Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Hey, everybody. Dave here again due to the fact that Halloween demands a bit more from a parent (Kim) than it does from a non parent (me). As such, I told Kim I’d take two weeks in a row and let her go the next two weeks. And, since Halloween is upon us, I thought this was a good time for giants (Gargantua and Pantagruel).

There are certain things you expect when you sit down to read a classic of French literature. Well, at least I do. Maybe you don’t have any preconceptions about classic French literature. Regardless, though I knew Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais was going to be a bit different, I wasn’t prepared that a work of 16th century France to be like this.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Fred Chappell.)

I mean, just imagine a work that describes the birth of one of the titular characters as follows:

As soon as he was born, he cried not as other babes use to do, Miez, miez, miez, miez, but with a high, sturdy, and big voice shouted about, Some drink, some drink, some drink, as inviting all the world to drink with him.

Yup, as soon as he is born he demands booze.

Frankly, this story of the giant Pantagruel and his father, the giant Gargantua, (mostly Pantagruel as Gargantua is only the primary subject of one of the five books) is far bolder than I would have expected for the 16th century. Excrement, sex, the list goes on. Though there is an awful lot of high brow historical references, language play, philosophy, and other such complex aspects, there is an awful lot of crude material as well. Considering how restrictive later works were, I’m surprised Rabelais got away with as much as he did. Just take urine and an example:

At which place, seeing so many about him, he said with a loud voice, I believe that these buzzards will have me to pay them here my welcome hither, and my Proficiat. It is but good reason. I will now give them their wine, but it shall be only in sport. Then smiling, he untied his fair braguette, and drawing out his mentul into the open air, he so bitterly all-to-bepissed them, that he drowned two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen, besides the women and little children. Some, nevertheless, of the company escaped this piss-flood by mere speed of foot, who, when they were at the higher end of the university, sweating, coughing, spitting, and out of breath, they began to swear and curse, some in good hot earnest, and others in jest.

Yes, Gargantua peed on the good citizens of Paris. But, of course, the crude elements are a small part of the work, and really do fit into the overall essence of Pantagruelism that the book expounds.

As such, let’s move away from crudity and talk about the plot. Well…okay, that’s easier said than done. I wouldn’t say there even is one overarching plot. Things happen, Gargantua and Pantagruel are born (each in turn of course) and grow into adult giants. There are some wars (usually someone rudely trespassing on their kingdom) which they each win in an excessive and fable-like style. However, beyond that the plot has a tendency to turn and shift whenever it seems to take a fancy to.

A huge portion of the book concerns whether or not Pantagruel’s friend Panurge is going to get married despite fears that he will be cuckolded, beaten, and robbed if he does. It seems like this takes up perhaps two-thirds of the book. Panurge’s waffling about it goes on for a good portion of that, combined with the various divinations they resort to in order to try to settle the matter, which almost all bode ill (predicting cuckolding, robbing, and beating) and which Panurge for some reason interprets favorably. Still, he keeps waffling:

Do not marry then, answered Pantagruel. Yea but, quoth Panurge, considering the condition wherein I now am, out of debt and unmarried; mark what I say, free from all debt, in an ill hour, for, were I deeply on the score, my creditors would be but too careful of my paternity, but being quit, and not married, nobody will be so regardful of me, or carry towards me a love like that which is said to be in a conjugal affection. And if by some mishap I should fall sick, I would be looked to very waywardly. The wise man saith, Where there is no woman—I mean the mother of a family and wife in the union of a lawful wedlock—the crazy and diseased are in danger of being ill used and of having much brabbling and strife about them; as by clear experience hath been made apparent in the persons of popes, legates, cardinals, bishops, abbots, priors, priests, and monks; but there, assure yourself, you shall not find me. Marry then, in the name of God, answered Pantagruel. But if, quoth Panurge, being ill at ease, and possibly through that distemper made unable to discharge the matrimonial duty that is incumbent to an active husband, my wife, impatient of that drooping sickness and faint-fits of a pining languishment, should abandon and prostitute herself to the embraces of another man, and not only then not help and assist me in my extremity and need, but withal flout at and make sport of that my grievous distress and calamity; or peradventure, which is worse, embezzle my goods and steal from me, as I have seen it oftentimes befall unto the lot of many other men, it were enough to undo me utterly, to fill brimful the cup of my misfortune, and make me play the mad-pate reeks of Bedlam. Do not marry then, quoth Pantagruel. Yea but, said Panurge, I shall never by any other means come to have lawful sons and daughters, in whom I may harbour some hope of perpetuating my name and arms, and to whom also I may leave and bequeath my inheritances and purchased goods (of which latter sort you need not doubt but that in some one or other of these mornings I will make a fair and goodly show), that so I may cheer up and make merry when otherwise I should be plunged into a peevish sullen mood of pensive sullenness, as I do perceive daily by the gentle and loving carriage of your kind and gracious father towards you; as all honest folks use to do at their own homes and private dwelling-houses. For being free from debt, and yet not married, if casually I should fret and be angry, although the cause of my grief and displeasure were never so just, I am afraid, instead of consolation, that I should meet with nothing else but scoffs, frumps, gibes, and mocks at my disastrous fortune. Marry then, in the name of God, quoth Pantagruel.

They even take a break in all this for an odyssey like trip to consult one more oracle. Along the way for a good, long while, they encounter an endless series of strange and unusual lands, only to return again at the end of it to the question of whether or not Panurge will marry.

Frankly, it’s a little tough to decide what to make of it all. There are so many things jammed into the five volumes of Gargantua and Pantagruel; it’s almost impossible to get a handle on it. I’m certain I missed things. Regardless, it was fun and there was some impressive writing. Gargantua and Pantagruel was a bit of work to read, but not as must as I expected, In any event, I thought the work I did do to read was worth it. It really was an experience.

Anyway, happy Halloween!

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