I dedicate this essay to Jean Joubert, poet, novelist and teacher
In the 25 volumes of the Astérix series that were published before René Goscinny's death in 1977, there is sufficient detail and coherence to permit ethnographic study. Close reading is fun. It permits us to know better what we think we know. Repetitiousness of not only phrases but rituals and gestures enhances the assurance that we can discern what is both particular and meaningful in a culture.
In some Astérix volumes, there seem to be gates around the village, in others nothing. The population may be inferred from the 26-27 men sitting around the festive table, with little variation. Since the chief, the druid, Astérix and Obélix ― at least ― are without progeny, the standard ratio of numbers per hearth certainly would be off the mark in so small a number. Each conjugal unit, including the single males, has its own hut and fire. There is no stem family.
There is narrative but no sense of the passage of time. No one dies, no children are born, and the children stay the same age. And there are no illnesses due to aging, unless we consider that the strong disparity between the physical strength and courage that the old-timer Agecanonix says he has, and the non-interactive response of his neighbors, results from illness or aging. He is about the only example ― and it is an extreme one ― of disjuncture between speech and action. While on the subject of speech, it should also be noted that there is no discourse of community among the villagers. Thus the villagers lack a word to characterize what they share in common, namely, a sense of place, collective identity, and strong habits of governance and defense. There is collective opposition to any secrecy, and claims to want privacy are suspect. Continuing our inventory about speech, no oaths are sworn, and epithets seem mild: Par Toutatis!
Not until the old-timer comes into the series (he is not present in the early volumes) are there more lofty historical allusions, the principal one being the heroic exploits of courage at the Battle of Gergovie. Not until Caesar wishes to recover Vercingetorix's shield does anyone mention that it is the very shield on which the chief stands in honor. An outsider tells the villagers about the provenance of the shield. The druid always recalls that Obélix fell into the magic potion when he was little ― which leaves us to infer that this friendly giant is either trying to sneak a taste, or else he has no memory. No one keeps a chronicle or writes a saga. But memory is not the same throughout Gaul. What to make of the festive meal in honor of Gergovie that takes place in Corsica? The bard participates, and the women eat with the men.
Volume II opens with a scene of plowing, haying and hunting. The steady purchase of fish imported from Paris, the café named the "Au Vin Gaullois" where one presumably buys drinks, the women's interest in fine clothes and trinkets from Paris, and the speedy arrival of most of the male villagers to join Obélix in carving and selling menhirs to the Romans, indicate the existence of a monetary economy, but as we shall see later, it is this very instinct for gain that the village leaders perceive as a danger to their survival.
Governance in the village is the only major issue on which Goscinny and Uderzo contradict themselves. In the Combat des chefs, the danger of having a pro-Roman outsider imposed as chief of the village, should Abraracourcix be defeated, is solved when the latter knocks out his opponent, and does it without the magic potion. This great show of courage and strength would not have occurred without provocation, but the chief had what it takes to defend his honor and his rank in a showdown.
By contrast, in the Cadeau de César, the druid says that the laws (sic) permit anyone to be a chief if he gets a majority of the villagers' votes. An electoral contest follows, when the recent immigrant ― and innkeeper and his wife from Rome ― challenge the chief and challenge his wife, Bonemine. The bard goes round to sound out people. His singing so upsets the chief (who is already exasperated by his wife's unleashed competitiveness with the innkeeper's wife), that the chief ponders withdrawing his candidacy. In fact, before the chief regains his authority, the campaign turns into a nasty battle between the two wives. Though respected, the innkeeper and his wife move to Lutétia. Did Goscinny and Uderzo change the rules for selecting-electing chiefs simply for their narrative, or had they learned more about governance in Gaul? We shall return to this incident when discussing attitudes toward foreigners; but for now the chief's powers remain unchallenged. He authorizes trips out of the village, orders the making of the magic potion, fixes defensive strategy, speaks officially for the village in all relations with neighboring peoples and villages, and has the power to exile any villager. Typically he does not call together the villagers, to consult with them on important matters; but when he does ― and this happens once, in Le Domaine des Dieux ― the villagers listen intently but do not respond or give him advice. As we shall see, the governance of the village is really in the hands of three men: the chief, Astérix, and the druid. It is clear that no one is pressing for participatory democracy, which is not to say that there are no political frustrations or denied ambitions.
