Friday, 28 April 2017

Classical reception through comics (1): the Belgo-Roman past in 'Lambiorix'

A few months ago I had a real yearning for the comics of the Franco-Belgian tradition which were such a large part of my life when I grew up. We had a massive cardboard box in a corner of the living room, in which all the ones we had were gathered together, in no particular order: some Kuifje (the Flemish translation of Tintin, equating to ‘Quiffy’ for his hair), some Lucky Luke, some Guust Flater, some Smurfs, some Rode Ridder, some Blauwbloezen, a little more Nero and Asterix, rather more Kiekeboe, and enormous amounts of Jommeke and Suske & Wiske. It’s the latter, drawn by Willy Vandersteen, I want to talk about today, given that their often-used premise of Professor Barabas’ time machine made the tapestry of many of their adventures much richer and with hindsight this probably appealed to the budding historian in me. [Note: they’ve been published in English, apparently, as Spike & Suzy, but I have yet to meet someone who has heard of them.]

As I’ve grown in age and wisdom and classical knowledge since I first read these, and am now working on the ‘German bits’ of Tacitus for my thesis, I thought it might be nice to revisit two in particular that I remember very well which deal with a similar subject matter. The first is Lambiorix, which first appeared in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard in 1949 and was published as an album in 1950, and the second De Nerveuze Nerviërs (The Nervous Nervii), in the paper from the very end of 1963 into mid-1964 and published in album form later that year.

Redrawn in modern re-editions as
Original cover; the reissued modern cover at interestingly shifts focus from a man dressed as a Druid, a woman (actually a forest nymph) in Gallic dress and a Roman soldier getting battered, to foreground the theme of morality by mean of the three tempting poltergeists.

Today I’ll post my thoughts on Lambiorix, and (hopefully) this weekend on the other one, with some comparative thoughts too on the different ways in which essentially the same ‘heritage’ (arguably!) is used.

The story of Lambiorix is this. Lambiorix, chief of the Gallic tribe of the Eburones, has to go away to fight the Romans, but cannot leave the tribe ungoverned for fear of his rule being usurped by a neighbouring tribe/chief; one in particular, called Arrivix, is a threat. With the magical help of the ashes of Lambiorix’ grandfather, he manages to transport back in time the familiar character of Lambik, who turns out to be the last living descendant of Lambiorix, ‘still’ living in Belgica [Belgium], in 1949. Lambik is accompanied on his journey back in time by his friend auntie Sidonie and her foster kids Suske and Wiske. Lambiorix leaves to go battle the Romans, but while he is gone and later held captive by the Romans, his caretaker Lambik is lured into gambling away his authority to Arrivix in a game of dice. Arrivix increasingly abuses, oppresses and starves the Eburones whilst Lambik, aided by his friends, struggles ineffectually to limit the damage. The tribe is finally freed by the ‘Vrijschutter’, a masked Robin Hood type character, after a long-term campaign of sabotaging Arrivix with the help of a band of likeminded. The Vrijschutter, at the end, reveals himself at the end to be Lambiorix, escaped from Roman captivity, and with the help of his followers and those who remained loyal to him during his absence they manage to overthrow Arrivix. All’s well that ends well, and Lambiorix’ grandfather magics our friends back to the present time (in haste, because Sidonie remembers she’s forgotten to switch off her electricity while she’s away. Ha ha.)

You’ll already have noted that the cover clearly advertises its classical-era setting, and the title confirms this through its pun on Ambiorix, the leader of a resistance effort against Julius Caesar in the 50s BC. The episodes are narrated in De Bello Gallico books 5, 6 and 8 [the latter by Hirtius], and end with the alliance succumbing to Rome and Ambiorix a fugitive. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking Lambiorix is therefore is a rehashing, fancifully embroidered, of the Caesarian story, perhaps particularly because of the supposedly ‘local’ interest (the Belgae of course bear no relation to the modern day Belgians, but have been enthusiastically appropriated as ancestors).

