Gargantua and Pantagruel
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Gargantua and Pantagruel is a connected series of five novels written in the 16th century by François Rabelais. It is the story of two giants, a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, satirical vein. There is much crudity and scatological humor as well as a large amount of violence. Enumerations of vulgar insults fill several chapters.
Although most modern editions of Rabelais's work place Pantagruel as the second volume of a series, it was actually published first, around 1532 under the pen name Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais. Pantagruel was a sequel to an anonymous book entitled Les Grandes Chroniques du Grand et Enorme Géant Gargantua. This early Gargantua text enjoyed great popularity, despite its rather poor construction. Rabelais's giants are not described as being of any fixed height, as in the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, but vary in size from chapter to chapter to enable a series of astonishing images as though these were tall tales. For example, in one chapter Pantagruel is able to fit into a courtroom to argue a case but in another the narrator resides inside Pantagruel's mouth for 6 months and discovers an entire nation living around his teeth.
After the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais revisited and revised his source material. He produced an improved narrative of the life and acts of Pantagruel's father in The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel (in French, La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel), commonly known as Gargantua. This volume begins with the miraculous birth of Gargantua after an 11-month pregnancy. The labor is so difficult, his mother threatens to castrate his father Lord Grangousier. The giant Gargantua is born calling for ale and with a yard-long erection, which provides much amusement to his female nurses in later chapters. After some indifferent education at home, he is sent to Paris where the crowds so annoy him that he drowns thousands of them in a flood of urine (the survivors laugh so much, the city is renamed "Par Ris"). He steals the bells of St. Anthony, but gives them back after a sophist makes ludicrously self-centered appeals for their return. While he studies diligently in Paris, the neighboring Lord Picrochole's bakers insult and are attacked by Grangousier's grape-growers. A massive retaliatory strike against Grangousier's lands is finally halted at Seville by the merciless Friar John. Grangousier sues for peace, but Picrochole arrogantly rebuffs him. Gargantua and Friar John rally the troops and (after Gargantua nearly swallows 6 pilgrims who accidentally fell in his salad) they win a great battle, drive Picrochole back to his city, then overthrow it. As a reward, Friar John is given funds to establish the "anti-church" Abbey of Thélème, which has become one of the most notable parables in Western Philosophy. It can be considered a point-by-point critique of the educational practices of the age, or a call for free schooling, or a defense of all sorts of notions on human nature.
Rabelais then returned to the story of Pantagruel himself in the last three books. The third book concerns Pantagruel and his friend Panurge, who spend the entire book discussing with many people the question of whether Panurge should marry; the question is unresolved. The book ends with the start of a sea voyage in search of the oracle of the divine bottle to resolve once and for all the question of marriage.
The sea voyage continues for the whole of the Quart-Livre. Pantagruel encounters many exotic and strange characters and societies during this voyage, such as the Shysteroos, who make their living by charging people to beat them up.
The whole book can be seen as a comical retelling of the Odyssey or - more convincingly - of the story Jason and the Argonauts. In the Quart-Livre, which has been described as his most satirical book, Rabelais criticizes what he perceived as the arrogance and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the political figures of the time, popular superstitions and addresses several religious, political, linguistic and philosophical issues.
At the end of the fifth volume, which was published posthumously around 1564, the divine bottle is found. The epic journey ends with Pantagruel producing a large piece of shit, perhaps the ultimate commentary on the subjects of politics and religion which the books satirize.
Although some parts of book 5 are truly worthy of Rabelais, the last volume's attribution to him is debatable. Book five was not published until nine years after Rabelais's death and includes much material that is clearly borrowed (such as from Lucian's True History and Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) or of lesser quality than the previous books. In the notes to his translation of Gargantua and Pantegruel, Donald M. Frame proposes that book 5 may have been formed from unfinished material that a publisher later patched together into a book.
Bakhtin's Analysis of Rabelais
Mikhail Bakhtin's book Rabelais and His World explores Gargantua and Pantagruel and is considered a classic of Renaissance studies (Clark and Holquist 295). Bakhtin declares that, for centuries, Rabelais' book had been misunderstood. Throughout Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin attempts two things: first, to recover sections of Gargantua and Pantagruel that, in the past, were either ignored or suppressed, and, second, to conduct an analysis of the Renaissance social system in order to discover the balance between language that was permitted and language which was not. It is by means of this analysis that Bakhtin pinpoints two important subtexts in Rabelais' work: the first is carnival which Bakhtin describes as a social institution, and the second is grotesque realism, which is defined as a literary mode. Thus, in Rabelais and His World Bakhtin studies the interaction between the social and the literary, as well as the meaning of the body (Clark and Holquist 297-299).
Bakhtin explains that carnival, in Rabelais' work and age, is associated with the collectivity; for those attending a carnival do not merely constitute a crowd; rather the people are seen as a whole, organized in a way that defies socioeconomic and political organization (Clark and Holquist 302). According to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (Bakhtin 10). At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space causes the individual to feel he is a part of the collectivity, at which point he ceases to be himself. It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community (Clark and Holquist 302).
Bakhtin says also that in Rabelais the notion of carnival is connected with that of the grotesque. The collectivity partaking in the carnival is aware of its unity in time as well as its historic immorality associated with its continual death and renewal. According to Bakhtin, the body is in need of a type of clock if it is to be aware of its timelessness. The grotesque is the term used by Bakhtin to describe the emphasis of bodily changes through eating, evacuation, and sex: it is used as a measuring device (Clark and Holquist 303).
The most famous and reproduced illustrations for Gargantua and Pantagruel were done by French artist Gustave Doré and published in 1854. Several appear in this article. Another set of illustrations was done by French artist Joseph Hémard and published in 1922.
- The five novels include mention of an immense number of fictional books, some scatological and all humorous. See List of fictional works in Gargantua and Pantagruel for a complete listing.
- Raven Tales
- The cover of the Frank Zappa album The Grand Wazoo depicts the battle between Gargantua and Picrocole (book I, chap. LII)
- The progressive rock band Gentle Giant used the Pantagruel and Panurge characters in some of their lyrics and song title
- List of fictional works in Gargantua and Pantagruel
- Raven Tales
- The Golden Axe
- The Grand Wazoo
- Gentle Giant
- Abbey of Thelema