When people in the United States talk about great fantasy heroes, it's all Conan, Bilbo, and Harry Potter. Nobody ever talks about the little French dude with the wings on his head. Asterix the Gaul has a huge following in Europe, thanks to decades of adventures in the Roman Empire and the rest of the world. But he's never gotten his props in the United States, and few people recognize his importance in the fantasy canon.
Here's why Asterix deserves more props as a fantasy hero.
Who is Asterix?
Asterix was the hero of a comic strip by Goscinny and Uderzo in the early 1960s, which later became a popular series of books in France, which took off massively in the U.K. thanks to some witty translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. In a nutshell, the comic takes place in an alternate history where the Romans failed to conquer one tiny part of ancient Gaul — a single village where the inhabitants take a magic potion that gives them super-strength.
Asterix is a story of resistance — and it's probably no coincidence that it came to popularity for the post-World War II generation that still remembered the German occupation. But the little Gaul and his best friend, the large and dim-witted Obelix, also go on tons of adventures together, traveling to various parts of Europe and elsewhere. The typical Asterix adventure has to do with the Romans (or some other group) trying to outwit the Gauls, or steal their supply of magic potion, or mess with one of Asterix's friends. And Asterix has to use his wits and cunning — as much as any magical powers — to win out.
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It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy about the underdog beating the giant unstoppable armies of oppression. But it's also a story of a wily hero making his way through a series of adventures, in the tradition of Odysseus and countless others. And it's a super-satirical look at things like bureaucracy, war, boxing, and cultural differences, filtered through a very French wackiness. The downside, of course, is that it's a product of its time and a lot of that satire is pretty darn racist, especially whenever African people show up.
Besides Asterix and Obelix, recurring characters include the vain and shouty chief Vitalstatistix, the lovable druid Getafix and the ear-bleedingly-terrible bard Cacophonix. Plus the cute dog Dogmatix. There are tons of recurring jokes and motifs in the series, and part of the fun is seeing the same gags in every book, like Obelix devouring an entire wild boar by himself and Asterix's cartoon uppercut.
Goscinny and Uderzo did 24 volumes of Asterix before Goscinny died — and even though the series continued after that, it's probably best to ignore all of the later stuff. Their penultimate Asterix volume, Obelix & Co., is probably my favorite — it's a pretty sharp departure from the goofiness of the rest of the series, in which the satire gets a much sharper edge. The Romans finally figure out a way to defeat those rebellious Gauls — they use capitalism. In particular, they turn Obelix's trade in menhirs, big ritual stones, into a thriving commercial enterprise, so that the village's economy becomes complex and diversified, and everybody is obsessed with inflation and market strategies. It's actually a genuinely clever look at how global capitalism can conquer where armies can't.
What kind of fantasy is Asterix?
When Conan the Barbarian goes off on his voyages, he fights monsters and sorcerers and larger-than-life threats. Asterix and Obelix, for the most part... fight people. I'm racking my brains to think of a single magical thing in the Asterix comics, besides the magic potion that allows Asterix to fight against impossible odds. And I'm coming up blank. There's plenty in Asterix's world that's exaggerated and silly, but not actually magical.
And maybe that's one reason why fantasy fans never talk about Asterix in the same context as other fantasy heroes. He doesn't live in a fantasy world. In fact, you could argue that Asterix is the opposite of Conan. He's a magical guy traipsing around an unmagical world, and the fantasy premise is just what allows Asterix to survive his adventures — and the village to exist, of course. I can't think, off the top of my head, of another long-running fantasy series where the heroes are literally the only ones who have magic powers.
But in the case of Asterix, it totally makes sense — the Roman Empire is often portrayed as more "modern" than the village in Gaul, with its sophisticated economics and fancy customs. Obelix's constant catch phrase is "These Romans are crazy!" — and my favorite time he utters it is at the climax of a weird avant-garde theater performance in Rome, that Asterix and Obelix have been roped into performing in. The Romans are pomo and fancy and sophisticated, while the Gauls are down-to-Earth and simple — and old-fashioned. The fantasy premise of Asterix is that there's a magical potion that allows people to keep living in the past, and resist the rise of modernity.
And I think that's one reason why Asterix is such an appealing hero — not just because he and his village represent resistance against invaders, but because the climax of every adventure is that Asterix gets to remain true to his origins. He doesn't have to compromise who he is, in the face of a world that wants him to change or accept new ideas. At the end of every adventure, Asterix returns home to his village for a massive feast, which symbolizes that all is well, and that the village remains unchanged from the start of the story. Asterix's real superpower is remaining himself, no matter what you throw at him. And we could use more fantasy heroes like that.