Indeed, some elements are recycled straightforwardly from Caesar: the very first frame of the top strip of the first page is a straightforward narrator’s vignette with no image, translating as

“The story begins in the year 54BC. Julius Caesar, the Roman general, conquers Gaul but gets into a struggle with the Belgen [conveniently the same appellation is used for old and new, unlike the differing Belgae and Belgians in English], a people of Celts and Germans, who had no fear of anything, argued a lot amongst themselves, played dice a lot and dearly loved a pint, and two pints even more.” (p. 1)

The absence of fear derives from Caesar’s claim that horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, ‘of all these people [of Gaul] the Belgae are the most courageous’ (DBG 1.1). The themes of Gallic internal division and inability to unite even against a common enemy are demonstrated throughout the entire account of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns. (And indeed became a template influencing later Roman authors such as Tacitus as well as modern scholars who do not often enough question their own acceptance of this premise as a ‘given’.) The beer and the dice, I suspect, are modern embellishments more in line with Flemish Breughelian folklore – think Boerenbruiloft – and self-identification than classical allusions. At the same time, the theme of gambling is important in the narrative, both here and in De Nerveuze Nerviërs as a destructive habit of which no good can ever come, which lends itself to the swapping of what really matters for things that are valueless and meaningless. 

[Edit, 3 May 2017: in fact, Tacitus' Germania 24 talks about dice explicitly and how the Germans - we're still in the general part of the work at this point, before moving on to specific tribes - are so addicted to this game that they really are prepared to stake all their possessions on it, and then their own person, ending up slaves if they lose again. Tacitus, to summarize very generally, is very disapproving. I'll think about that some more when I have time. The stereotype of Gallic or German barbarians was indeed also that they were always drunk, even if no ancient authors mention steins of beer. In fact, Lambik talks about 'gerstenat' in one of the two albums, which is barley beer, and that too is in Tacitus' Germania at 23.1. So all four characteristics do indeed correspond to a variety of classical sources, even if I can't know for sure that Vandersteen culled them from these sources directly without mediation.]

The way the characters are dressed nods to some of the commonly accepted conventions on Gallic cultural markers: when we first meet Lambiorix (p. 1), he wears an (oddly loose) torque, a round shield, dark hair, and rides a horse, even if his cuirass, furry skirt and leggings with laces criss-crossing up from his feet may be less historically accurate. The spatial representations of Gallic territory are remarkably sparse, with the expected woods, glades and swamps (p.7) offering a plausible setting in line with the classical representation of them (all notably encountered, for example, by Germanicus in his German campaigns around the Rhine in Tacitus’ Annals books one and two. 

[EDIT 14 May 2017: The paaldorp - or village on stilts - on p. 30 seems out of place in northern Gaul, but could come straight out of Pliny's description of the Chauci's habitation at NH 16.3: tribunalia extructa manibus ad experimenta altissimi aestus, casis ita inpositis, 'platforms raised up by manual labour to be tried and tested by the highest tide, and in this way built up with houses'] 

On the other hand, there is a surprising absence of rivers (more prominent than woods in the Tacitean account of Germany in the Histories), despite the narrator setting the territory in between Maas and Rijn (p. 1 again). Deviations from the expected classical template and likely reality are an inexplicable ‘mountain river’ (bergrivier) on p. 22, and the accompanying mountains and a ravine on p. 35 – not really a Low Countries landscape. Urban settings are dominated by wooden longhouses surrounded by wooden palisades (e.g. p. 11); in contrast, the Roman camp is similarly wooden and similarly palisaded, but is clearly a close-timbered fortification (p. 17), though not at all along the lines of actual Roman forts (no ditch alongside the palisade, no agger, no internal streets, etc.) Interior decoration is limited largely to oil lamps (p. 12), vases and antlers (p. 13-5, also 26) – with antlers, possibly, being a distinguishing factor between ‘posh’ quarters such as those of Arrivix and ordinary ones – and on the whole these indications are clearly not intended to be more than filler for scenes necessarily set indoors. Tables, oddly, seem made of stone rather than wood, though it’s hard to tell in the original two-colour print (pages alternate in blue and brown).

