Thursday, 26 October 2017

Asterix and the Normans by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 9

Asterix and the Normans was the ninth adventure in the original run but is another that had its first English translation relatively late, being the twentieth of the original twenty-four stories to appear in this language. It's easy to see why (although the current editions restore the original French order). For much of this story's humour and background rests upon knowing something that may be common classroom knowledge in France, but which is less well-known here. Indeed that's probably why the translators didn't go down the obvious route, as the later film did, and change the title to Asterix and the Vikings.
Normandy was settled in the ninth and tenth century by Viking invaders, with their descendants becoming the Normans well-known to both sides of the Channel. The Normans in this album demonstrate a much greater sense of future history than most characters in the series, being aware that their descendants will become invaders and conquerors, and even knowing that "Hastings" isn't a word of significance until 1066. They're also some of the most anachronistic characters yet seen in the series, drawn to resemble Middle Age Viking invaders when there are no records of attacks until the eight century and their long ship is of an even later design. The story skirts around this anachronism with the explanation that this is no invasion but an investigative mission of Normans trying to discover the meaning of fear.

Also potentially confusing for a non-French audience are the stereotypes of the people of Normandy back-projected onto their ancestors. Absolutely every single meal involves cream, though unlike many other cuisines from around Gaul this one does not horrify our heroes from Armorica (Brittany). The roads are terrible and the drivers even worse. Children are defiant and not put off by threats of bogeymen. Once again in the series we get a set of regional stereotypes that are not so well known outside the country and again this must have been another factor in leaving this one untranslated for so long. The Normans themselves are shown to be literally fearless warriors and the plot stems from this as a group set out to rectify this gap in their knowledge, choosing Gaul at random.

This proves an unfortunate choice as there's not much the Gaulish villagers fear either. However their lives are already being disrupted by another visitor, Justforkix. Hailing from Lutetia, the nephew of Chief Vitalstatistix has been sent to the village in the hope it will make a man of him. The story was originally serialised in 1966 and it's there that the cultural revolution of the 1960s hits 50 BC by storm. Justforkix is an uppity city teenager who brings modern fast ways with him, including rock music, leading to a clash of culture with the village. He even likes Cacofonix's music and suggests the bard has potential in Lutetia, leading to the latter heading out to seek fame and bringing terror everywhere he sings. Despite Asterix and Obelix's best attempts, Justforkix just doesn't take to their attempts to beef him up. Then he spies a Norman ship on the horizon and is terrified. By contrast all the villagers can't wait to fight the Normans and Justforkix can't understand it.

Much of this is story is about characters who can't understand the world around them. Justforkix and the villagers can't understand each other. The Normans can't understand fear. And Oleaginus, a new wet behind the ears Roman legionary, can't understand why the rest of his patrol seek to avoid confrontation with the Gauls at all costs despite their orders and duty. As a result, this tale shows a lot of character development all round as the regulars bring enlightenment. The Normans make the mistake of assuming that Justforkix's terror makes him an expert on fear who can teach it to them, hoping it will make them fly in a misunderstanding of the term "flying in fear". Thus they kidnap him and Asterix and Obelix have to find a way to bring fear in order to rescue them.

There's a lot more action than usual, including Asterix and Obelix having a long fight with the Normans that runs over six pages, including a Roman patrol spotting it, returning to camp and then being sent back with orders to keep the peace. Such is the length of the fight that it's unsurprising to see it provides the scene for the cover of the modern edition, replacing the old image of Justforkix frightenedly pointing out the ship from the beach. It's a change for the better, making for a much bolder image.

There are a couple of minor developments for the series as a whole, with Dogmatix's distress at trees being destroyed shown for the first time whilst Fulliautomatix is now depicted in his settled look and established as Cacofonix's fiercest critic who will often take action to silence the bard. However the tables are turned at the banquet at the end of the story.

The plot is more leisurely paced than some of the other adventures, allowing for greater character development. This works to its advantage even though the development by necessity involves the newly created characters. However from an international perspective it is a pity that there is nothing in this story itself which explains just why there are a bunch of Vikings called "Normans". It would probably have been better for the translation to have called them "Vikings" from the off and just assume that readers who recognised the stereotypes of Normandy would understand the connection. Instead this is a story whose success largely hinges on whether or not the reader has the necessary historic knowledge, which is ultimately a failing.

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