History of Literature

Francois Rabelais

Gargantua and Pantagruel"   


Illustrations by Gustave Dore


Francois Rabelais



Francois Rabelais

born c. 1494, Poitou, France
died probably April 9, 1553, Paris

pseudonym Alcofribas NasierFrench writer and priest who for his contemporaries wasan eminent physician and humanist and for posterity is the author of the comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel . The four novels composing this work are outstanding for their rich use of Renaissance French and for their comedy, which ranges from gross burlesque to profound satire. They exploit popular legends, farces, and romances, as well as classical and Italian material, but were written primarily for a court public and a learned one. The adjective Rabelaisian applied to scatological humour is misleading; Rabelais used scatology aesthetically, not gratuitously, for comic condemnation. His creative exuberance, colourful and wide-ranging vocabulary, and literary variety continue to ensure his popularity.


Details of Rabelais's life are sparse and difficult to interpret. He was the son of Antoine Rabelais, a rich Touraine landowner and a prominent lawyer who deputized for the lieutenant-général of Poitou in 1527. After apparentlystudying law, Rabelais became a Franciscan novice at La Baumette (1510?) and later moved to the Puy-Saint-Martin convent at Fontenay-le-Comte in Poitou. By 1521 (perhaps earlier) he had taken holy orders.

Rabelais early acquired a reputation for profound humanist learning among his contemporaries, but the elements of religious satire and scatological humour in his comic novels eventually left him open to persecution. He depended throughout his life on powerful political figures (Guillaume du Bellay, Margaret of Navarre) and on high-ranking liberal ecclesiastics (Cardinal Jean du Bellay, Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac, Cardinal Odet de Chatillon) for protection in thosedangerous and intolerant times in France.

Rabelais was closely associated with Pierre Amy, a liberal Franciscan humanist of international repute. In 1524 the Greek books of both scholars were temporarily confiscated by superiors of their convent, because Greek was suspect to hyperorthodox Roman Catholics as a “heretical” language that opened up the original New Testament to study. Rabelais then obtained a temporary dispensation from Pope Clement VII and was removed to the Benedictine houseof Saint-Pierre-de-Maillezais, the prior of which was his bishop, Geoffroy d'Estissac. He never liked his new order, however, and he later satirized the Benedictines, although he passed lightly over Franciscan shortcomings.

Rabelais studied medicine, probably under the aegis of the Benedictines in their Hôtel Saint-Denis in Paris. In 1530 he broke his vows and left the Benedictines to study medicine at the University of Montpellier, probably with the support of his patron, Geoffroy d'Estissac. Graduating within weeks, he lectured on the works of distinguished ancient Greek physicians and published his own editions of Hippocrates' Aphorisms and Galen's Ars parva (“The Art of Raising Children”) in 1532. As a doctor he placed great reliance on classical authority, siding with the Platonic school of Hippocrates but also following Galen and Avicenna. During this period an unknown widow bore him two children (François and Junie), who were given their father's name and were legitimated by Pope Paul IV in 1540.

After practicing medicine briefly in Narbonne, Rabelais was appointed physician to the hospital of Lyon, the Hôtel-Dieu, in 1532. In the same year, he edited the medical letters of Giovanni Manardi, a contemporary Italian physician. It was during this period that he discovered his true talent. Fired by the success of an anonymous popular chapbook, Les Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et énorme géant Gargantua, he published his first novel, Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel, roy des Dipsodes (1532; “The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes”), under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an obvious anagram of his real name). Pantagruel is slighter in length and intellectual depth than his later novels,but nothing of this quality had been seen before in French in any similar genre. Rabelais displayed his delight in words, his profound sense of the comedy of language itself, his mastery of comic situation, monologue, dialogue, and action,and his genius as a storyteller who was able to create a worldof fantasy out of words alone. Within the framework of a mock-heroic, chivalrous romance, he laughed at many types of sophistry, including legal obscurantism and hermeticism, which he nevertheless preferred to the scholasticism of the Sorbonne. One chapter stands out for its sustained seriousness, praising the divine gift of fertile matrimony as acompensation for death caused by Adam's fall. Pantagruel borrows openly from Sir Thomas More's Utopia in its reference to the war between Pantagruel's country, Utopia, and the Dipsodes, but it also preaches a semi-Lutheran doctrine—that no one but God and his angels may spread thegospel by force. Pantagruel is memorable as the book in which Pantagruel's companion, Panurge, a cunning and witty rogue, first appears.

