Thursday, 12 October 2017

Asterix and the Big Fight by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 7

There's a pattern emerging of the Asterix series alternating between volumes set in Gaul and those set in other countries. And the Gaul based adventures are starting to say a few things about occupation. This comes to the fore in the seventh volume, Asterix and the Big Fight, which parodies various aspects of colonialism.
How a society responds to being occupied is one of the more complex themes yet tackled in the series. Here we get a good contrast between traditional Gauls, of whom the village is a prime example, who stick to their usual ways, and the "Gallo-Romans", Gauls who seek to adapt and integrate into the society and culture of their hosts. The tales is firmly on the side of the former, with the latter shown as almost ridiculous in their attempts to adopt Roman clothing despite the climate being unsuitable, adopting Roman architecture and insisting on Roman technology like aqueducts for the sheer sake of it. But the Gaulish influence remains through and through, as shown most obviously with Cassius Ceramix's very name, combining the Roman and Gaulish naming conventions (as well as giving the opponent in the fight the former name of the greatest contemporary boxer of the time).

This new chief is regarded as a straightforward collaborator by the Romans. He's also a sign of just how difficult it is to assimilate into an occupying power, with the Romans regarding him as a Gaul through and through and recruiting him for the purpose of a Gaulish tradition, the Big Fight of the story's title, whereby chiefs can challenge each other for control of their villages. Although the precise tactics varied, this general method of tasking a friendly local leader is highly reminiscent of how many later colonial empires operated through encouraging and promoting indigenous leaders to take on the difficult tasks and provide an empire on the cheap, rather than committing endless resources to try to hold down rebellious subjects. In this regard the story shows a strong degree of original thinking by the Romans, helped also by this being the first adventure to use a different camp from Compendium, this time instead featuring the soldiers garrisoned at Totorum.

What is unfortunately not so original is that once again a key plot point to this story involves the potential ending of the supply of magic potion. Perhaps Goscinny and Uderzo had realised early on just how difficult the Gaul's super strength could make the storytelling but being now committed to it they have to find ways to make the threats seem credible as not even Cassius Ceramix will agree to fight a potion empowered Vitalstatistix. And so this time we have the disaster of Getafix succumbing to loss of memory when he is accidentally hit on the head by a menhir. The result is a stereotypical and slapstick depiction of the druid who now cannot remember any of his friends or his magic or even his taste in music. Much of the volume's humour derives from attempts to cure him, including giving him a cauldron and ingredients in the hope he can find either the medicine or the super strength potion. For an individual story the mechanism to neutralise Getafix works to advance the plot and also there's a lot of mileage derived from the Romans seeking to make sure the druid is out of action in order to get Cassius Ceramix to the fight. However, it demonstrates the long-term problems the series as a whole has with such an obvious solution to so many problems that the stories repeatedly should threaten it.

The Romans also demonstrate themselves to be complete fools in not pressing the advantage and attacking the village directly whilst Getafix is out of action. The plot point is explicitly addressed, with centurion Nebulus Nimbus considering an attack but his aide-de-camp Felonius Caucus advises instead leaving it to their existing scheme. It's a further sign of how the story mirrors later colonial tactics, but also shows the Romans as foolish as the Gauls try everything they can to cure Getafix, even recruiting the services of the druid Psychoanalytix, whose name matches his career. Unfortunately, he too soon gets a tap on the head and spends the rest of the story trying to make potions alongside Getafix with fantastic results. Amazingly it's Obelix who works out the solution to the problem.

The big fight itself is steadily built up to, with both chieftains shown in training and a parody of modern day carnivals springing up around the fight, but it's one of the least interesting aspects to the plot, along with the misadventures of the Roman soldier Informofpurpus who gets used as a test subject for Getafix's wilder potions and befriended by an owl. When the climax comes the fight itself is not that spectacular, with Vitalstatistix first running round and round the ring and only turning to fight when he hears good news. The real big fight comes afterwards in battle with the Romans.

Sometimes the focal point of a story isn't the most interesting bit and this is definitely the case here. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing as this gives for an interesting tale that shows how the various characters react to the main threat and challenges around them instead of focusing just on the threat itself. The humour is mixed but has good moments, whilst the underlying themes of the tales make for an interesting take on aspects of colonialism.

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