Asterix and the half century

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For 50 years he has been defending his country from the Romans – and his people love him for it. John Lichfield salutes France's greatest literary export

The year is 50BC and Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely. One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. The year is 2009AD France has been entirely conquered by baseball hats, Big Macs and Hollywood movies. Well, not entirely. One indomitable enclave of French culture still holds out, and even thrives.

The Asterix series of cartoon books, France's most lucrative literary export by far, will celebrate its 50th anniversary from next week with a series of exhibitions and special events and a new album of stories. Asterix spins the unlikely adventures of a village of ancient Gauls who refuse to bow to the power of Rome.

The hero is a short, cocky, clever, hyper-energetic leader, who claims to have a magic potion to defend the Gaulish way of life from external threat. Any accidental parallel with contemporary French politics ends there. Asterix the Gaul has no tall, glamorous wife of Roman origin; he has no wife at all. Instead, he has a wholly platonic friendship with a man-mountain called Obelix and a dog called Idéfix (or in the English language version, Dogmatix).

Their comic adventures have been translated into 107 languages and have sold 325 million copies worldwide. The three, non-cartoon Asterix movies made in the past 10 years, with a heavily padded Gérard Depardieu playing Obelix, have become the most successful series of French films in history.

In a reversal of the plot since 50BC, the world therefore has been entirely conquered by the Gauls. Well, not entirely. Some indomitable enclaves continue to hold out. Despite excellent English translations, Asterix has never really caught on in the United States and is only a limited success in Britain. (In Italy, on the other hand, although the series presents the Romans as a bunch of arrogant, cowardly, quarrelsome nincompoops, it has been surprisingly popular.)

Asterix is, above all, a story of two beautiful friendships, first between Asterix and Obelix and second between their creators, Albert Uderzo, who drew the cartoons, and René Goscinny, who wrote the original stories. Although the saga is a wry tribute to Gallic pride and cussedness, neither man was of French origin. Uderzo's parents were Italian. Goscinny, who died in 1977, came from a Polish-Jewish family.

In the past two years, the good natured façade of the Asterix saga has been shattered by a blistering public row between Albert Uderzo, 82, who is still drawing and writing, and his only daughter, Sylvie. In 2007, Mr Uderzo fired Sylvie from her job with his publishing company. In 2008, he sold the company and the Asterix rights to France's biggest publisher, Hachette. He also agreed – reversing a previous commitment – that other writers and artists could extend the Asterix series after his death.

Sylvie accused her father, in an open letter to Le Monde, of "betraying" the spirit of Asterix by selling off a "symbol of France's cultural heritage" to a company "driven mostly by profit". Mr Uderzo responded that he had fired his daughter, and her husband, because of their "filial ingratitude and obsession with money". The whole episode, only partially settled by a court judgment in Sylvie's favour this year, is reminiscent of the 15th Asterix album, Asterix et la Zizanie (literally, Asterix and the huge bust-up).

This book (called Asterix and the Roman Agent, in English) tells of a poisonous Roman, Tullius Detritus, who can divide the best of friends and families with a couple of ill-chosen words. Like many other Asterix characters and sayings, Tullius has become part of the French language. The French Prime Minister, François Fillon, is a great Asterix fan and a sworn enemy of the Minister of Labour, Xavier Bertrand, whom he accuses of bearing malicious tales to President Nicolas Sarkozy. The satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported recently that that Mr Fillon always refers to Mr Bertrand in private as "Tullius Detritus".

Much of the fun of the Asterix books comes from the punning names of the Gaulish or Roman characters, usually ending in "ix" or "us" or "a". Replacing the jokes in the French names has been a test of the ingenuity of translators world-wide. Speak it not in Gaul, but the English language versions are sometimes cleverer, and funnier, than the originals. The chief Druid, who mixes the magic potion, is "Panoramix" in French, which is rather dull. In Britain, he is "Getafix", which is more appropriate. In America, he is "Readymix"or "Magicmix".