Along with the chief's powers ― and, I think, sustaining them ― the most important villager habit is to brawl (the bagarre). These occur frequently and are usually triggered by some tiny slanderous remark: for example, whether the fishmonger's stock is fresh. When a brawl starts between two men, instead of watching the others intervene and punch one another in a general fight. Men come running to join in, leaving only the chief, Astérix and the druid as bystanders. Like Clifford Geertz who ran with the Balinese whom he was observing, this almost automatic joining in the brawl reveals a shared habit grounded in the need to be violent. There are black eyes, tousled hair, and torn clothes, but like the wonderful Irish village brawl in the film, Widow's Peak, no one is really wounded. The male children, roughly ages 3-7, also fall into brawls quite frequently. Some adult stops them, but there is no real attempt to root out brawling among the young. The difference between a brawl and a battle with the Romans lies in the fact that actual weapons ― chiefly maces ― are used against the Romans.
One more observation about relations with the Romans. Does their military presence keep the villagers together? If the brawls were not so important, the answer might well be in the affirmative, but the social integration in brawling, and the wary relations with nearby Celtic villages, suggest that even if the Romans picked up and left, the village would continue on in pretty much the same way. For the dear giant, attacks by the Romans relieve the boredom of village life. Obélix is particularly pleased when new cohorts arrive, all fresh and not yet struck by fear or lassitude. In La Zizanie, a crisis is provoked by the Roman psychological warrior Tullius Detruitus: the chief wonders whether he could become a Roman senator. His wife then gossips about how Caesar has proposed that her husband become a senator. Thus, in the Gallic imagination, there is a blend of fantasy about deeper integration into Roman political culture. In the Jeux olympiques, the Gauls claim, of course, to be Romans ― but only on their terms.
Faced with a threat, it is really always the chief, Astérix and the druid who come up with plans about what to do. This relation is confirmed in the seating arrangements at the village feasts, with Astérix most frequently on the chief's right, the place of honor. Exceptions are revealing: the bard sits at the chief's right after he has taught fear to the Normans; and a Roman is given that honor after helping the villagers defeat a stratagem devised by his compatriots.
To sum up relations with outsiders, the attempt to integrate the Roman innkeeper and his wife clearly failed; but it ended amicably. The old timer, however, inveighed against foreigners coming to the village. He says that, while some of his best friends are foreigners, they are not from chez nous. The chief's nephew is welcomed, but with a wary eye because of his Lutétian counter-culture clothes, his wild dancing and his sporty chariot; but in an encounter with the Romans he comes out bashing and pounding like all the other male villagers and is thereby accepted. The fortune teller is itinerant: he is temporarily accepted and honored, but only because the druid is absent. He is sent packing when his predictions unravel. His temporary success is derived from the credulousness of the chief's wife, Bonemine. Though loyal to her husband, she has a great, pent-up sense of failure. She envies her Lutétian brother's success and luxuries and, in La Zizanie she tells how her parents characterized her future husband as a "minable sanglier, barbare et raté." We have already encountered the fact that the political challenge to her husband not only prompts indignity suffered when a neighbor woman declines to let the chief's wife go to the head of the line at the fish store; but Bonemine becomes scrappy and gossipy during her husband's electoral campaign. The only other female villager to have some character is the old-timer's young, luxury-loving and sexy wife, who dresses in green. The male villagers ponder just how that old débris of a husband can satisfy her, but there is never a word of gossip about her being a flirt, nor about philandering on the part of her male neighbors. I suspect that the only husband in the village who washed the dishes is Agecanonix!
