He’s a French national icon, an ancient Gaul who loves a punch up, as well as hunting and eating boar, and he worships pagan gods. What could be less Jewish than that? But, as a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London celebrating the life and work of cartoonist René Goscinny, it’s timely to reveal the underlying Jewish roots of his most famous creation, Asterix.
Goscinny co-created the cartoon with Albert Uderzo. Born in Paris in 1926, Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up as an expatriate French child in Argentina. In 1945 he moved to New York where by 1948 he was working in a small studio where he became friends with future MAD Magazine contributors Will Elder, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman. He hoped to make it as a cartoonist there but he never did. Instead, he made it in France. Asterix began in 1959 when he teamed up with Uderzo who did the illustrations while Goscinny did the writing. When Goscinny died in 1977, thereafter Uderzo took over the writing and illustrations but without the same literary quality many felt.
The story goes like this. It is 50 BCE and all of Gaul is occupied by the Romans led by Julius Caesar, except for one tiny village of Amorica which is resisting, surrounded by several Roman camps. They have a secret weapon, a potion brewed by their druid Getafix. Armed with this potion, Asterix and his friend Obelix and his dog Dogmatix embark on an adventure, returning home successful, having overcome Romans, pirates, and other obstacles along the way. The stories all take the same narrative arc, culminating in a huge village feast consisting of roasted boar and beer, and the village bard tied up and gagged so he can’t sing. He’s called Cacofonix for a reason.
Asterix fits in a tradition of subversive Jewish humour of the type at which its contemporary MAD excelled. Indeed, that brief period spent with Elder, Davis and Kurtzman reveals its influence in Asterix’s revelling in sophisticated wordplay: the village chieftain’s name is Vitalstatistix, Unhygienix is the fishmonger, Cacofonix the bard, Fulliautomatix the ironmonger and Getafix the druid who brews the magic potion. Asterix’s pal, Obelix – so called because he delivers tall upright stones known as “menhirs” – has a dog called Dogmatix (or Idéfix in French from the term idée fixe). There are a myriad of visual puns and the books contain a playful and cross-generational appeal. There are references to high and low culture, art, history, and literature. The books can be read as a child but also enjoyed as an adult. The more one knows the better the jokes become.
Like MAD no one escapes from its satirical gaze. While the series focusses on the ongoing conflict between the Gauls and the Romans, it is full of national, ethnic, and racial stereotypes. Yet, in only one book did explicitly Jewish – or Judean– characters appear. That book was the twenty-sixth volume, “Asterix and the Black Gold,” which Uderzo wrote and illustrated alone after Goscinny died in 1977. In an affectionate homage to his late friend and collaborator, in this adventure, Asterix and Obelix travel to the middle east, which is full of warring Hittites, Sumerians, Assyrians, Medes, Akkadians, and Babylonians. They arrive in Judea and visit Jerusalem which is full of dark-skinned Jews with black eyes and beards – allegedly a tribute to Marc Chagall – and are helped by a brave guide who leads them through the Judean Desert. The name of the character was Saul ben Ephishul — a name fans believe was invented to resemble the words “so beneficial” in English. He was also drawn to resemble the late Goscinny.
But there is an underlying sensibility to the series. Just compare Asterix to his contemporary, the wholesome boy reporter Tintin. To paraphrase the great Lenny Bruce, if Tintin is goyish, Asterix is Jewish. Asterix is the outsider and the underdog, resisting the homogenizing influence of Roman culture and imperialism. He is an adventurer and a wanderer but one who always returns home. Indeed, every adventure is undertaken to protect his home.
Many also believe Asterix is, beneath the surface, a story about the Nazi occupation of France and in this respect the fact that Obelix wears blue and white striped breeches is highly suggestive. The idea of a small village holding out against the occupiers may have been directly influenced by the Second World War but it also has its parallels in a popular discourse that says describes Israel as a tiny country surrounded by numerous enemies. And where the Gauls have their magic potion, the Israelis have a powerful military (and nuclear weapons some say).
Goscinny and Uderzo may no longer contribute to the series but the Jewish spirit of Asterix the hero lives on.