It’s time for the Gauls to invade Rome! It looks like Goscinny and Uderzo are starting to find their rhythm, too.
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1964
Original Title: “Astérix gladiateur”
The Story: Caesar Takes the Bard
The Romans capture Cacofonix in the forest and send him off to Julius Caesar as a gift.
Opinions on this loss are mixed in the village. But, then, there’s a matter of pride. Caesar shall not be allowed to kidnap random Gauls and take them for himself.
So it is that Asterix and Obelix hitchhike on the beach and catch a ride to Rome to save the dreaded bard.
This is also where Goscinny goes wild with the local cultural references. You get the bath houses, the gladiators, the tall buildings, the Shakespearian references to Roman history, all the roads leading to Rome, and lots more. Some are just passing references, while other set up pages’ worth of gags. Mixed in you get social commentary and some inversions that I’ll get to in a bit…
Who Is Cacofonix?
I haven’t mentioned him yet in The Asterix Agenda, though he’s been in every book. This book is the first where he takes a major role, so it’s a good time to highlight him.
Cacofonix the Bard, as you may have guessed from his name and title, likes to sing a lot. Nobody likes it when he sings. The running gag in Asterix is that he’s almost always tied up and often gagged during the banquet at the end of each book.
Here’s his first appearance from “Asterix the Gaul,” where he’s carrying around a musical instrument, the bagpipe. That makes sense. A lot of people don’t like bagpipes and wouldn’t like their sound. After the first volume, though, he’s usually carrying a harp.
You can also see how early a character design this was for Uderzo, as Cacofonix would get a haircut and, if I remember correctly, a nose job before Uderzo was done with him.
By the way, Cacofonix with a bagpipe is not, as I had initially assumed, an anachronism. We all think of them as Scottish instruments, but they really came from south of there. As AkronPiper.com points out:
Contrary to popular belief, the bagpipes were not invented in Scotland or Ireland. It is widely believed that the pipes were originally created in the middle east, with supporting evidence in Egypt and eventually Greece and Rome. The use of the instrument soon spread throughout Europe, carried by the Celts and Roman invaders.
Now we’ve all learned something.
Aside from his running gag that nobody wants to hear him sing and play his instruments, he also teaches the children of the Village, who we only ever see for a plot device. He teaches math, by the looks of this panel, and probably more.
Cacofonix’s main problem is that he’s the creative one in a village filled with workers. No wonder why he was doomed to be the outcast!
Cacofonix Isn’t THAT Bad, Is He?
I felt sympathy for Cacofonix in “Asterix the Gladiator.” There’s a moment in the village where Asterix and Obelix are just kinda mean to him.
All he wants to do is sing, and all anyone does in response is run screaming from him, at best, or insult him to his face, at worst. They’re not subtle. They yell at him to stop, tell him how awful he is, and then either beat him up, tie him up, or run away. There’s no attempt to spare his feelings.
Most of the time, it’s great comic fodder. There have been plenty of sit-coms, for example, with single note characters that just set up the more colorful characters to get good lines in at their expense. But Cacofonix is so earnestly gleeful to be singing, particularly to a large crowd at the Coliseum, that he doesn’t understand how truly vile he is when it comes to singing.
It’s not just the people in the Village, either. It’s also the Romans, the men on the ship who are kidnapping him, and everyone inbetween. If there’s one universal truth in life, it’s that Cacofonix’s singing isn’t welcome anywhere.
He doesn’t ever get to enjoy the banquet at the end of a meal, either. Even after his wild adventure in Rome with this book, he’s left tied up in his treehouse.
The man does enjoy his music, though. Nobody else does, but at least it makes him happy.
Sometimes I wonder, though, is his singing voice that bad, or is it just his choice of songs? A lot of the songs he chooses to sing are usually funny references to what’s going on in the book. In this book, for example, he sings “For Gaul Lang Syne” in Asterix and Obelix’s honor. He gives a rousing rending of my favorite, “Love Is a Menhir Splendid Thing,” as Obelix is coming around the corner to free him from his cell.
Cacofonix is guilty of, if anything, “Dad Humor.” No wonder why I like him so much.
Back now to the story:
Uber for Asterix
Asterix and Obelix hitch a ride on a ship heading to Rome by sticking out their thumbs. As the narration explains, it doesn’t matter which way the thumb is pointing, since all roads lead to Rome. Even the maritime ones, it would seem.
But this ship might be the single funniest bit of the book. It’s a trading ship led by this book’s best name, Ekonomikrisis. Tired-looking men rowing the boat fill his ship’s galley, moving the boat along its merry way. Asterix almost naively asks if they are slaves, because duh, of course they are.
Ekonomikrisis denies it, calling them contractors who failed to read their contracts. It’s a much more clever bit of word play and logic when you read it in Goscinny’s words, but the pay-off comes when a pirate ship appears. Asterix and Obelix save the day while the contractors renegotiate their contracts. They’re pretty sure there’s nothing in their contracts about having to fight… They negotiate in the background while Obelix sinks the pirate ship.
And, yes, that pirate ship is the same pirate ship that appears multiple times throughout the series. They are an incomplete cameo in this book, so we’ll talk more about them in a future book…
Once In Rome
The two cultural things that Goscinny hits hardest on in Rome are the bath houses and the tall buildings.