The last major social relation to be noted is the friendship that joins Astérix and Obélix. While it is tempting to interpret this relationship from a literary and even structuralist (i.e., Holmes and Watson) perspective, it must be resisted. Their ages are different, Astérix being perhaps 15 years older. In La Zizanie, a matronly gossip remarks that it is odd for a man as old as Astérix to still be single! Astérix is never quite domineering over his quite slow-witted friend, but sometimes he fails to share plans with him, and virtually orders him around. Obélix's feelings are hurt, because he interprets this as condescension. He therefore mocks his friend, calling him "M'sieu"; but these disputes do not last long. Suddenly emotion overwhelms them, and they fall into each other's arms in a big hug of reconciliation. This is not philosophical friendship, it is male bonding where each would willingly risk his life for the other. When loving sentiments about a young woman strike Obélix, Astérix tutors him in the ways of courtship. Astérix is also smitten by feelings of love, but in neither case does intimacy develop. The druid admires Cleopatra's nose, a venerable trope if ever there was one. In his friendship with Obélix, Astérix's intelligence tempered by ruse and solid morals is complemented by Obélix's superhuman strength combined with such low intelligence that he can be fairly easily duped. Note that the chief and Astérix wear helmets, a manifest sign of a military role; but what Astérix lacks in strength, owing to his small size, is more than compensated for by his savvy.
The bard is a frustrated poet-singer whose art is systematically rejected by the villagers. In the first volume in the series, the bard offers to sing to encourage the villagers before a battle with the Romans, but everyone leaves as he begins. He accuses them of being barbaric. When he is kidnapped, every effort is made to recover him, not so much for what he does as out of the necessity to overcome a humiliation of the village. In the relations with the Normans, he plays his only valuable part: that is, he makes them aware of what it feels like to be afraid. His only other useful activity is teaching children their Roman numerals.
When the bard begins to sing, it is invariably the blacksmith who threatens him and ties him up. This is not just a personal animosity between the two. If it were, the other villagers might be expected to intervene to prevent such humiliation and brutality. Thus the blacksmith is carrying out the villagers' collective wish to silence the bard. I shall risk over-interpretation about this in my conclusion, but we have already noticed an important clue, namely the absence of any discourse of community, any articulated and overt consensus omnium. In La Zizanie, when virtually everyone becomes suspect as a result of a character fault, the bard goes along without expressing suspicion or reproach, and without being suspected or reproached.. At one point he sets off for Lutétia where he believes his art will earn him recognition.
The last major figure in the governing elite to characterize here is, of course, Panoramix, the druid. He looks old and frail, but in reality he is every bit as vigorous as Gandolphe. Maker of the magic potion, observer of whether the phase of the moon is propitious for a battle with the Romans, and general advisor ― along with Astérix ― to the chief, the druid has special knowledge, and a special extra-village relation with other druids, who all meet four times a year at the Carnutes' Forest. In La Zizanie, the chief accuses Panoramix of giving the recipe for the magic to Astérix, who therefore becomes suspect for allegedly having a friendly relation with a Roman. The accusation is false. In Chez les Helvètes, the druid takes the poisoned questor to the village as a hostage, to cure him. Though the latter is a Roman, he becomes the druid's friend and is given a place of honor at the feast. The druid's presence impedes the integration of fortune tellers and peddlers who profit from the villagers' credulity. Panoramix's knowledge of the natural world is primarily evident in the recipe for the magic potion, a mixture of plants that must be gathered with a gold sickle ― a kind of mystical catalytic converter. The effects of the potion are not simply psychological. The long-term physical effects of falling into it when young are evident in Obélix's strength.
Caesar remarks that money does not interest the villagers: otherwise they would have sold the recipe for the potion long ago. Note that the only general assembly of the villagers is called at the druid's request. The huge suburban housing project called the Domaine des Dieux is attracting some of the villagers to a new market-oriented way of life. The belle entente of the villagers is threatened. There is a bagarre over price cutting. Other signs indicate the danger: the rooster wakes everyone way too early; the fishmonger shouts "Couchez, imbécile," a brawl breaks out over a slur, and more important, some slaves are freed. Panoramix perceives all this as Caesar's plot to weaken and divide the villagers. As previously noted, the meeting does not produce a real debate or a collective decision. When the Romans chase the bard from the apartment complex, the villagers are offended. The Romans are scared away by a ruse, but the important revelation is the druid's conscious understanding of the origins of the villager's bonne entente, names, the absence of a market economy. Astérix also has some understanding of the social consequences of a market, indeed, a consumerist economy; and he supports the druid but displays little personal commitment to keep the village a minimally monetary economy. The market economy is a leitmotiv through the Astérix books. Consumerism is a danger to men and women alike: Bonemine desires Lutétien finery, and Obélix is pleased with his new clothes.
