Albert Uderzo, creator of the Asterix series, died this week, leaving a gaping hole in the world of comics.

Writer at Large, Neil Mackay - a lifelong fan of the little Gaul in the winged helmet - says Asterix isn’t just entertainment, it’s a guide to life as well

I OWE a lot to Asterix the Gaul - he saved my skin when it came to my Latin O Level, for starters.

Back when I was 16 (that’s a long time ago, now) and studying for my first serious exams, students who took Latin had to write a dissertation in English on some Rome-related topic. I chose the Colosseum.

My central thesis - not that it was very original, but then I was a teenager more interested in girls and The Smiths than conjugating verbs - was that if we looked back on the Colosseum with modern eyes we’d see it as some ghastly horror movie. It proved the corruption and madness of the Empire.

But I couldn’t come up with a decent final paragraph - a pithy conclusion. So in desperation, I turned to Asterix, the plucky little Gaul in the winged helmet who spent his life fighting invading Romans, with a bunch of oddball sidekicks. Or rather, I turned to the two Frenchmen who created the Asterix books, writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo.

READ MORE: Obituary: Albert Uderzo, co-creator of the global publishing hit, Asterix the Gaul

I’d read and adored Goscinny and Uderzo throughout my childhood but I’d abandoned Asterix by the time I hit my teens. Nevertheless, they were all there to help me in my hour of need when it came to Latin.

There was a catchphrase that Asterix’s best friend Obelix used in every book: “Those Romans are crazy!” It stuck in my head.

So, in a pathetic attempt to deploy the sloppy rhetorical trick known as ‘the appeal to authority’, I wrote something like this as my Latin dissertation’s pay-off: ‘Perhaps, the best summation of the role of the Colosseum in Roman life came from two modern French writers, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, who noted, ‘Those Romans are crazy!’.”

Blushing for shame, I crossed my fingers, submitted the paper, and prayed the external examiner didn’t have kids who read Asterix. They might just - if the universe was on my side - gloss over the absurd reference to two comic-book writers in what was supposed to be an academic essay, or even think that I was a quoting some cool French philosophers who I’d read and they hadn’t. This was long before a quick wiki check would have blown me out of the water. All I wanted was a pass.

Reader, I got an A. Thank you Asterix. To this day, I still owe you one.

Albert Uderzo died earlier this week. René Goscinny died back in 1977. With Uderzo gone, it got me thinking what a tragedy it would be if Asterix now started to fade from the lives of children around the world. The global franchise is still going strong - just check the 2018 animated feature Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion as a barometer of its international success - but the loss of such a figurehead as Uderzo could easily see the sun start to set on Asterix and his band of indomitable Gauls.

Mickey Mouse survived the loss of Walt Disney, but can Asterix survive the loss of his last creator?

What a tragedy it would be if Asterix vanished from our culture - and I don’t just mean in terms of the enjoyment the comics bring to children, or the role they play in introducing children to reading, or the love they foster for history. There’s genuine life lessons to be learned within the covers of a slim hardback Asterix book - lessons which still stick with me today. In fact, I think everyone could benefit from reading Asterix, not just children.

If you didn’t read Asterix as a child, or your children haven’t yet read Asterix, start now. Order some books, or find them online, and use this time of lockdown to bring a little innocent joy and wisdom to your life and the lives of your children - because here’s what Asterix can teach you, whether you’re young or old.

1 Stick together

The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely ... One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders…

That’s how every Asterix book starts. And every story tells how the village, and its inhabitants, outwit and overcome Caesar and his dimwitted legions, despite the insurmountable odds. Might doesn’t make right in Asterix. Brains are always better than brawn.

Enemies try to bribe them, divide them, blackmail them and terrify them, but the little Gaulish village always holds fast. There’s a role for everyone in the village, and that sense of community is indestructible.

There’s even a hint of socialism in the books. In Asterix and the Mansions of the Gods there’s a clear nod to trade unionism as slaves rebel and demand wages from their masters. In the world of Asterix, unity is the secret weapon.