Asterix and Obelix are completely bewildered by rooms you’d go into on purpose that are so hot they make you sweat. Obelix is happy to jump into a pool of cold water afterwards, even if he displaces all the water.
After that, they’re off to an insula, where they plan to meet a local Gaul for some help. An “insula” was a real thing in Rome at the time. It’s the equivalent of an apartment building, where people would live in units one on top of the other. It looks like the one in this story is about three stories tall, though they could run up to twice that in the old Roman times.
Units got smaller as you went up, and were also cheaper/less desirable as they were all walk-ups and harder to service. No elevators or doormen here.
Obelix, of course, thought this was a crazy idea, and Goscinny played with the idea of neighboring living in such close proximity that they often got on each other’s nerves. Obelix found it so crazy that he coined a phrase and used it repeatedly. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Gladiators and Lions and Bread and Circuses
At the center of all this, of course, is the gladiatorial battle. Julius Caesar has decided to throw Cacofonix into the arena to fight other gladiators for entertainment. Obelix and Asterix catch wind of this and, as they so often do in this series, break into the gladiators quarters to join them, much to the amusement of the gladiator’s trainer, who was trying to track down and capture Asterix and Obelix to consign them to gladiatorial duties. And, once again, a jail cell proves to be no challenge for the two.
Asterix works his magic to save Cacofonix and all his fellow gladiators, while also getting revenge on the man who owned the gladiators and set them up for battle. It’s a silly and inspired plan, which neatly satisfies everyone in ways you’d least expect.
You know what? Goscinny is establishing a pattern to his stories, and I don’t care. It’s a great template, and each story has its own ending. Most importantly, this is a comedy. All of the jokes along the way are specific to the time and place of the story. It works.
All the Familiar Bits
This book features a litany of on-going Asterix bits. It’s almost a Greatest Hits of the First Three Books Plus New Things That Will Stick.
They travel to a new country and take in the local flavor, often making jokes about it.
They break into jail to save someone. And then they break out easily.
The pirates whose ship always sinks when they run into Asterix debut here.
Obelix begins collecting the helmets of the Romans he beats up.
There’s another reference to the falling sky.
But, most of all:
And Now, the Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For
Not only does Rene Goscinny deliver the first utterance of Obelix’s catchphrase, “These Romans are crazy!”, but it’s a running gag, showing up almost a half dozen places in the book.
I guess that early repetition of the great line is what caused it to stick. I don’t think Obelix ever uses it in another book as often, but I’ll keep an eye out for that in the books ahead.
With that big piece, it really does feel like Goscinny and Uderzo are getting into the groove of the series. There’s much more to come (next book: Dogmatix!), but the basis of the series is feeling pretty firm by now.
Best Names of the Book
I already gave it away, but I think Ekonomikrisis, the trader, has to win this one.
This book is also the debut of Geriatrix, the old man of the village. His quick appearance in this book is in service to a menhir delivery service joke. Goscinny doesn’t name him in this book, but we know his name well enough that we’ll give it to him there.
HyperAnalysis: Uderzo Uses Silhouettes Well
Take a look at this panel. It’s perfect. If those Roman soldiers weren’t silhouetted, your eye would go straight to them. Instead, your eye goes to the details of the parsley that the soldier is pointing towards.
I also like, in general, the composition of this panel. Uderzo uses many layers to draw your eye into it, from the vague outlines of trees in the background to the soldiers in the mid ground, to the parsley up front.
He uses the rule of thirds well here, too, with the parsley horizontal under the lower third and the pointing solder along the left vertical third. I think there might even be a Golden Ratio at work here, but I’m terrible at drawing those up.
(If you want to learn more about proper panel compositions and good storytelling techniques, check out the “Hyperanalysis” category on this site. It features the artwork of Mathieu Lauffray, Matthieu Bonhomme, Mike Wieringo, Jeff Smith, and more.)
Point of Reproduction
I’m reviewing this book based on the 2004 Orion edition of it. It’s the first book in the series so far that looks perfect, from a reproduction point of view. There’s no issues with reprinting the old films and keeping the black lines solid or the colors on register. This book is as crisp and clear on every pages as if it went through a pipeline production today. I’m super impressed by that, even as I’m slightly annoyed that I know it doesn’t last forever.
This is still material from the 1960s, which often had a lot of work put into it to clean it up for reproduction in the modern era. We should probably just be glad these stories survived physically, as it is.
If any of the images that accompany this review look soft in their focus or off white in their reproduction, that’s entirely on me. This softcover would not survive being flattened out to scan, and taking pictures of panels with an iPhone camera often results in a skewed perspective and a darker coloring. I’m still learning to correct for all that. Give me another 20 volumes and we’ll talk.
Yes. This one combines a village character with an epic quest kind of story where Asterix and Obelix explore a new culture and make passing jokes at the culture’s expense. It’s great fun.
I’ve left out a lot of interesting talking points with this book, too. Brutus appears with Julius in one hilarious scene in this book. Asterix and Obelix are last minute entrants into a chariot race. One man in the bath house is outraged by another who’d get in the pool with his sandals still on. And more. So much more. I think 2100 words is enough for now, though…
— 2018.014 —
Buy It Now
We move on to “Asterix and the Banquet,” where Asterix and Obelix eat their way through the Tour de France. And we meet a very special friend along the way…