Asterix and the Alexandrine

The Asterix comics are notorious for obscure puns, but the most obscure may be the one used in Asterix and Cleopatra.

Asterix 2 Euro coin
Alex P. Kok, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is difficult to overstate the popularity and influence of the Asterix comic books. The picture above shows a 2 Euro coin issued for the comics’ 60th anniversary; the first French satellite was named Astérix-1. I read them religiously as a child; as an adult, I find them to be a mixture of painfully dated sexism and bafflingly erudite humour. Say what you like about American comics, but it’s rare for Superman to rattle off Latin aphorisms or visually parody Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Peasant Wedding.

The ne plus ultra of Asterix cleverness is a throwaway line in the comic book Asterix and Cleopatra. In this book, an Egyptian architect is tasked with constructing a palace for Cleopatra, and travels to Gaul to ask for help from the druid Getafix. When the architect sees his friend he greets him in this way:

Je suis, mon cher ami, très heureux de te voir

This translates roughly as “I am, my dear friend, very happy to see you.” The official English translation renders it as follows:

My dear old Getafix, I hope I find you well.

The druid Getafix, in response to onlookers’ curiosity at the appearance of an Egyptian architect in Europe, replies as follows:

C’est un Alexandrin

In English, this translates as “he / it’s an Alexandrine.” The architect has come from Alexandria; this makes perfect sense. But it carries a delicious double meaning.

In October of last year, writing about the strange intersection of Gilligan’s Island and Amazing Grace, I talked about metre: the terminology of poetic structure. Formal studies of metre use terms to describe specific patterns of poetry – stresses, number of syllables, that kind of thing.

One verse pattern rose to prominence in the Old French romance Roman d’Alexandre: six syllables, a pause, and then another six syllables. The pattern is used quite prominently when this 12th century poem details Alexander the Great’s adventures under the sea (itself the subject of another post earlier this year). The pattern would later be used to great effect in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, but it’s from this French poem that we get the pattern’s formal name: the Alexandrine.

The quotes above from Asterix and Cleopatra – “Je suis, mon cher ami, très heureux de te voir” and “My dear old Getafix / I hope I find you well” – are both two lines of six syllables. They are Alexandrines, spoken by an Alexandrine. Getafix’s response – “he / it’s an Alexandrine” – is 200% accurate.

You have to admire the dedication of a kid’s comic book, making a joke that will be missed by 99% of its audience.

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