The Adventure of Two Giants
Gargantua and Pantagruel sets itself apart in the history of French literature and places Rabelais among such cultural giants as Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes.
There is a revolutionary sixteenth century novel among the star-studded works of French literature. At first glance its pages seem full of absurdities, yet it is rich in connotation and thought-provoking. Two giants, father and son, experience a series of adventures from birth, regaling readers with their bizarre yet humorous tales.
In the 16th century, French humanist François Rabelais abandoned medicine for literature, spending 20 years working on a satirical novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. This work would set itself apart in the history of French literature, placing Rabelais among such cultural giants as Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes. For over four hundred years, its exaggerated storyline has enjoyed constant popularity, attracting countless readers.
Great Physician and Cultural Giant
In 1532, an exceptionally grotesque novel appeared in bookstores in Lyon, France. Its title, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua was written under the pen name “Alcofribas Nasier.” So refreshing and fascinating was this novel that readers quickly snapped it up. The second novel in the series The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel, followed only a year later. It too sold out soon after hitting the shelves. “Nasier,” the author of these two novels, was Rabelais, physician at Lyon's city hospital. With the creation of a third, the novels later enjoyed the resounding collective title Gargantua
One of the most famous Renaissance humanists, Rabelais represented the French cultural peak of the era. A knowledgeable, enthusiastic and open-minded man, he was proficient in Greek and Latin and versed in philosophy, theology and mathematics—a giant of the Renaissance. In 1483, François Rabelais was born into a family of lawyers in France and lived a carefree childhood on his father's estate. During his teens, Rabelais received religious education, becoming a friar in the monastery. The lifeless religious education, however, was unbearable. Even so, he read a great many books at the monastery, becoming a very learned person. In 1530, Rabelais entered university to study medicine. After spending two months earning his bachelor's degree, he became a physician.
In 1532, Rabelais began practicing in Lyon. An insightful physician, he wanted more than the singular treatment of human diseases, taking his pen to combat the ills that struck society as a whole. It was then that a folktale named The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Grand and Enormous Giant Gargantua was published in Lyon, stoking the flames of Rabelais' enthusiasm. So began his Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first two novels written under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier. The novels attracted a great many readers following their publication but courted the bitter hatred of the church and nobility. The eponymous giants found themselves banned by the court as a result of being declared an “obscene” book. Three years later, King François I turned to the reactionary Catholics, persecuted Protestants and thwarted the Renaissance movement. Rabelais met constant misfortune, but he continued his last three Gargantua and Pantagruel works, in addition to earning a master's degree and doctorate in medicine.
In 1545, the third part of Gargantua and Pantagruel was published under Rabelais' real name, due to the protection afforded by royal privilege. He even included a poem dedicated to the queen on the front-page to ensure its publication. Compared to its predecessors, the third novel of the series was somewhat restrained and employed metaphors in many places, yet even that could hardly cover the book's violent attacks on various social ills of the time. The church and the court were infuriated once again. They banned the book and sentenced the publisher to death. Rabelais was forced to flee abroad. It was not until 1550 when he was asked to write a poem to congratulate the birth of the new king's son that he was granted permission to return to France. Back home, Rabelais took a religious position, treated the poor in his spare time and later taught at a school. While he was teaching, he completed the fourth and fifth parts of Gargantua and Pantagruel. The entirety of the novel took nearly twenty years to complete. Once published, the book was all the rage, its gross sales over two months exceeding that of the Bible in nine years.
The satirical novel tells of the adventures of two giants, King Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. It depicts the extraordinary birth of Gargantua, Pantagruel's great adventures studying in Paris, Gargantua and Pantagruel's discussion on marriage and Pantagruel's sea voyage to consult the Oracle of Bacbuc. Between these pursuits, the darkness and decay of the medieval church are emphasised, reflecting the humanist ideal during the Renaissance to liberate society from bourgeois ideals. Chinese author Guo Moruo (1892–1978) once said:
“If Nicolaus Copernicus is one of the pioneers in attacking Medieval Feudalism in Western Europe from a scientific perspective, Rabelais is among those that fought it on the literary front.”
In the novel, Rabelais bitterly criticised the hypocrisy and cruelty of the church, especially how Catholic scholastic education poisoned the minds of children. In Rabelais' ideal world, human nature is good, and people are simple. He wished everyone could “Do What Thou Wilt.” Reading Rabelais' riotous Gargantua and Pantagruel, laughs come easily and heartily—little wonder he is hailed as a great comedic master. In 1553, Rabelais died in Paris. At the end of his life, he laughed loudly and said: “Bring down the curtain, the farce is played out.” On the stage of life, Rabelais performed his play with vivid strokes, leaving valuable cultural treasures for future generations.
Gargantua is the protagonist of the first volume of Gargantua and Pantagruel. On the day of his birth, after 11 months of pregnancy, Gargantua entered his mother's hollow vein and, emerging from her left ear, shouted “some drink, some drink, some drink.”
A giant, Gargantua drinks the milk of more than 17,000 cows a day, has an 18-layer chin before turning three, and wears a gown woven with nearly 10,000 yards of velvet. Gargantua's father invites a number of masters to teach him, yet Gargantua becomes more stupid. Ponocrates, Gargantua's teacher, then gives him a laxative to remove all his bad habits, requiring the pupil to focus on his studies without wasting a moment.
As the harvest season comes, bakers in Lerne are insulted by the shepherds who guard the vineyards in Gargantua's country. Picrochole, King of Lerne, leads his army to ransack Gargantua's country. With the country in jeopardy, Grangousier, father of Gargantua, writes a letter to his son asking him to return.
When Gargantua returns, he uses his strength to rout the enemy, then leads his father's army to beat Picrochole with the assistance of the abbey's monks. Winning victory, Gargantua builds an abbey where men and women are allowed to marry and everyone is free to have money and live as they want. The only rule of the abbey is “do as thou wilt.”
In book II, Gargantua, having lived to the ripe age of 524, has a son, Pantagruel. Pantagruel drinks the milk of 4,600 cows for every meal. As he is feeding from a cow, he breaks free from the cradle rope and nearly swallows the cow whole. To prevent the child from causing more trouble, Gargantua orders