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Asterix the Gaul – Introduction to Item 50
Every week when I was at primary school, we’d walk along the road to the public library, where we were each allowed to borrow one book. Quite often, I’d choose an Asterix book, much to the surprise of the teacher, who thought they were more suitable for boys (this was the early 90s). Not that I remember the boys borrowing them anyway…
I enjoyed Asterix – the quirky characters with their funny names (which made more sense the older I got), their adventures and seeing the underdog triumph. I read Asterix with my Granda, sitting on his lap with the two of us chuckling away while I had to duck out of the way of his pipe. They’re innocent stories, for the most part, and they’re still fun today.
The Plot of Asterix the Gaul
There are 37 Asterix books, with many produced by the original team of author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Alberto Uderzo. Uderzo took over the writing after Goscinny died in 1977, selling the characters to Hachette in 2009.
There is a different adventure every time, although each book features the main key characters: Asterix, small but brave, and his best friend Obelix, large but dim. Obelix is very fond of his menhirs, which he makes himself (it was years before I got that particular joke!) and his tiny dog, Dogmatix, who goes with him everywhere.
There are some recurring themes: Asterix will be sent off on a mission by Chief Vitalstatistix, a retired warrior often carried around on his shield and frightened only of the sky falling on his head. Getafix the Druid will mix some potion which gives Asterix his strength, and Cacofonix the Bard will try to compose a song in his honour, which nobody wants to hear.
Quite often, Asterix and Obelix will have to outwit the Romans. As Gaul is occupied, there are plenty of them about, and their home village is surrounded by legionary camps. Despite being conquerors, the Romans aren’t as clever as they think they are, and are often beaten by the over-confident Gauls.
There are other recurring, minor characters, too, such as the pirates whose ship is scuttled after a skirmish with Asterix. There are curvy women for our two heroes to fall hopelessly in love with, and other inhabitants of the Roman Empire. In this particular book, the tribe visits Greece, where everyone speaks in pointy letters.
The Romans in Gaul
Gaul actually covers a large area of Europe, or at least it does in real life. It’s the name given by the Romans to anywhere Celtic Gauls lived, which includes not only France but parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, amongst others.
It’s thought that the area was settled as far back as the Bronze Age, when migrants arrived in the area. These migrants probably had a shared culture, that of ‘Urnfield’, which simply means placing the cremated bones of the dead in urns and burying them. These people were warriors, living in fortified settlements and equipped with well-crafted weapons.
The Gauls (in French ‘Gaulois’ and in Latin ‘Galli’) invaded and sacked Rome in 390 BC, and the Romans invaded Gaul in 222 BC, which must be around the time that Asterix and Obelix were getting into mischief.
The Gallic Wars
The period between 58–50 BC marks the Gallic Wars, when Julius Caesar, during his time as a proconsul rather than leader, decided to invade Gaul. Caesar was merrily ploughing his way across the region when he was challenged by Chief Vercingetorix, king of the Arverni tribe (and surely the inspiration for Vitalstatistix!)
In 52 BC, Vercingetorix was at the head of an uprising by local tribes unimpressed by the Romans. He suffered a minor defeat, but quickly recovered and employed guerrilla tactics to interfere with supplies reaching the Roman camp. Familiar with the land, he then provoked the Romans to attack Gergovia, a hill-fort which was hard for the Romans to assault.
Unfortunately, his next attempt to attack the Romans saw Vercingetorix and 80,000 men retreat to the fortress of Alesia. Caesar wasted no time in pursuing the Gauls, and although he had 20,000 men fewer, was victorious. The noble chief was clapped in irons and made a prisoner in Rome, where he was eventually executed six years after the battle.
Caesar described his invasion of Gaul as a defensive move, although many felt it was a way of him raising funds to pay off debts and to raise his political profile. Nevertheless, his victory allowed Rome to secure the land up to the River Rhine. The Gauls were more than up to the battle, but other than Vercingetorix’s belated attempt, they didn’t work together, which contributed to their defeat.
Standing Stones in Brittany
Armorica is the ancient name for the section of Gaul which covered the Breton Peninsula and stretched from the Loire to the Seine, and must have inspired the department name ‘Côtes-d’Armor’, meaning as it does ‘on the sea.’ The addition of the suffix ‘ika’ to the Gaulish phrase ‘are-mori’ (‘at sea’) created its name.
The ‘Côtes-d’Armor’ itself is in the south of Brittany, about an hour and a half away from where I spend a lot of my time; Morbihan, which will appear in later blogs. The Bretons are proud of their Celtic culture, and believe that King Arthur was from Brittany. Indeed, in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Arthurian legends, the Knights of the Round Table wander around the forest of Broceliande, which is real.
There is also a local site you can visit to see fields full of standing stones, not too dissimilar to those Obelix was so fond of. While not on the scale of Stonehenge, they are quite remarkable. Not far from me is Carnac, where over 3,000 stones, carved from local granite, were erected by the pre-Celts of the region. There are also some to the east of the main Carnac site.
The stones are believed to date from somewhere between 4500 BC and 3300 BC. We don’t know for sure what their purpose is, but a local myth says that they are Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin, who lived nearby. And that explains why they stand in straight lines! On the other side, a legend states that Pope Cornelius turned a troop of pagan soldiers to stone while they were chasing him.
However, some researchers claim to have discovered the purpose of the standing stones, using an ancient technique that was lost in the mists of time until recently. According to Ancient Origins, this was known as Geoglyphology, but it’s not clear whether that’s what modern scientists are terming it. It seems unlikely that pre-Celts would have used Greek.
The short answer is that the stones are border markers, delineating the Celtic territory. More confusingly, there is apparently a puzzle to be solved using the gaps between the stones. By drawing imaginary lines between them, the researchers identified radial lines; one points to Edinburgh and the other to Stonehenge, which dates to about the same era as Carnac.