Though condemned by the Sorbonne in Paris as obscene, Pantagruel was a popular success. It was followed in 1533 bythe Pantagrueline Prognostication, a parody of the almanacs, astrological predictions that exercised a growing hold on the Renaissance mind. In 1534 Rabelais left the Hôtel-Dieu to travel to Rome with the bishop of Paris, Jean duBellay. He returned to Lyon in May of that year and publishedan edition of Bartolomeo Marliani's description of Rome, Topographia antiquae Romae. He returned to the Hôtel-Dieubut left it again in February 1535, upon which the authorities of the Lyon hospital appointed someone else to his post.

La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua (“The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua”) belongs to this period. The second edition is dated 1535; the first edition was probably published in 1534, though it lacks the title page in the only known copy. In Gargantua Rabelais continues to exploit medieval romances mock-heroically, telling of the birth, education, and prowesses of the giant Gargantua, who is Pantagruel's father. Much of the satire—for example, mockery of the ignorant trivialization of the mystical cult of emblems and of erroneous theories of heraldry—is calculated to delight the court; much also aims at delighting the learned reader—for example, Rabelais sides with humanist lawyers against legal traditionalists and doctors who accepted 11-month, or even 13-month, pregnancies. Old-fashioned scholastic pedagogy is ridiculed and contrasted with the humanist ideal of the Christian prince, widely learned in art, science, and crafts and skilled in knightly warfare. The war between Gargantua and his neighbour, the “biliously choleric” Picrochole, is partly a private satire of an enemy of Rabelais's father and partly a mocking of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and the imperial design of world conquest. Gargantua commands themilitary operations, but some of the exploits are carried out by Frère Jean (the Benedictine). Though he is lean, lecherous,dirty, and ignorant, Frère Jean is redeemed by his jollity and active virtue; for his fellow monks are timorous and idle, delighting in “vain repetitions” of prayers. Gargantua's last major episode centres on the erection of the Abbey of Thélème, a monastic institution that rejects poverty, celibacy, and obedience; instead it welcomes wealth and the well-born, praises the aristocratic life, and rejoices in good marriages.

After Gargantua, Rabelais published nothing new for 11 years, though he prudently expurgated his two works of overbold religious opinions. He continued as physician to Jean du Bellay, who had become a cardinal, and his powerful brother Guillaume, and in 1535 Rabelais accompanied the cardinal to Rome. There he regularized his position by making a “supplication” to the pope for his “apostasy” (i.e., his unauthorized departure from the Benedictine monastery); the pope issued a bull freeing Rabelais from ecclesiastical censure and allowing him to reenter the Benedictine order. Rabelais then arranged to enter the Benedictine convent at Saint-Maur-les-Fossés, where Cardinal Jean du Bellay was abbot. The convent was secularized six months later, and Rabelais became a secular priest, authorized to exercise his medical profession.

In May 1537 Rabelais was awarded the doctorate of medicine of Montpellier; and he delivered, with considerable success, a course of lectures on Hippocrates' Prognostics. Hewas at Aigues-Mortes in July 1538 when Charles V met the French king Francis I, but his movements are obscure until hefollowed Guillaume du Bellay to the Piedmont in 1542. Guillaume died in January 1543, and to Rabelais his death meant the loss of an important patron. That same year Geoffroy d'Estissac died as well, and Rabelais's novels were condemned by the Sorbonne and the Parlement of Paris. Rabelais sought protection from the French king's sister Margaret, queen of Navarre, dedicating to her the third book of the Gargantua-Pantagruel series, Tiers livre des faitset dits heroiques du noble Pantagruel (1546; “Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”). Despite its royal privilege (i.e., license to print), the book wasimmediately condemned for heresy by the Sorbonne, and Rabelais fled to Metz (an imperial city), remaining there until 1547.

