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Asterix and the Soothsayer was one of the first books about the indomitable Gauls I ever read, as it was part of a rather nice hardback omnibus produced for exclusive distribution by WH Smith in 1982. (The other tales were Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Goths, and Asterix and Caesar's Gift.) Of the four stories, though, it was this one that it took me the longest to warm to, perhaps because back in the 1980s I was simply too young really to understand the satire that in fact makes Asterix and the Soothsayer one of the cleverer Asterix books.
== Plot ==
The story begins in dramatic fashion, with the Gauls gathered for protection and mutual reassurance in the hut of Chief Vitalstatistix as a mighty thunderstorm shakes their village. The hut seems rather TARDIS-like given that there are about two dozen people in there without all that much crowding, but still... after a brief run through of some of the Gaulish gods (to establish their respect for such things) a mysterious stranger appears and asks for shelter, stating that he is a soothsayer and knew he could count on hospitality there.
Making a few predictions that (as Asterix says) could have been foreseen by just about anyone ("when the storm is over, the weather will improve") he leaves. Impedimenta, Vitalstatistix's wife, chases after him and discovers that his objection is that Asterix is sceptical of his abilities; she persuades him to stay, in a forest clearing. From there on in, things take on a stranger tone. Asterix (and, of course, Obelix) are prevented from going into the forest, while the soothsayer himself finds that the Romans are very interested in his abilities and want to use him to force the Gauls from their village...
This is one of the more complex of the Asterix adventures in terms of plot, and you do have to keep your wits about you as the various strands interweave. There is one thing that feels a bit "deus ex machina", which is when the druid Getafix suddenly reappears more than halfway through the story, but apart from that it's mostly satisfyingly set out. Naturally there are the usual set pieces, such as a big fight in a Roman fortified camp, but as is usually the case in books set exclusively in and around the village the interest is largely in how the characters relate to one another.
== Characterisation and artwork ==
The soothsayer himself is called Prolix, but interestingly this name is almost entirely irrelevant; he is always known as "the soothsayer", by his allies, the Romans and by the ever more sceptical Asterix. This gives him the requisite air of mystery, and indeed we never really find out who he actually is and where he comes from. None of the other characters is quite so memorable, although the interplay between the centurion and his optio (although their ranks change several times!) is a lot of fun. There is a slightly uncomfortable air of sexism, though, in the way that it is the village women who are the most easily flattered by the soothsayer's predictions of wealth and success for their husbands.
As befits a book on the small scale of the Gaulish village, small panels predominate on most pages, and only the very last scene (the usual banquet) even reaches half a page in size. Despite this restricted canvas, however, illustrator Albert Uderzo manages to be quite expansive with his drawings at times. The initial scenes of the thunderstorm are memorable, including a really quite sinister sequence in which the shadow of the approaching soothsayer is seen at Vitalstatistix's door. Later on the art settles down somewhat, and the Roman camp is often signified just by a tent or two in the background.
An unusual feature of this book is the page-long "parenthesis" section early on, in which the work of soothsayers and other foretellers of the future is explained. Although some of the regular Asterix characters do appear in this ("As long as Brutus is near you, O Caesar, you will have nothing to fear!") it's not part of the story as such, and this gives Uderzo licence to have a little bit of fun with some original comic faces telling outrageous stories. For example, one of the visions of the future is a cottage clearly closely based on Uderzo's own, whereas another is a photograph (a very rare thing in any Asterix book) of skyscrapers in an unattractive part of Paris.
== Humour ==
Much of the humour in Asterix and the Soothsayer centres on the soothsayer and his attempts to convince the Romans either that he is, or that he is not, an impostor, depending on what he thinks his fate will be at any given moment. At one point he guesses correctly when two dice are thrown, then gabbles out a reply worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby about how he would never have guessed correctly had he really known what was going to happen. (The optio's response to all this, quite understandably, is: "I didn't understand a word of that. Do we lock him up?")
The other main element is satire of the gullibility of many people when in the presence of a halfway plausible con artist, and their willingness to believe special powers of just about anyone if their predictions make them feel warm and cosy inside. That does make this quite a wordy book by Asterix standards, which again may make it difficult for some younger readers, but those who enjoy word-play and the sort of cross-purpose arguments beloved of Radio 4 comedy should lap it up.
Naturally there's a reasonable amount of broad-brush slapstick as well. Near the beginning there is a fight, inevitably sparked off by a remark about one of Unhygienix's fish, while much later on there's a welcome cameo by the pirates. We also get to see one of Obelix's occasional bouts of flirtatiousness, this time with Geriatrix's glamorous wife as the two of them are smashing Romans around in the fortified camp of Compendium. (We don't find out what Geriatrix makes of this!) And, yes, Cacofonix even gets to sing ("in his voice like a sistrum!")
