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'These Britons are crazy...'
Asterix in Britain - René Goscinny
Member Name: Jake Speed
Asterix in Britain - René Goscinny
Advantages: Great art
Disadvantages: Not quite as good as I remembered
Asterix in Britain is the eighth entry in the Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo and was first published in book form in 1966. Like many people I grew up with Tintin and Asterix but while I still love and read Tintin when the mood takes me I hadn't read an Asterix book for years until I dug this out of the cupboard. In Asterix in Britain, Julius Caesar has decided to invade Britain now that the Gauls (apart from one plucky magic potion enhanced village of course) have been conquered. Britain is soon under occupation except for one brave village which holds out under their boss Chief Mykingdomforanos. Chieftains from all over Britain meet in the village to discuss what to do as they can't hold out for much longer.
They decide to send one of the tribe, Anticlimax, to Gaul as Anticlimax is the first cousin once removed of Asterix. When he crosses the Channel and reaches Asterix and the Gaul village, Anticlimax requests the magic potion which Asterix and his tribe get from their druid Getafix - the potion giving them superhuman strength which enables them to hold out against the Romans. Chief Vitalstatistix agrees to this request and sends Asterix and the Boar guzzling Obelix back to Britain with him to help deliver the barrel of magic potion safely as those pesky Romans are everywhere...
The best thing about Asterix in Britain is the art. The backdrops are lovely at times and the details of cellars and Roman interiors are often very impressive. Old inns with candles and barrels behind the bar are wonderfully atmospheric too and there is good use of silhouettes at night, fog and rain. The opening page has some nice panels of ships and Julius Caesar's battle fleet - which a pirate ship bears the brunt of. These pirates were recurring characters in Asterix if I recall with their ship permanently running aground or being destroyed in a running joke. What wasn't quite so impressive I found - returning here to Asterix after a long break - was the story. Hergé constructed incredibly labyrinth plots for Tintin whereas here it's basically Asterix and Obelix losing the barrel and having to find it, beating up countless Roman soldiers in violent cartoon comic book style along the way. I don't know if it's just me but I started to feel sorry for these Roman soldiers after a while.
One thing they do do here though in Asterix in Britain to modestly amusing and pleasant effect is have some fun with British caricatures and stereotypes. The British infuriate the Romans by stopping battles at tea time to go and have a glass of hot water with milk (tea hasn't been introduced to Britain yet) and we see a pair of Britons react to the arrival of the Roman battle fleet with a very understated and phlegmatic air. 'This is a jolly rum thing...' The are jokes about driving on the wrong side of the road, fog, double-decker buses, the British obsession with gardens, warm beer and British cooking. Obelix is is dismayed to see that the British boil everything and serve it with mint sauce. 'Eat up Obelix and don't pass remarks,' orders Asterix in the face of this terrible grub. 'In Britain you must do as Britons do.' There are a lot of Carry On Cleo type jokes about being thrown to the Lions with mint sauce or something. It's all quite affectionate really with the Britons appearing rather noble because of their dry and understated response to everything. Chief Mykingdomforanos was apparently a caricature of Churchill although I only realised later on in the book.
One slight problem I have with the Asterix books - and I had this growing up too - is the magic potion which gives the Gauls super strength and enables them to beat up Legions of Romans as if they were batting away flies. It means that there is never any tension whatsoever and the characters never have to do or come up with anything ingenious or clever. Everything will be resolved by Obelix or Asterix beating the living daylights out of Roman soldiers with their augmented super strength. It always seems like a slight cheat and there remains a small part of me that wants Asterix to get caught without the potion and given a good going over! Tintin books still make me laugh but, although it's often mildly amusing, Asterix in Britain didn't really make me chuckle. The best joke in the book - and it makes a nice set-piece - occurs when the Romans are trying to find the barrel of secret potion in amongst numerous barrels of wine and order Roman soldiers to drink from each barrel until they find it. A boozy, drunken scene soon evolves with soldiers singing and fighting one another with comic bright red noses.
The most famous bits in Asterix in Britain are probably the Tower of London panels (which are wonderfully drawn) and the Rugby match climax. I think children would probably prefer Asterix to Tintin as it is more cartoonish and simplistic, the emphasis more on comedy and fighting than plot. Tintin still holds up when you read it (becoming even more interesting as an adult because you notice new things) whereas Asterix in Britain didn't seem as funny and magical as those Asterix books I remembered reading growing up. The art is still impressive though. I remember taking an Asterix book out of the library at Primary School, I think it was Mansions of the Gods, and being captivated by the drawings of all those Roman buildings. Children today I think would still enjoy Asterix on that same level.
I didn't enjoy Asterix in Britain as much as I expected to but the enjoyable art and general sense of fun on offer means that younger readers (I hope) would get more out of this than me and have a good time. These are still very attractive and colourful books to flip through and the attention to detail remains impressive.
Summary: Asterix in Blighty
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