The Tiers livre is Rabelais's most profound work. Pantagruelhas now deepened into a Stoico-Christian inerrant sage; Panurge, a lover of self and deluded by the devil, is now an adept at making black seem white. Panurge hesitates: Should he marry? Will he be cuckolded, beaten, robbed by hiswife? He consults numerous prognostications, both good Platonic ones and less reputable ones—all to no effect because of his self-love. He consults a good theologian, a Platonic doctor, and a Skeptic philosopher approved of by the learned giants, but his problem is not treated by the judge Bridoye, who—like Roman law in cases of extreme perplexity—trusts in Providence and decides cases by casting lots. Panurge trusts in no one, least of all in himself. Itis therefore decided to consult the oracle of the Dive Bouteille (“Sacred Bottle”), and the travelers set out for the temple. The Tiers livre ends enigmatically with a mock eulogy in which hemp is praised for its myriad uses.

From 1547 onward, Rabelais found protection again as physician to Cardinal Jean du Bellay and accompanied him toRome via Turin, Ferrara, and Bologna. Passing through Lyon, he gave his printer his incomplete Quart livre (“Fourth Book”), which, as printed in 1548, finishes in the middle of a sentence but contains some of his most delightful comic storytelling. In Rome Rabelais sent a story to his newest protector in the Guise family, Charles of Lorraine, 2nd Cardinal de Lorraine; the story described the “Sciomachie” (“Simulated Battle”) organized by Cardinal Jean to celebrate the birth of Louis of Orléans, second son of Henry II of France.

In January 1551 the Cardinal de Guise presented him with two benefices at Meudon and Jambet, though Rabelais never officiated or resided there. In 1552, through the influence of the cardinal, Rabelais was able to publish—with a new prologue—the full Quart livre des faits etdits héroïques du noble Pantagruel (“Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”), his longest book. Despite its royal privilège, this work, too, was condemned by the Sorbonne and banned by Parlement, but Rabelais's powerful patrons soon had the censorship lifted. In 1553 Rabelais resigned his benefices. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in Saint-Paul-des-Champs, Paris.

In 1562 there appeared in Lyon the Isle sonante, allegedly by Rabelais. It was expanded in 1564 into the so-called Cinquiesme et dernier livre (“Fifth and Last Book”). This workis partly satirical, partly an allegory; the Sacred Bottle—the ostensible quest of the Quart livre—is consulted, and the heroes receive the oraculous advice: “drink” (symbolizing wisdom?). This work cannot be by Rabelais as it stands. Some scholars believe it to be based on his (lost) drafts, while others deny it any authenticity whatsoever.

Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rabelais's purpose in the four books of his masterpiece wasto entertain the cultivated reader at the expense of the follies and exaggerations of his times. If he points lessons, it is because his life has taught him something about the evils of comatose monasticism, the trickery of lawyers, the pigheaded persistence of litigants, and the ignorance of grasping physicians. Rabelais was a friar with unhappy memories of his monastery; his father had wasted his moneyon lengthy litigation with a neighbour over some trivial waterrights; and he himself was earning his living by medicine in an age when the distinction between physician and quack was needle-fine. Though it is an entertainment, therefore, Gargantua and Pantagruel is also serious. Its principal narrative is devoted to a voyage of discovery that parodies the travelers' tales current in Rabelais's day. Rabelais begins lightheartedly; his travelers merely set out to discover whether Panurge will be cuckolded if he marries. A dozen oracles have already hinted at Panurge's inevitable fate, yet each time he has reasoned their verdict away; and the voyage itself provides a number of amusing incidents. Yet, like Don Quixote's, it is a fundamentally serious quest directed toward a true goal, the discovery of the secret of life.