2 Be clever

Well, unity isn’t the only secret weapon to be fair. The villagers also have a magic potion cooked up by their wise druid, Getafix, which gives them super-strength. So while Asterix is often able to think faster and smarter than the Romans, when the going gets tough the village can always call on the learning of Getafix to give them a helping hand. Getafix guards his knowledge obsessively - no-one else may ever know the secret ingredients to the mystical potion. Wisdom always wins out.

READ MORE: Asterix's latest quest: To help Scottish primary pupils learn French

These books also teach kids arcane bits of general knowledge they’d never otherwise pick up, and start children on the path of intellectual inquisitiveness. Major historical figures like Boadicea or Spartacus pop up. They’ll learn that Roman-era Paris was called Lutetia. They’ll discover that ancient Celts worshipped a god called Toutatis.

They’ll meet caricatures of Napoleon and Mussolini. There’s a spoof Harold Wilson in Asterix in Britain as the chieftain Mykingdomforanos, and Sigmund Freud appears as the Druid Psychoanalytix.

3 Life is an adventure

Asterix began in 1961, and there’s been around 40 books so far, the last printed in 2019. The books have taken the characters to Spain, Britain, Switzerland. The characters have met Cleopatra, fought as gladiators, sailed the high seas, battled pirates, discovered America, and hung out with the Picts of Scotland

Asterix triggers the natural curiosity of children. It wraps history and geography up in silly capers and daft jokes, and it presents the world as a wonderland to be explored and enjoyed. The books tell you that life is risky, but the adventure is worth it, and there will be plenty of laughs along the way. If you want positivity for pre-teens, these are the books.

4 Hold on to your dreams

None of the villagers ever give up. Obelix, the story’s second lead, is fat (or as he’d put it his ‘chest has slipped’) and a Menhir delivery-man - in other words he’s the blue collar guy who supplies the rocks for places like Stonehenge. He’s also the best fighter in the village, as he fell into a pot of magic potion as a baby and came out with superhuman strength. As a result, the druid Getafix forbids Obelix from ever tasting the magic potion again. He’d overdose. But that doesn’t stop Obelix trying to get a sip of the hard stuff in every book. He never lets that dream go.

Another character, Cacofonix, the village bard, is the most appalling singer imaginable. The villagers will do anything to stop one of his songs - he gets bashed over the head, his lyre broken, and finishes every book tied up and gagged. But does that stop him believing in himself? Not a bit.

Hold on to your dreams, the books say. Who cares if people laugh at you?

5 Families may fall out but they still love each other

The villagers may have a mortal nemesis in Rome, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bicker and fight amongst each other. They often end up in full scale fisticuffs. In particular, Unhygenix, the village fishmonger, and Fulliautomatix, the blacksmith, often give each other a pointless hammering. Nevertheless, when they need to, they put their differences aside and return to being friends.

he village will always come together in a show of love and solidarity.

6 Enjoy the little luxuries in life

The villagers are obsessed with wild boar. It’s their crack cocaine. Obelix, especially, would crawl over broken glass for the equivalent of a Gaulish hog roast. They don’t have much, but what the villagers do have, they enjoy.

Then there’s the village chief, Vitalstatistix. He’s a reasonably decent guy, not a tyrant for sure - but he’s still chief and he likes the one perk that comes with the gig: being carried around on a shield by two shield-bearers. 

There’s nothing wrong with indulging yourself every now and again, Asterix tells us.

7 People are a wee bit crazy, but there’s no harm in that

Vitalstatistix is also a bit weird. He believes that one day the sky will fall on his head, and talks about it constantly. It never happens. The creators drew on real historical accounts of Gaulish chieftains who were brought to meet Alexander the Great, and told the Greek king that their only fear was the heavens collapsing on them.

Then there’s Geriatrix, the oldest person in the village, who can’t accept his age and challenges the toughest guys around to fight him. The villagers simply indulge him.