The village chief is "Abraracoucix" in the original. In English, he becomes, "Vitalstastix" (UK) and "Macroeconomix" (US). His wife is "Bonemine" in French, "Impedimenta" in Britain and "Belladonna" in the US. The tuneless village bard, who is never allowed to sing and looks rather like the former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is "Assurancetourix" in French. In Britain, he is "Cacofonix" and in the US "Malacoustix". The fishmonger's wife is "Ielosubmarine" (Yellow Submarine) in French and "Bacteria" in English (all versions).

Asterix appeared for the first time in a cartoon magazine called Pilote on 29 October 1959. Goscinny and Uderzo thought up most of the main characters in a 30-minute brain-storming session in a council flat in Paris. Goscinny, also the joint parent of "Petit Nicolas" and other successful cartoon characters, set out originally to mock, rather than to glorify, French insularity.

Charles de Gaulle had just become president of the Republic. France versus the Rest of the World rapidly became one of the themes of the 1960s. Asterix took off. To commemorate the half-centenary, Mr Uderzo – who now writes the stories and still does the preliminary pencil drawings – will publish next week an album of "short stories", Asterix et Le Livre d'Or (Asterix and the Golden Book), in which many of the characters of the past 50 years reappear. There will be a series of celebratory events in Paris, including a musical show at the Théàtre des Champs-Elyseés next Thursday and an exhibition at the Musée de Cluny of Uderzo's original drawings and Goscinny's type-written texts.

On 29 October, there will be a series of street events with actors dressed as Asterix characters to "invade Lutece " (the Roman name for Paris). In interviews to mark the half-centenary, Mr Uderzo has again defended his decision to allow new Asterix albums to be written and drawn after his death. He said he had decided to abandon the example set by Hergé, the creator of Tintin, who banned posthumous sequels."When no more adventures are added to a series, little by little it dies," he said. "We know that because each time we publish a new book it boosts the sales of all the others."

How The Independent 'found' Asterix

On April Fool's Day 1993, The Independent claimed a world scoop. French and British archaeologists had unearthed the remains of Asterix's "indomitable" village on a headland near Lannion in northern Brittany. The excavations at Le Yaudet had uncovered coins marked with images of wild boar, the favourite snack of Asterix's outsize chum, Obelix, The Independent reported. It was an April Fool's spoof but was so successful that, six years later, the Collège de France – the country's most prestigious academic institution – asked a French archaeologist to give a talk on the dig. "It was a very convincing joke," said Patrick Galliou, a French archaeologist mentioned in the spoof article. "It interwove myth and reality so cleverly that I even got a call in 1999 from the Collège de France asking if I would come and give a lecture on the findings."

Get a fix of Asterix: Win a box set of six DVDs in our magnifique quiz

We've got 10 box sets of Asterix films to give away. Email your answers to the following questions, along with your contact details, to comps@independent.co.uk, typing ASTERIX in the subject line. The closing date is Friday 23 October, and 10 winners will be drawn at random from all correct entries. Standard terms and conditions apply – see www.independent.co.uk/legal. The Editor's decision is final.

1.How old is Asterix supposed to be? The series is frozen in 50BC. His date of birth, revealed in one episode, means that the little Gaul is permanently:

a) 24

b) 35

c) 63.

2. Obelix has an anachronistic profession. He is:

a) a lorry driver

b) a male model

c) a menhir deliveryman.

3. The foppish village minstrel or bard, Assurancetourix – or Cacofonix in English – is beloved by all Gauls so long as he does not:

a) fight

b) cook

c) sing.

4. Which English female pop-star from the 1960s appears in Asterix in Britain?:

a) Cilla Black

b) Petula Clark

c) Lulu.

5. Which of these materials is a key ingredient in the Magic Potion:

a) mistletoe

b) cannabis

c) parsnips.

6. Gérard Depardieu plays Obelix in the three recent Asterix movies. Who plays Asterix in the first two?:

a) Christian Clavier

b) Johnny Hallyday

c) Antoine de Caunes.

7. Which of these is NOT a character in the English language version of Asterix:

a) Vitalstatistix

b) Geriatrix

c) Dirtytrix.

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