Intoxication—with life, with learning, with the use and abuse of words—is the prevailing mood of the book. Rabelais himself provides the model of the exuberant creator. His four books provide a cunning mosaic of scholarly, literary, and scientific parody. One finds this in its simplest form in the catalog of the library of St. Victor, in the list of preposterous substantives or attributes in which Rabelais delights, and in the inquiry by means of Virgilian lots into thequestion of Panurge's eventual cuckoldom. But at other times the humour is more complicated and works on several levels. Gargantua's campaign against King Picrochole (book 1), for instance, contains personal, historical, moral, and classical points closely interwoven. The battles are fought inRabelais's home country, in which each hamlet is magnifiedinto a fortified city. Moreover, they also refer to the feud between Rabelais the elder and his neighbour. They also comment on recent historical events involving France and the Holy Roman Empire, however, and can even be read as propaganda against war, or at least in favour of the more humane conduct of hostilities. On yet another level, Rabelais's account of this imaginary warfare can be taken as mockery of the classical historians: Gargantua's speech to his defeated enemy (book 1, chapter 50) echoes one put into the mouth of the Roman emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger.

Despite these complex levels of reference, Rabelais was not a self-conscious writer; he made his book out of the disorderly contents of his mind. As a result it is ill-constructed, and the same thoughts are repeated in Gargantua that he had already set down in Pantagruel; the nature of an ideal education, for example, is examined in both books. Moreover, the main action of the story, which arises from the question of Panurge's intended marriage, only begins in the third book. The first, Gargantua, throws up the enormous contradiction that has made the interpretationof Rabelais's own intellectual standpoint almost impossible. On the one hand we have the rumbustious festivities that celebrate the giant's peculiarly miraculous birth and the “Rabelaisian” account of his childish habits; and on the other a plea for an enlightened education. Again, the brutal slaughter of the Picrocholine wars, in which Rabelais obviously delights, is followed by the utopian description of Thélème, the Renaissance ideal of a civilized community. Pantagruel follows the same pattern with variations, introducing Panurge but omitting Frère Jean, and putting Pantagruel in the place of his father, Gargantua. In fact the characters are not strongly individualized. They exist only in what they say, being so many voices through whom the author speaks. Panurge, for instance, has no consistent nature. A resourceful and intelligent poor scholar in Pantagruel, he becomes a credulous buffoon in the third book and an arrant coward in the fourth.

The third and fourth books pursue the story of the inquiry andvoyage, and in them Rabelais's invention is at its height. The first two books contain incidents close in feeling to the medieval fabliaux, but the third and fourth books are rich in anew, learned humour. Rabelais was a writer molded by one tradition, the medieval Roman Catholic, whose sympathies lay to a greater extent with another, the Renaissance or classical. Yet when he writes in praise of the new humanist ideals—in the chapters on education, on the foundation of Thélème, or in praise of drinking from the “sacred bottle” of learning or enlightenment—he easily becomes sententious. His head is for the new learning, while his flesh and heart belong to the old. It is in his absurd, earthy, and exuberant inventions, which are medieval in spirit even when they mock at medieval acceptances, that Rabelais is a great, entertaining, and worldly wise writer.