We’re all a bit strange, but so what. That’s the lesson.

8 Words are fun

As you can probably tell by some of the names of the characters, the Asterix books are full of verbal dexterity, silly jokes and puns. Vitalstatistix the chief is chubby - thus the name. His wife is a bit of a nagger so she’s called Impedimenta. There’s a big muscle-bound Roman legionnaire called Gluteus Maximus - who’s the, ahem, butt of many a joke. National stereotypes are exploited with no thought to political correctness. In Asterix and the Picts the main Scottish character is known as Macaroon, and there’s an inevitable cameo by Nessie.

9 Be an individual

Small is beautiful in Asterix. Not only is Asterix two-foot-nothing, but the village itself is a tiny, individualistic hold-out resisting tyranny and refusing to surrender to the Roman Empire. The village does things its own way. The point is underscored by the name of Obelix’s pet - Dogmatix.

Conformity is the greatest enemy of all, the books tell us.

10 Nature matters

The magic potion which keeps Rome at bay depends on the forests around the village for its secret ingredients. The books have a great reverence for nature and the environment. The recent film Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion is all about the need to pass on wisdom about the environment to the younger generation. A pretty good lesson for this day and age.

11 Everything should end with a party

Every Asterix book closes with a knees-up. The village has survived, they’ve all learned a few lessons, heroes need to be rewarded - so what better way than to get everyone together to drink, eat and dance. Asterix always ends on this same scene. It’s wonderfully reassuring for children. Times may be fraught or scary, but you’ll always come through it, and at the end of the day, there will be happy times.

Plenty of kids will find that thought very comforting today.


VIEWED from today, it’s impossible not to see the ethnic stereotyping within the covers of Asterix books.  

Most attention has been focused on the way people of colour are portrayed, but in all honesty, everyone gets it in Asterix.

It’s a product of its time. The Asterix hey-day was between the early 60s and the end of the 70s - not an era known for its subtly or nuance.

When the Goths appear in the books they’re a stand-in for Germans, and they’re portrayed as regimented and militaristic, with pointy World War One-style helmets. The Swiss eat cheese and like banks. The Brits are a bit Bertie Wooster, stop for tea, sip warm beer and eat awful food. Scandinavians are fearless drunks. The Greeks like tourists. Arabs fight each other all the time. The Scots drink whisky and toss cabers.

READ MORE: Fiona Rintoul on the art and craft of the literary translator

Although it might seem a bit un-PC today, culturally it provides a fascinating insight into the way France saw the world in stereotypes before the coming of political correctness in the mid 80s.

But let’s be clear - and I’m not just making excuses for books I loved as a child - Asterix is positively mild in comparison to the blatant racism in Tintin or Britain’s own Enid Blyton. At its worst, Asterix has a kind of French-style Carry On film humour, that’s pretty innocent.


1 Asterix the Gaul - the first in the series. It sets the template for all the other books to come. It also stars a Roman centurion called Crismus Bonus - which is just a great joke, let’s be honest.

2 Asterix and the Golden Sickle - one of the best in the series. It features a Roman Prefect in Gaul who’s based on the movie star Charles Laughton. The British actor often played Roman nobles, in films like Spartacus. Proof, if you need it, that there’s multiple cultural layers to Asterix.

3 Asterix in Britain - it’s great fun if just for seeing the UK mocked mercilessly, but with great affection. There’s a British emissary called Anticlimax, a pub landlord called Dipsomaniax, and Churchill and the Beatles both make a thinly disguised appearance.

4 Asterix and the Great Crossing - before Columbus, before the Vikings, there was Asterix and Obelix. Here they sail off and land in Manhattan, where Obelix develops a taste for turkeys, or ‘gobblers' as he calls them.

Vikings also make an appearance in the tale, and as they’re from Denmark they come with lots of heavy references throughout to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Goscinny and Uderzo loved to litter their work with literary overtones to entice kids to read. It worked.