Thursday, 9 November 2017

Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 11

The Asterix adventures as a whole have a tinge of French nationalism, celebrating heroes who have resisted the invasion of their country and triumphing against the odds just a generation after the Second World War. But to date none of the stories has been so directly rooted in national myth history as Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield, the eleventh adventure in the series. It shows how both the Romans and Gauls seek to harness the history of past battles for present day propaganda advantages, with the added complication of a quest to find the titular shield.
Of course, France's history includes both victories and defeats, making for selective historical memory. Thus throughout this story much is made by the Gauls of their great victory over the Romans at Gergovia. By contrast the Romans focus on their ultimate victory at Alesia. When troubles stir again, the response is to host a triumph recalling that great battle. Notably both sides ultimately want the same object for their assertion of superiority, reminiscent of how in the real world the Germans in 1940 chose for the French Armistice to be signed in the exact same railway carriage in the same location as the 1918 Armistice. And though the setting in the Auvergne region is historically accurate for the battles, the choice of Vichy (Aquae Calidae) as the spa where Vitalstatistix is sent for treatment feels more than a coincidence. Notably there's not a single identifiable Roman there, whereas a later trip to a spa at La Bourboule (Borvo) sees many working there. It may have reflected the spa's initial post war boom but it also demonstrates a subtle reclaiming of the town for the French.

Once again the series takes some liberties with recorded history. In the real world the battles of both Gergovia and Alesia took place in 52 BC, just a couple of years before the setting for the Asterix adventures. However here the events are treated as having happened at least fifteen years ago, with many of the soldiers on both sides having moved on in life, albeit with the conspicuous exception of the centurion Titus Crapulus who is stuck in a career rut due to his drinking. Apart from the flashback at the start there is no sign of the great chieftain Vercingetorix himself, even though in reality in 50 BC he was a prisoner in Rome and thus would have been a potential alternative symbol for Julius Caesar's planned triumph. Most significantly, none of the Gauls will admit to knowing where Alesia is. This is one joke that has dated heavily as at the time of the story's initial publication the location of the town and battle was a source of great debate amongst histories and archaeologists. However since then a consensus has emerged. But even today this forgetfulness reinforces the sense of how peoples remember the good bits of history and don't like to be reminded about the bad.

The plot in this story is driven by the search for the shield of Vercingetorix, with Caesar seeking to subdue resistance in Gergovia by holding a triumph using the chieftain's shield to show that the Romans have ultimately triumphed. However the shield has gone missing and Asterix and Obelix set out to find it, aiming to hold their own triumph. A prologue on the first page of the story tells how the shield was initially laid at Caesar's feet after the battle, but subsequently taken by an archer and then became a piece of currency in its own right amongst gamblers and drinkers. The panels steadily decrease in size, disguising the identities of the last known owners. Asterix and Obelix set off to follow the trail, taking advantage of a lose-tongued drunken Roman spy who witnessed the initial removal of the shield, with the Romans soon discovering the same trail. Eventually it leads to some very familiar faces.

The eventual holder of the shield is a surprise. Although the scenes aren't absolutely specific, it seems that the Gaulish warrior from outside the region who took the shield was fully aware of its significance rather than just taking a liking to its design. And given his subsequent role in fighting against the Romans, it's very odd that his possession of the shield, thus making him the spiritual heir to Vercingetorix, is something he has not made anything of. Often search stories that end up on the regular characters' own doorsteps (metaphorically here) can get into a mess when it's not too clear why the location of the object of the quest wasn't known about to start with and that's very true here.

There's a good use of the settings and plot devices within the story. Our heroes have come to the region in the first place because Vitalstatistix is suffering liver trouble and is sent to a spa to be cured, with Asterix and Obelix as his guards for the journey. The scenes in the first spa play well on the problems when not every guest in the establishment is there to be cured, with much resentment of Asterix and Obelix's regular diet and misuse of the pool. However they get a comeuppance later on when trying to locate a Roman last known to be working at another spa and have to infiltrate it, thus enduring the limited diet and rigorous regime that they had previously avoided. Vitalstatistix's own slimming is rapidly reversed on the journey home, betraying a cynicism about the longer-term effects of such treatments. The inhabitants of the Auvergne region were originally written with a distinctive accent but this is dropped in translation in favour of meat based jokes. There's also a running pun on the local economy being dominated by joint wine and charcoal merchants who seem to just sell to each other. The charcoal makes for many gags as the Gauls have to repeatedly hide in it and the Romans search it, all emerging absolutely covered in dust, as shown on the cover.

Although the resolution of the quest element of the story is weak, overall this is quite a good tale that takes elements of the Gauls' history and weaves them into a narrative with quite a bit to say about the use of history as propaganda for present day political effect.

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