M.A. Screech



Gargantua and Pantagruel

Francois Rabelais

1494 -1553

The history of the modern novel begins with Rabelais. Allowing for some of the minor precedents which he subjected to pastiche, Rabelais'Pantagruei, published under his acronymic pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier, established a whole new genre of writing with a riotous mix of rhetorical energy, linguistic humor, and learned wit. In creating a comedy of sensory excesses, playing off various licentious, boozy, and lusty appetites, Rabelais also prefigures much in the history of the novel from Don Quixote to Ulysses. Perhaps his greatest achievement is his free-spirited ness, which combines high-jinking vulgar materialism with a profound, skeptical mode of humanist wit.
The novel itself tells the story of the gigantic Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. The first book details fantastic incidents in the early years of Pantagruel and his roguish companion Panurge.The second book, Gargantua, tracks back in time to the genealogy of Pantagruel's father, while making scholasticism and old-fashioned educational methods the object of satire. The third book develops as a satire of intellectual learning mainly through the heroic deeds and sayings of Pantagruel. In the fourth book, Pantagruel and Panurge head off on a voyage to the Oracle of the Holy Bottle in Cathay, which provides scenes for satire on religious excess. The fifth and most bitter book, takes them to the temple of the Holy Bottle where they follow the oracle's advice to "Drink!" The inconsequential plot hardly rises to the level of picaresque, but there is a feast of mirth in the telling.Thomas Urquhart's seventeenth-century translation of the first three books is a marvel in its own right, and preferable in many ways to twentieth-century attempts to translate the spirit of Rabelaisian rhetoric.




Type of work: Mock-heroic chronicle
Author: Francois Rabelais (c. 1494-1553)
Type of plot: Burlesque romance
Time of plot: Renaissance
Locale: France
First published: Gargantua et Pantagruel, 1567 (first complete edition): Gargantua, 1534 (English translation,
1653); Pantagruel, 1532 (English translation, 1653); Tiers Livre, 1546 (Third Book, 1693); Le Quart Livre, 1552
(Fourth Book, 1694); Le Cinquiesme Livre, 1564 (Fifth Book, 1694)


Gargantua and Pantagruel is a vast mock-heroic panorama about an amiable dynasty of giants who are prodigious eaters and drinkers, gay and earthy. Discursive and monumental, the work demonstrates the theme that the real purpose of life is to expand the soul by exploring the sources of varied experience.



Principal Characters

Gargantua, an affable prince, a giant—as an infant over 2,000 ells of cloth are required to clothe him—who has many adventures. He travels over Europe and other parts of the world fighting wars from which all prisoners are set free, straightening out disputes in other kingdoms, and helping his friends achieve their goals.
PantagrueJ, Gargantua's giant son, who once got an arm out of his swaddling clothes and ate the cow that was nursing him. Pantagruel was born when his father was 400 years old. Accepting with good nature the responsibility of aiding the oppressed, he spends a good deal of his time traveling the earth with his companion Panurge. In their travels they visit a land where all citizens have noses shaped like the ace of clubs and a country in which the people eat and drink nothing but air.
Panurge, a beggar and Pantagruel's companion, who knows sixty-three ways to make money and two hundred fourteen ways to spend it. He speaks twelve known and unknown languages, but he does not know whether he should marry. Finally, he decides to consult the Oracle of the Holy Bottle to find the answer to his question. The trip to the island of the Holy Bottle is filled with adventures for Panurge and Pantagruel. The Oracle, when finally consulted, utters one word, "trine." Panurge takes this pronouncement, translated as "drink," to mean that he should marry.
Friar John of the Funnels, a lecherous, lusty monk who fights well for Gargantua when the latter finds himself at war with King Picrochole of Lerne. To reward the friar for his gallantry, Gargantua orders workers to build the Abbey of Theleme, which has been Friar John's dream. Here men and women live together and work to accumulate wealth.
Grandgousier, the giant king who is Gargantua's father.
Gargamelle, Gargantua's mother who, taken suddenly in labor, bears Gargantua from her left ear.
Picrochole, King of Lerne, who invades Grandgou-sier's country. His army is repulsed by Gargantua, with the aid of Friar John and other loyal helpers. The prisoners captured are all allowed to go free.
Anarchus, King of Dipsody, who invades the land of the Amaurots. His army is overcome by Pantagruel, who makes the King a crier of green sauce.
Bacbuc, the priestess who conducts Panurge to the Oracle of the Holy Bottle and translates the Oracle's message for him.
Holofernes and Joberlin Bride, Gargantua's first teachers.


