The exhibition also teases out some of the recurrent themes of the books, such as friendship, tolerance, liberty and courage.
Nowadays, teachers the world over approve of the Asterix books for their creative and playful use of language. But it wasn't always the case. When the strip first appeared, many teachers and historians in France took a dim view, says Uderzo.
"When I began, cartoons were dismissed by intellectuals, including the teaching profession. We did what we did because we loved it. We did it for ourselves. We could never really dare to imagine the success we have today."
So popular has Asterix become with school children in France that teachers have been clamouring for Uderzo's drawings to be included in history textbooks. "It's an extraordinary revenge for us," he says.
Le Monde Miroir d'Asterix, at the Tours et Taxis exhibition centre in Brussels, runs until January 15, 2006. To find out more about Asterix go to www.asterix.com. See www.literarytranslation.
comaboutuscontributorsantheabell for details of Anthea Bell's workshops on translating Asterix and www.booktrusted.co.ukcbwbookshow. html for events on translating children's books