Asterix and the Missing Scroll


By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, translated by Anthea Bell (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4440-

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Classical Way to Celebrate the Season… 9/10

Asterix debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comics part-work subsequently collected into book-length compilations, in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – became the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation. Thereafter each new tome was an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees, but perhaps none more so than this one, created by Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) – who landed the somewhat poisoned chalice after he retired in 2009.

After their initial epic Asterix and the Picts proved they could follow ably in their masters’ footsteps, critics started wondering if the new kids could pull it off again…

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older, if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns seem to be is just as engrossing as the established canon especially as English-speakers are still happily graced with the brilliantly light touch of translator Anthea Bell who, with former collaborator Derek Hockridge, played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so palatable to Anglophilic sensibilities.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics are set in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the rest take place in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 B.C., a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resisted every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be pacified. The otherwise dominant Romans, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the Gauls come and go as they please.

Thus a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by uncaringly going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Le Papyrus de César was released on October 22nd 2015, simultaneously hurtling off the shelves of many nations as Asterix and the Missing Scroll (or whatever the local language equivalent of the many nations addicted to these epics might be).

Even though, as with many previous tales, it takes its momentum from satirising current affairs the resemblances to certain unscrupulous publishing magnates and founders of information-leaking internet sites is both remarkable and – I’m sure – utterly coincidental…

This home fixture begins away in glorious Rome where Caesar is anticipating the release of his memoirs Commentaries on the War with the Gauls (or Commentarii de Bello Gallico as your granddad probably knew it). Unimaginative, forthright Caesar has ended the ruminations with a final scroll detailing how he has been unable to completely end the conflict because of repeated incidents with a small village of indomitable Gauls who simply won’t accept that they’ve been conquered.

He is shocked – but not averse – to the suggestion of his advisor and publisher Libellus Blockbustus who recommends that they just leave it out of the published edition…

The expurgated publication is a sensation throughout the empire and far away in that still-unconquered enclave life goes on as usual after publication. In fact when the latest newspaper arrives the villagers are only concerned with the latest horoscopes.

As myopic Wifix reads them out, aged Geriatrix takes his prediction to heart and sees “new conquests” in his future whilst Obelix is mortally crushed by a rather specific prognostication to “avoid conflict, take stock and go easy on the roast boar”…

Asterix, who shares the same birthday as his ponderous pal, doesn’t believe in all that astrology rubbish, but cannot shake the big buffoon out of his debilitating dudgeon. Although that means things grow quiet in Gaul, back in Rome a clandestine crisis has erupted. A mute Numidian Scribe named Bigdatha has taken umbrage with the massaging of the truth and, believing the public has a right to know everything, has turned whistleblower. Swiping Caesar’s 24th scroll – “Defeats at the Hands of the Indomitable Gauls of Armorica” – he has passed it on to Confoundtheirpolitix, a Gaulish “newsmonger without borders”…

Fearing the scandal will affect profits and dreading what Caesar will do if he’s made to appear foolish or dishonest, Blockbustus instigates emergency measures and sends Roman secret police to arrest the scribe and the newsmonger. Confoundthepolitix however has already rushed to Armorica and sought sanctuary in a certain village that Romans cannot enter…

When details of the omissions on the scroll are revealed (particularly Asterix’ many exploits such as The Chieftain’s Shield, Mansions of the Gods and so on) the villagers react in different ways – those that aren’t still fighting over the horoscope predictions at least.

The excitable Lutetian newsmonger is adamant that the contents of the scroll could topple Caesar and something must be done to preserve it, prompting Chief Vitalstatistix to affably write his own history of the war to set things right. More sensibly Getafix suggests that since Gauls don’t appreciate writing but memorialise facts and history in their oral tradition, he should transport the potentially devastating data to the Forest of the Carnutes where the Grand Druid Archaeopterix can commit the information to his mighty and phenomenal cogitative cranial chronicles…

Meanwhile word has reached Centurion Verigregarius in Totorum to get that scroll back at all costs and he surrounds the village with a cordon of his best warriors. That means nothing to the villagers of course. In the dead of night Asterix, Getafix and faithful petite wonder-hound Dogmatix sneak out of a secret door and set out on their mission, dragging with them dolorous, downcast and decidedly pacifistic Obelix. They are unaware that they are being stalked by a crack squad of elite Roman army surveillance specialists, equipped with the latest advancement in the empire’s covert communications technology…

Back in Rome, every fresh evidence of Caesar’s delight in his new-found authorial celebrity terrifies Blockbustus more and more. With the humiliating last chapter still out there, a monarch’s reputation and thus the publisher’s life remain balanced on a knife-edge. Succumbing to panic, the wily advisor heads for Armorica to take personal charge of the search, even as our heroes reach the fabled forest. As their stalkers fall victim to the unique and fabulous security measures of the Carnutes druids, Getafix renews old acquaintances and begins the torturous process of committing the scroll to Archaeopterix’ capacious memory…

In Totorum, deprived of all the ongoing fresh facts and breaking news, Blockbustus and Verigregarius plan a major assault on the village to retrieve the scroll they think is still there. Their cause is greatly advanced when they catch Confoundtheirpolitix outside the stockade and take him hostage…

Thankfully the embattled Gauls have messaging system which can reach all the way to the great forest and Archaeopterix has a power-potion of his own which will allow his guests to get back to the village in time to save the day…

Even Obelix gets to play once he learns that he was read the wrong horoscope and can have as many boars and hit as many Romans as he wants. But then Julius Caesar angrily arrives and all Tartarus breaks loose…

Fast-paced, furiously funny, stuffed with action and hilarious, contemporary swipes and timeless jibes plus a marvellously enchanting double twist ending, this is a splendid continuation of the series by creators who clearly know what they’re doing and enjoy doing it. Asterix and the Missing Scroll is an unmissable joy for lovers of laughs and devotees of comics alike and a welcome addition to the mythic canon.

True Dat…
© 2015 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2015 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.