The Story

Grandgousier and Gargamelle were expecting a child. During the eleventh month of her pregnancy, Gargamelle ate too many tripes and then played tag on the green. That afternoon in a green meadow, Gargantua was born from his mother's left ear.
Gargantua was a prodigy, and with his first breath, he began to clamor for drink. Seventeen thousand nine hundred and thirteen cows were needed to supply him with milk. For his clothing, the tailors used nine hundred ells of linen to make his shirt and eleven hundred and five ells of white broadcloth to make his breeches. Eleven hundred cowhides were used for the soles of his shoes. At first Gargantua's education was in the hands of two masters of the old school, Holofernes and Joberlin Bride. When Grandgousier observed that his son was making no progress, however, he sent him to Paris to study with Ponocrates. Aside from some mishaps, as when he took the bells from the tower of Notre Dame to tie around his horse's neck, Gargantua did much better with his studies in Paris.
Back home a dispute arose. The bakers ofLerne refused to sell cakes to the shepherds of Grandgousier. In the quarrel, a shepherd felled a baker, and King Picrochole of Lerne invaded the country. Grandgousier baked cartloads of cakes to appease Picrochole but to no avail, for no one dared oppose Picrochole except doughty Friar John of the Funnels. Finally, Grandgousier asked Gargantua to come to his aid.
Gargantua fought valiantly. Cannonballs seemed to him as grape seeds, and when he combed his hair, cannon-balls dropped out. After he had conquered the army of Lerne, he generously set all the prisoners free.
All of his helpers were rewarded well, but for Friar John. Gargantua built the famous Abbey of Theleme, where men and women could be together, could leave when they wished, and where marriage and the accumulation of wealth were encouraged.
When he was more than four hundred years old, Gargantua had a son, Pantagruel. A remarkable baby, Pan-tagruel was hairy as a bear at birth and of such great size that he cost the life of his mother. Gargantua was sorely vexed between weeping for his wife and rejoicing for his son.
Pantagruel required the services of four thousand six hundred cows to nurse him. Once he got an arm out of his swaddling clothes and, grasping the cow nursing him, he ate the cow. Afterward, Pantagruel's arms were bound with anchor ropes. One day, the women forgot to clean his face after nursing, and a bear came and licked the drops of milk from the baby's face. By a great effort, Pantagruel broke the ropes and ate the bear. In despair, Gargantua bound his son with four great chains, one of which was later used to bind Lucifer when he had the colic. Pantagruel, however, broke the five-foot beam that constituted the footboard of his cradle and ran around with the cradle on his back.
Pantagruel showed great promise as a scholar. After a period of wandering, he settled down in Paris. There he was frequently called on to settle disputes between learned lawyers. One day he met a ragged young beggar. On speaking to him, Pantagruel received answers in twelve known and unknown tongues. Greatly taken by this fluent beggar. Pantagruel and Panurge became great friends. Panurge was a merry fellow who knew sixty-three ways to make money and two hundred fourteen ways to spend it.
