By Vasanthan Panchavarnam
Almost everyone would be familiar with the French comics, Asterix, or, The Adventures of Asterix. Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the entire series owes much of its success to the inane humour and banter which are seen sprinkled liberally throughout the pages ; and which centre chiefly on puns, caricatures, double entendres and such.
The English speaking world is forever indebted to the official translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, for having managed to maintain the spirit and humour of the original, even when direct translation wasn’t a possibility. It is due to their joint efforts that we now enjoy the many classical and literary quotes and quotations, the excerpts from poems, and the traditional and popular songs ; all cleverly interwoven within the dialogues.
Latin quotes are seen aplenty, particularly those of a much caricatured Julius Caesar ; his resigned ‘Veni, Vidi, & (not so) Vici’ ; his flamboyant ‘Alea Jacta Est’ ; his derogatory ‘Et Tu Brute’ ; and his introspective ‘Quid?’ ; are a few. There are also the ones quoted by the distinguished Latin scholar of an ill-fated pirate crew, ‘Peg-Leg,’ one’s which never fail to get on the nerves of the captain of the vessel.
But, it is to the translators who at times went even further to add humour of their own, that the credit of inserting English literary quotations in a comic vein rightly belongs. Nothing seems to be too holy for the duo, and the pages are pepped up with excerpts from Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Tennyson and others ; and even the national anthem of the United Kingdom isn’t spared.
Names of all characters except a few Roman ones are all puns ; Cacofonix the bard, Fulliautomatix the village-smith, Unhygienix the fishmonger and Geriatrix the village elder ; but three names warrant a separate mention.
In ‘Asterix the Gladiator,’ two Roman legionaries who guard the cell where the bard Cacofonix is imprisoned are known by the names, ‘Sendervictorius and Appiandglorius.’ At a casual glance they seem to be sheer nonsense, but there’s indeed a subtle pun ; for they are taken from the 4th and 5th lines of the opening stanza of UK’s national anthem, which goes, ‘Send her victorious, Happy and glorious-‘
The fiery British chieftain of ‘Asterix in Britan’ is called ‘Mykingdomforanos’ ; guess it’s a friendly dig at Shakespeare’s ‘A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ as seen in his historical play Richard III. There’s also a reference to the ‘in one fell swoop,’ of Macbeth.
‘Asterix in Britain’ as well has a couple of well known rowdier English drinking-songs ; there’s ‘Roll Out The Barrel,’ as crooned by a group of inebriated legionaries ; and ‘Little Brown Jug,’ as sung by a drunken Obelix. The same has a reference to Ben Johnson’s poem, ‘Song. To Celia,’ where Obelix complains all the ‘drinking only with his eyes’ was getting rather tiresome. As a biblical allusion there’s the statement of a Roman commander before firing a catapult, about, ‘throwing the first stone,’ when Asterix and his companions refuse to surrender.
The balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet with its melodramatic ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ figures in ‘Asterix and the Great Divide,’ except that Romeo is replaced by Histrionix.
The fencing event between Hamlet and Laertes comes in for parody in the ‘Caesar’s Gift,’ when Asterix fights it out with an ex-legionary ; and the line ‘A hit, a very palpable hit,’ is used separately during an election debate. The biblical allusion about throwing the first stone is as well repeated here.
Hamlet again takes a beating in ‘Asterix and the Vikings,’ initially when the Viking chief meditates on the of quoted line used to hint at corruption, ’Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ ; and later when the Viking explorer who is supposed to have discovered the New World reflects on the opening lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Even Pope’s ‘Imitations of Horace’ get’s its share of the ridicule. In ‘Asterix and the Normans,’ Pope’s ‘feast of reason and the flow of soul,’ is lampooned in a conversation between the Norman chieftain and his righthand man. The bard Cacofonix steals the show in this issue, rendering slightly altered versions of the nursery rhyme ‘This old man, he played one’ ; and also the traditional Scottish airs, ‘I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ The latter song incidentally figures in ‘Asterix the Gladiator’ as well, and is again sung by the very same bard, a rendition which makes ravenous lions to take flight and empties an entire arena of spectators.
Tennyson gets his due in ‘Asterix and the Goths,’ where a group of the latter abduct Getafix the Druid. The kidnap-party is puzzled to find the forest crawling with Romans on the look out for Asterix and Obelix, whom they think are responsible for the kidnapping. Regarding this mix-up, the Gothic commander rather lackadaisically remarks, ‘Ours is not to reason why,’ a reference to The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Cole Porter’s popular 1953 song ‘I love Paris in Springtime,’ sung by various far famed artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day ; is rendered rather raucously by both Asterix and Obelix as they leave Lutetia or modern-day Paris in ‘Asterix and the Golden Sickle.’
‘Asterix and Son’ presents the readers with a bouquet of lullabies and bawdy barracks-room songs, the best being an altered version of the Words War I favourite, ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo, Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo, Mademoiselle from Armentières, She hasn't been kissed for forty years, Hinky, Dinky Par ley voo.’
When it comes to quotes and quotations, would rate ‘Asterix in Belgium’ where a battle-scene similar to that waged at Waterloo is depicted, as the best. The entire sequence starts with Milton’s, ‘chaos umpire sits.’ This is followed by a line from Anthony’s funeral speech, ‘But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world,’ to describe a battle-rout. The Moor of Venice’s piteous ‘Farewell Othello’s Occupation is Gone,’ is then used to paint defeated, disillusioned and demoralised legionaries. It is in this situation of near mutiny that the Duke of Wellington’s famed retort, ‘Publish and be Damned’ can be heard voiced over in the background. At last the entire course winds up with one of Milton’s verses once more, ‘ruin upon ruin rout on rout confusion worse confounded,’ as legionaries dropping their weapons flee for their lives. Lord Byron’s poem ‘The
Eve of Waterloo,’ which opens with the line ‘There was a sound of revelry by night-‘ ; describes the feasting of the victors that follows.
While doing this writeup couldn't help but recall Byron’s, ‘let joy be unconfin’d; No sleep till morn, when Youth (should be old age in my case) and Pleasure meet, To chase the Glowing Hours with Flying feet (or rather fingers).
Yes, Joy was unconfined, many thanks to Professor Joesph Abraham who in the morning put this cheery topic across.
Having written nothing brighter than sombre ones like tragedy, silence, sleep, dreams and death over the last fortnight, yours truly was a little morose and sour, and sure needed a little cheering up.
Guess there are no better constant companions to cheer one up, than one's books, one’s own thoughts, the numerous stumps burnt, and the many mugs of coffee consumed.
Alea Jacta Est, the Rubicon has to be crossed onetime or another!