(As my dad noted when we were talking about this over Easter: ‘I doubt whether he sat down with either Caesar, military handbooks or archaeological reports much before he started drawing, Leen’. And he’s right of course, but I still find this interesting, especially if you take into account the original author-illustrator Willy Vandersteen’s fairly basic education which would certainly have not included Latin. On Twitter, @Roelkonijn mentioned the appropriation of the Belgae by the Belgians in the rather nationalistic post-war 1920s, exactly the time when a young Vandersteen, born in 1913, would have been a schoolboy. He may not have been reading Caesar, but his history textbook would have been channeling Caesar and appropriating him in the service of a growing national post-war identity. Whether Flemish and Walloon appropriated this national legend differently, separately, or jointly in the course of the emerging ‘ontvoogdingsstrijd’ – the battle for recognition of the Dutch language within the relatively new Belgian nation-state as a valid medium of instruction and government - is another question I’d like to know the answer to. EDIT 14 May 2017: Having said all this, they might have read Caesar, but it is unlike they would have tackled any of Pliny’s Natural History – so via what medium did Pliny’s Chaucian template of habitation on stilts trickle down? )

In all, though, attempts are made to pay some lip service to expectations of a particular landscape, and of a certain ‘rudeness’ and simplicity in Gallic material culture, though these are sacrificed occasionally to the demands of the story. The Roman fort should probably be included in the category, given that we do not often see the outside, given that the Romans have very little part in this story, and that Arrivix very quickly occupies the fort and makes it his headquarters. Which brings me to the real point of this exposition of signs which indicate an attempt at an immersive, semi-realistic Gallic setting: the album (published in 1949, remember) is an allegory for the fate of Belgium during the Second World War. The story played out in old clothes is actually that of the Nieuwe Belgen, not the Oude.

There are references throughout which make this really quite clear, which I would not have picked up on as a child: what Lambik first gambles away to Arrivix are his ‘frontstrepen’ (front stripes, a decoration of some sort which entitled veterans to health treatment, amongst other things – more info here). As he keeps losing, the last thing he is able to offer to Arrivix in payment is his ‘bewijs van burgerdeugd’, literally a ‘proof of civic virtue’ in the form of an official certificate which you were required to show in the 1940s before you were able to enjoy certain fruits of citizenship. In other words, it was a means of excluding collaborators during the war from the full benefits of citizenship and participation in public life. Intriguingly, Arrivix (whom we now realize stands for the Germans) dismisses this as a useful object for barter, saying “I do not know what that is. I only play for something that has value.” And after Lambik’s appointment as Lambiorix’ steward, he describes himself to his friends as the newly appointed ‘chairman of the College of General Secretaries’. Not a dig at petty bureaucrats everywhere, the College consisted of the chief civil servants of each government department and was the entity which governed Belgium under the German occupation, in an uneasy arrangement which could be deemed collaboration, while the Belgian government was in exile in London and after the unilateral surrender of King Leopold III to the Germans, which had imperiled, in the government’s eyes, his right to rule – more about which is here.

All this has long been noted (indeed, was clear upon publication). What interests me is that the allegorical framework acquires a new meaning even for some elements from the Caesarian story: the tendency to disagree and squabble internally becomes descriptive of the state of occupied Belgium under the Germans and responsible for the longevity of Arrivix’ domination. Lambik’s love of dice (presented by Vandersteen as ‘traditional’ in the very first frame of the album, though as we saw not classical) is proof of a lack of moral fibre, which becomes the key to his failure to protect his people from this foreign occupation. Combined with his acknowledged role as chairman of the College of General Secretaries, it condemns his efforts and those of the real College as valueless in the face of the sovereignty lost and moral shame of governing with and under the German occupation. It seems implied that resistance would have been the more honourable thing to do, even if it would have resulted in a harsher occupation.

[though I am not enough of a historian of the period, it is clear that the morality of the story isn’t straightforward: Lambik is traditionally self-important and a bit daft but essentially shown to possess a good heart underneath, and though King Leopold III’s capitulation finally resulted in his abdication in 1951 following a referendum, Lambik at least rejoices in Lambiorix’ return to his people after being held captive by the Romans – though the introductory page to the 65th anniversary edition of the album from which I’m working says that the final 4-frame strip of the album in which he does so appeared in the paper but was excluded from the ‘later’ (=original, first edition?) album publication.]

The Belgae’s famed bravery is what allows them to ‘keep calm and carry on’ while they labour under the oppressor’s yoke, and to resist (though not all of them, as dictated by the division template) from the very first moment until they achieve their goal with the help of the Vrijschutters. These are specific elements of the ‘old’ framework of the Belgae which make it suitable to apply it to the new framework of the modern Belgians. Ambiorix himself isn’t really relevant beyond the opportunity to pun on the name of Lambik (a character not specifically created for this story and the general suitability of his ‘legend’ to reading it as a narrative of noble tribal [national] uprising against a foreign invader.

So these are the ways in which the ‘old’ framework of Caesar’s brave but divided Belgae as well as Ambiorix and his Eburones nobly but misguidedly fighting the windmills of Rome lends itself to allegorical re-use. Now it is time to look at the way in which this framework did not easily accommodate this modern redeployment: the Romans are largely absent from this story. Though sketched in as a foreign power to be fought against, they make no appearance beyond a patrol clashing with Lambiorix on page 3. They get the better of him, which leads him to proleptically exclaim on his way home that ‘if Jules sends a couple more like that, we’re not done getting battered yet!’. This, in turn, prompts the council of tribal chiefs at which Lambiorix decides he needs to go away to deal with the Roman threat definitively. Their function in the narrative is purely utilitarian in providing an excuse for Lambiorix’ absence. In recognition of this, they are literally only ‘sketched’ in, as their visual representation is pretty bland. In the two frames in which they appear, they are seen first at a distance as a row of six uniformed men, depicted in the same stance, holding with shields and spears. In the second frame, we see them in close-up, tripping up Lambiorix with their spears, but they are still not granted textural detail. Within the clear lines that constitute them, there is no filler. Even their massive shields appear blank.

Why get this traditional enemy out of the way so fast? After all, the Nazi army’s use of Roman military symbols such as the eagle, and their vision of themselves as new Romans in this regard, makes the Romans extremely suitable to stand in for the Nazis in the allegory. I wonder whether the point is not to grant a foreign enemy the status of invader. The point Vandersteen may have wanted to make, and to which the framework of the Belgae also lends itself, is that the Eburones get subjected by their neighbours. Arrivix and his coterie are fellow Germans. Whilst looking in one, obvious direction (that of the Romans) to safeguard his people against a potential invader, Lambiorix leaves the door open for an enemy much closer to home, and much less ‘Other’. I can see of no immediate real-life equivalent (Hitler did not invade Belgium whilst Leopold III was on his guard against, say, the French) but the point can surely stand. By eliminating the Romans early on, the real enemies are revealed to be dissension at home and a bad neighbour, and the implication is that the moral turpitude of this kind of betrayal goes beyond the injustice of a foreign invasion in general.

I must say that in re-reading Lambiorix and writing about it, I’ve had to reassess my view of it as suitable for kids. I don’t mean that kids should be banned from reading it, but I do wonder whether, unlike a good Disney or Pixar movie, these are attractive to kids who can’t access the political dimension. The story qua story is rather convoluted, and contrived in order to fit the requirements of its allegorical dimension. And then I’m reminded that these were published in the newspaper as dailies (as indeed they still are in De Standaard, though far inferior now), doing the sort of thing that we expect the covers of Private Eye to do. I’m surprised I enjoyed it as a child, but clearly remember doing so.

I also apologise to historians of the Second World War in case I have mangled facts or am completely misinterpreting. If I am, that too intrigues me, in the sense that an allegory which would have been transparent to readers of a not-particularly-highbrow daily newspaper in 1949 should now prove so difficult for me to interpret.....

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