Albert Uderzo, half of the team that created Asterix the Gaul, has died at the age of 92. Born in north-eastern France in 1927, the son of Italian immigrants, Uderzo first emerged as a young cartoonist in 1959 when he and the writer René Goscinny produced the first serialised adventures of Asterix for the magazine Pilote.

The first book, Astérix le Gaulois (Asterix the Gaul) appeared in 1961. The two men produced 24 books before Goscinny died, prematurely, in 1977Astérix chez les Belges (Asterix in Belgium, 1979) was almost complete and, not without hesitation, Uderzo finished off the work alone. Uderzo carried on, producing Le Grand Fossé (The Great Divide) in 1980, an allegorical tale (as most of the stories are) of the Berlin wall. Eight more books followed until 2009, when he finally hung up his pen after 50 years with Astérix et le Livre d’Or (Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday: The Golden Book).

Since then, four more books have appeared, produced with loving care by Jean-Yves Ferri (words) and Didier Conrad (pictures). The most recent, Astérix et la Fille de Vercingétorix (Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter), published in the autumn of 2019, has sold 5 million copies. Such is the place of Asterix in the French mind and cultural landscape that to mark publication a handful of Paris metro stations changed their names for the day, including Place de ClichixGare de LugdunumMenhirmontant. Asterix is not just a star in France. All told, some 380 million of the books have been sold worldwide and his adventures have been translated into more languages than any other comic.

I use Asterix to introduce my first-year undergraduate language students to ideas of French identity. Let me explain.

The stories may be predictable, the allegory sometimes a little heavy – but their appeal to readers of all ages lies in so many aspects of their work. The subtlety of language (which was always a challenge for the translators) and Uderzo’s extraordinary drawings – the page in La Grande Traversée (Asterix and the Great Crossing) where Asterix and Obelix have to explain the Gauls in signs and gestures is a masterpiece. These firm foundations were supplemented by their intelligence, deft wordplay and gentle – and not always so gentle – use of stereotypes. But the principal stereotype that underpins the whole show is that of the Gauls – that is to say the French themselves.

The country may owe its name to the Franks, but when French republicans in the late 19th century were looking to establish the “origins” of their people, the Celtic Gauls fell easily to hand as the “first nation”. It helped, of course, that the Gauls, as far as anyone knew, elected their chiefs and that druids met once a year in a kind of “national assembly”. In telling the “roman de la nation” – the national story – the first lesson was: “Our ancestors the Gauls”, and every schoolchild in France, including Goscinny and Uderzo, knew it.

Look around France’s towns and villages and you will see the Gaulish warrior on innumerable war memorials, either in person or signalled by his helmet, the same one worn by Asterix or on a packet of Gauloises cigarettes. Paradoxically, during the second world war, the Gaul mostly figured as the dutiful youth of the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. After the war, in his famous speech at Bayeux in June 1946, where he outlined his plans for the new republic, General de Gaulle insisted on the need for strong leadership to overcome “our old Gaulish propensity for division and quarrelling”.

The early success of Asterix, then, was built on an understanding and subversion of this founding myth. But there was a (sort of) serious side to it all too. With the exception of their village, all of Gaul is occupied, as France had been until 15 years before. But by 1959, France was back under the control of a general who spelt history with a capital “H”. Asterix was also about not taking “History” too seriously.

In the 1968 story Le Bouclier arverne (The Chieftain’s Shield) we learn about Vercingetorix, the greatest Gaul of them all and leader of the revolt of 52BC against Caesar that ended in defeat and massacre at Alésia (in eastern France).

Except, in the Asterix story, when veterans of that campaign are asked about Alésia, they become irate, refuse to answer and point out that, in any case, nobody knows where Alésia is. This much remains true to this day. For Alésia, read June 1940, read the defeat at Dien-Bien Phu in the Indochina War in 1954, read the retreat from Algeria. The France into which Asterix emerged was still grappling with what French historian Henri Rousso would dub “Vichy syndrome”, while Algeria remains problematic to this day.

And yet, in Asterix, Obelix and their fellow villagers, we can also read a spirit of defiance (“the unyielding Gauls” perhaps, as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, referred to them in 2018). There is also a capacity, at moments of great need, to pull together, by means of some magic potion, what French rugby players nowadays call le French flair, offset by a tremendous spirit of openness and hospitality (every Asterix tale ends with a feast) and of international fraternity against oppression – the Romans, the Germans (but not the Goths), the crushing hand of the centralised state. Asterix is complicated stuff. And so is France.

Vale Uderzo.

This piece originally appeared in The Conversation