Pantagruel learned that the Dipsodes had invaded the land of the Amaurots. Stirred by this danger to Utopia, he set out by ship to do battle. By trickery and courage, Pantagruel overcame the wicked giants. He married their king, Anarchus. to an old lantern-carrying hag and made the king a crier of green sauce. Now that the land of Dipsody had been conquered, Pantagruel transported a colony of Utopians there numbering 9,876,543,210 men, besides many women and children. All of these people were very fertile. Every nine months, each married woman bore seven children. In a short time, Dipsody was populated by virtuous Utopians.
For his services and friendship, Panurge was made Laird of Salmigondin. The revenue from this lairdship amounted to 6,789,106,789 gold royals a year, but Pan-urge managed to spend his income well in advance. Then, intending to settle down, Panurge began to reflect seriously on marriage, and he consulted his lord Pantagruel. They came to no conclusion in the matter because they got into an argument about the virtues of borrowing and lending money. Nevertheless, the flea in his ear kept reminding Panurge of his contemplated marriage, and he set off to seek other counsel.
Panurge consulted the Sibyl of Panzoult, the poet Ram-inagrobis, Herr Tripa, and Friar John. When all the advice he received proved contradictory, Panurge prevailed on Pantagruel and Friar John to set out with him to consult the Oracle of the Holy Bottle. From Saint Malo. the party sailed in twelve ships for the Holy Bottle, located in Upper India. The Portuguese sometimes took three years for that voyage, but Pantagruel and Panurge cut that time to one month by sailing across the Frozen Sea north of Canada.
The valiant company had many adventures on the way. On the Island of the Ennasins, they found a race of people with noses shaped like the ace of clubs. The people who lived on the Island of Ruach ate and drank nothing but wind. At the Ringing Islands, they found a strange race of Siticines who had long ago turned into birds. On Condemnation Island, they fell into the power of Gripe-men-all, Archduke of the Furred Law-cats, and Panurge was forced to solve a riddle before the travelers were given their freedom.
At last they came to the island of the Holy Bottle. Guided by a Lantern from Lanternland. they came to a large vineyard planted by Bacchus himself. Then they went underground through a plastered vault and came to marble steps. Down they went, a hundred steps or more. Panurge was greatly afraid, but Friar John took him by the collar and heartened him. At the bottom they came to a great mosaic floor on which was shown the history of Bacchus. Finally they were met by the priestess Bac-buc, who was to conduct them to the Bottle. Panurge knelt to kiss the rim of the fountain. Bacbuc threw something into the well, and the water began to boil. When Panurge sang the prescribed ritual, the Oracle of the Holy Bottle pronounced the word "trine." Bacbuc looked up the word in a huge silver book. It meant drink, a word declared to be the most gracious and intelligible she had ever heard from the Holy Bottle. Panurge took the word as a sanction for his marriage.