== Verdict ==
Asterix and the Soothsayer is from the mid-1970s, when many people believe the series was at its peak, and it's certainly an example of Goscinny and Uderzo at the height of their powers as a comic team. It manages to include several strong messages (as well as the warning against credulity, there's a strong environmental and anti-pollution theme here) and a memorable guest star while retaining the knockabout antics that make Asterix so much fun in the first place. Oh, and Rembrandt fans: think of "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp" while you're reading it. You'll see...
Asterix and the Soothsayer is the nineteenth book in the famous Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo and first saw the light of day in 1972. The story begins on a dark and stormy night with the nervous inhabitants of Asterix's village taking shelter in the house of Chief Vitalstatistix as lightning crackles outside and rain lashes the village. 'The only thing the Gauls are afraid of is the sky falling on their heads, an event which seems imminent as a terrible storm batters the little village we know so well.' The nervousness of the Gauls is not helped by the fact that their wise and calming druid Getafix is away at the annual druid conference in the Forest of the Carnutes and the spooky atmosphere is further heightened when a mysterious stranger suddenly arrives seeking shelter from the wild storm. He claims to be a soothsayer who can predict the future and when his prediction that the sky will not fall on their heads tonight and the storm will pass (unsurprisingly) comes true the gullible and superstitious Gauls increasingly fall under his spell as he tells them exactly what they want to hear. Asterix is unimpressed though and decides that the soothsayer is a fraud...
Of the books I've read since dipping back into the world of Asterix this is probably my favourite so far. There is much more going on here than the usual Asterix & Obelix wandering around bashing Romans with the story in Asterix and the Soothsayer essentially about how gullible people can be in their desire to believe something. The opening pages, beginning with the village lashed by rain and a huge bolt of lightning in the sky, are wonderfully atmospheric and it's interesting to see the broad comic tone of Asterix give way - even briefly - to a slightly foreboding and uneasy aura. There is some great stuff here like a parenthesis that takes up a page and looks at the role of soothsayers with panels including pirates and Caesar and Brutus. One soothsayer's vision of the future is depicted by a real photograph of modern buildings in Paris and Uderzo also includes a drawing of his own country home. There is also famously a panel where the soothsayer attempts to 'read' the entrails of a fish with several of the Gauls around him with the panel based on the painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt.
The soothsayer decides to move on after Asterix is dubious of his claims to forsee the future and Obelix threatens to give him a 'biff up the hooter' when says he can 'read' the entrails of dogs and suggests Obelix's little pet pooch Dogmatix might be good for this. When Impedimenta, the wife of Chief Vitalstatistix, catches up with him in the woods though he tells her he forsees that she will travel and her husband has much greater things in store than running the little village. Curious to hear more of this exciting future she sneaks grub out to him so he can 'read' it and he's soon camped out in the forest with several members of the village surreptitiously visiting him and bringing anything he wants just to hear him tell them about the wonderful things that lay in their future. The story is a good one with Asterix soon wondering if everyone has gone mad and deciding that something has to be done. 'The imposter took your gold, lived off your food and drink, and now he's gone off to look for more stupid people! You're all mad!'
Further complications arise when the Romans arrest the soothsayer and decide that his strange hold over the Gauls might be used to their advantage. The Centurion tells the soothsayer that if he can make the Gauls abandon their village he won't ship him off to a mine. The soothsayer has to play a dangerous game with the Romans as they have orders to arrest soothsayers but might let him off if he comes in useful. He protests he doesn't have any real powers but the Romans are not convinced and the soothsayer's exasperation and desperation to save his own skin is mined to good comic effect. I think the Asterix books where some sort of outside force attempts to divide the Gauls are definitely the more interesting ones on the whole and I prefer the stories like this and Asterix and the Roman Agent to the more simplistic ones in the series. The superstitions and petty rivalries of the Gauls threaten to undo them here with Asterix standing alone and wondering what to do. Life in the village is always amusing in the books with the Gauls never too far away from an argument and (comic) free for all brawl.
There is funny stuff too in the story like a great bit where Asterix and Obelix are invited to Chief Vitalstatistix's house for dinner by Impedimenta and are convulsed by laughter when they overhear her calling him 'Piggywiggy'. 'May I ask why you invited these two clowns?' an irritated Vitalstatistix asks his wife as Asterix and Obelix stifle their giggles. Asterix and the Soothsayer builds to an amusing resolution with the wise Getafix returning to the story in the second half of the book. As ever the art is lovely here with the wonderful details of houses in the village, stone chimneys, thatched roofs, trees, animals in the forest, the beach and some stand out panels like the opening shot of the storm lashed village at night, the silhouette of the soothsayer when he first appears in the story and the riff on The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Another thing I really liked was the rays of sunlight that filter through the gaps in the trees when characters are wandering around in the forest.
Asterix and the Soothsayer is one of the more interesting Asterix books with a good story, some amusing jokes and wonderful art. This is good fun for all ages and highly recommended.