How to interpret the village assembly's failure to come up with an initiative in reply to the druid's warnings? Governance by the chief, who takes advice from the druid and from Astérix, is customary, and it is this troika's power to keep villagers secure from both enemy and internal attacks that prevails. The chief standing on his shield may be toppled by inept shield-bearers, but his authority is unquestioned. Did Vercingetorix have advisors? As Caesar narrates it, this pretender to a throne, with his claim to royal blood, had virtually absolute authority vis-à-vis the Roman enemy; but what was his authority at less dangerous moments? Goscinny's village is a simplified Gallic society without nobles and systems of protection. Perhaps it is important to recall that one can read in a single afternoon all the edited literary sources about Gaul dating from Caesar's time.
And in conclusion, I shall suggest that the other is music, especially music with words. The bard is both of the village, and not of the village. He does not receive the magic potion, nor does he fight the Romans. Unlike the others, he lives in a tree house for protection. As already noted, his offer to increase, by his songs, the villagers' courage in fighting the Romans, prompts everyone to leave. People sing around the feast table, but never does the bard intone one of his works at this event. In Astérix et les Normans, the druid gives an eloquent exhortation on courage and overcoming fear. In La Zizanie a feast is organized to honor the chief, with an aim to bring all the villagers back together. The bard is not even suspected of sowing la zizanie. At the failed reconciliation banquet, he sings; but no one sings with him or engages him in conversation. Speech as conversation is essential to the villagers. Listening to poetic song is not.
After the analogy of the cave that one remembers from elementary philosophy courses, the second famous recollection about Plato might well be his critique of poetry and poets. Unlike philosophers, who use imagination and virtue to pursue the good life, for Plato the poet just has imagination. Music should be taught to children, and a civic commitment to it may elevate courage and pleasure in a synthesis. But poets must be carefully censured. They caused the decline of the first great Athens about which Plato is so often nostalgic. The best solution is to silence poets. I am aware, of course, that this reference to Plato shocks and seems uncalled for in an ethnographic essay. We shall never know what Goscinny read, but the very specificity of the bard's character and role in the village has led me to speculate.
The potential dangers to the bonne entente and defense of the village are, therefore, the market economy and poetry. When storms break out, there is talk about the gods being angry, but little is done to propitiate them. Centered on the wise and gentle ways of Panoramix, what religious life there is keeps magic and prophecy at bay, yet does not foster fanaticism or ceremonial. The druid, not the chief, makes a speech about the need for physical courage in battle.
But what about Idéfix's love of trees? The little dog's master ― that dear giant who is perhaps closer to nature than the other villagers ― always takes cognizance of the dog's growling when a tree is attacked. But Obélix's interest may not be a lofty pantheist belief so much as self-interest: if there are no trees, there will be no sangliers. His voracious appetite for roast boar seems only remotely related to natural religion.(1)
Idea of community? There can be imagined, without the word, a natural or primordial community at once utopian and pseudo-historical, the village we know and love so much.
Presented at the session on the Astérix series at the annual meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies, Houston TX, spring 2007.
1. I read Caesar's Commentaires before rereading the Astérix series. I read Jean-Louis Brunaux's Les Druides (Paris: Seuil, 2006); and after writing my little essay I read Nicolas Rouvière's Astérix ou les lumières de la civilisation (Paris: P.U.F., 2006). The latter made me feel amateurish at close reading. My reading does not support Rouvière's conclusion that the village is a democracy. There is an evolution toward electing the chief. On the great decisions about war and peace, just to mention one example, there is no consultation or voting. On music and poetry for Plato, C. Janaway, "Plato and the Arts," in A Companion to Plato, ed. by. H.H. Benson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 388-400.