Critical Evaluation

Partly because France's greatest comic prose writer was a legend even in his own lifetime, most of the facts of Francois Rabelais' life remains hazy. A monk, doctor of medicine, and writer, Rabelais transferred from the Franciscan to the Benedictine order with the Pope's express permission, because the latter order was both more tolerant and more scholarly. The year 1532 found him in Lyons, at that time the intellectual center of France, where he published his first creative work, book 2 (Pantagruel). As a satirist and humanist, Rabelais labored between the two religious extremes of Roman Catholicism and Genevan Protestantism; he had the mixed blessings of being attacked, alike, by Scaliger, St. Francis de Sales, and Calvin. All of them warned against his heretical impiety; he was, first and last, an iconoclast. Yet, like Erasmus, he attempted to steer a middle course—the attitude that led Thomas More to his death in the same period. This may have made Rabelais unpopular with his more radical contemporaries, such as Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola; but it also made him one one of the most durable and most human comic writers of this century—and of all time.
In Rabelais, the spirit of comedy blends with the spirit of epic to produce a novel work without parallel or close precedent. The chronicles are universally inclusive, expressing the Renaissance ambition to explore and chart all realms of human experience and thought; and the mood of the narrator matches the scope of the narration. Rabelais, as Alcofibras, attributes his infinite exuberance to his literal and symbolic inebriation, which he invites his readers to share. His curiosity, realism, joy, and unpredictability are all things to all men—as long as the reader, whoever he may be, is willing to be intoxicated by a distillation of strong wit and language. As a genre, the chronicles may be compared to the "institute" so popular during the Renaissance (such as Niccolo Machia-velli's The Prince, 1532, Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, 1528, Roger Ascham's The Schoolmaster, 1570); they have also been considered a parody of medieval adventure romances. In the end, however, Rabelais' work beggars generic typology. Its narrative includes history, fable, myth, drama, lyric, comedy, burlesque, novel, and epic; just as its sources include sculpture, jurisprudence, pedagogy, architecture, painting, medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, theology, religion, music, aeronautics, agriculture, botany, athletics, and psychological counseling. All of these elements are thrown together, with characteristic flair and mad abandon, into a savory stew.
It is a consistency of flavor, of authorial mood, that holds together this diverse and variegated work. That flavor is not one of thought, for Rabelais is no great thinker. As his translator Jacques LeClerq says, "his ideas are primitive, fundamental and eternal in their simplicity." The unifying idea is the philosophy of Pantagruel-ism: "Do As Thou Wilt." The world of Pantagruel is a world in which no restrictions on sensual or intellectual exploration can be tolerated; excessive discipline is regarded as evil and inhuman. In true epicurean fashion, Rabelais has no patience for inhibitions; man lives for too brief a time to allow himself the luxury of denial. The Abbey of Theleme is the thematic center of the work, with its credo that instinct forms the only valid basis for morality and social structure. Rabelais ignores the dangers of the anarchy this credo implies; he is talking about the mind, not the body politic. The dullest thing imaginable is the unimaginative, conforming mind. His satirical pen is lifted against all who affect freedom of any kind in any fashion: against the hypocrites, militarists, abusers of justice, pedants, and medieval scholastics.
The reader of these gigantic chronicles, then, must not expect a plot. Anything so regular is anathema to Pan-tagruelism. Readers should also realize that the characters themselves are not the focus of the author's art but are, in fact, largely indistinguishable from one another. One of the most amusing elements of the book is that they are also indistinguishably large; Pantagruel's mouth, described in book 2, chapter 32, one of the finest chapters in European literature, is. at times, large enough to contain kingdoms and mountain ranges, at other times, no larger than a dovecote. The exception is Panurge. the normal-size man. He is an unforgettable character who makes so strong an impression, even on the author, that he cannot be forgotten. The third, fourth, and fifth books, in fact, are based on his adventures—just as Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor to exploit the beloved character of Falstaff. Panurge is the heroic companion of Pantagruel, in the best epic tradition; he also has the cunning of Ulysses, the drunken mirth of Falstaff, the roguishness of Jack Wilton and Tyl Ulenspiegel (his numerous pockets filled with innumerable tricks), the cynical but lighthearted opportunism of Chaucer's Pardoner, the magic powers of Shakespeare's Puck or Ariel. He is the wise fool of Erasmus and King Lear, and a Socratic gadfly who bursts the pretensions and illusions of all he encounters. The chapter entitled "How Panurge Non-plussed the Englishman Who Argued by Signs" is a literary tour de force, concentrating into one vivid, raucous chapter the comic spirit forever to be known as Rabelaisian. Important in other ways are "How Pantagruel Met a Limousin Who Spoke Spurious French," for its attack on unfounded affectation; and Gargantua's letter to Pantagruel, expressing the entire range of Renaissance learning, juxtaposed with the chapter introducing Panurge, who personifies Renaissance wit.
Rabelais' chaotically inventive style, filled with puns, wordplays, and synonyms, as well as with neologisms of his own creation, makes him one of the most difficult of all writers to translate accurately. His language reflects the rich variety of sixteenth century France, and he was to first to observe invariable rules in the writing of French prose—called, by Pasquier, "the father of our idiom." His syntax is flexible, supple, expansive, sparkling with vitality and the harmony of an ebullient character,  complex and original. Rabelais did for French vocabulary what Chaucer did for English, fortifying it with eclectically selected terms of the soil, mill, tavern, and market, as well as scholarly terms and phrases gleaned from nearly all languages. As his comic theme reflects the universal as well as the particular, Rabelais' language combines the provincial with the popular—in a stew fit for the mouths of giants. A gargantuan appetite has nothing to do with gluttony.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy