Great books of the Western World, V24 Francois Rabelais

by Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed

Hardcover, 1952



Call number




Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955, c1952]


First published in four volumes between 1532 and 1552, Rabelais' comic masterpiece chronicles the adventures of a giant, Gargantua, and his son, Pantagruel. More than four centuries later, the terms "gargantuan" and "Rabelaisian" are synonymous with earthy humor, a surfeit of good food and drink, and pleasures of the flesh. This series of exaggerated fables was condemned upon its initial publication by the censors of the Collège de la Sorbonne. But beneath their bawdy, often scatological wit, the tales bear a deeper significance as the author's defense of daring and groundbreaking ideas. Using his ribald humor, Rabelais addresses timeless issues of education, politics, and philosophy. His parodies of classic authors as well as his own contemporaries offer a hilarious exposé of human folly and an enduring satire of history, literature, religion, and culture. This edition features the classic translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Pierre le Motteux.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member CosmicBullet
Well, it's done: I got through Rabelais. I plowed this 16th century classic of arse-wind symphonies, infarctious bum-hole fruppery, codpiece flip-flappery, and vertiginous piles of latinate verbiage, much of which only a scholar from the Beansquiddle School of Counterposed Argumentation and
Show More
Juxtiperous Scholary Assidification would understand, or profit therefrom. . .

And for all that, it was fun. Yes, the complaint that I formed early on was that the writing was overwhelmingly verbose. Despite the outlandishly bawdy humor, it took forever to get through what I took for pointless descriptions, words piled up in a groaning sideboard of verbiage, chapters with no apparent aim toward what I supposed should be the meat of the enterprise: advancing the plot. But that complaint, I finally realized, was really my 20th-century American upbringing speaking: my get-out-of-my-way-I'm-in-a-hurry, time-is-money, let's-be-serious-I-don't-have-time-for this, nose-to-the-grindstone, and put-it-in-a-sound-byte upbringing.

By comparison, today's novels are written almost in short hand where an economy of words wins. Blogs must be digestible in two minutes or less. We can quit any newspaper article after only three sentences and come away with its essential point. We've basically re-written Descartes to: I stress, therefore I exist. . .

On the other hand, with 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' you have sat down with someone from the 16th-century and you must not be interested in getting anywhere in a hurry. You must be prepared to sacrifice the entire afternoon to careless, rambling conversation where the person repeats himself, gets sidetracked in colorful but pointless tangents, tells lewd jokes, flirts with passersby, pauses frequently to order more beer, farts at will, and has a love for rattling off endless lists: of popular games, of foods appearing at a banquet, of ways to run someone through with a weapon, or the best materials to use in an outhouse.

The characters Gargantua and Pantagruel are of a race of giants, and in a satire the figure of a giant is often a device for showing human traits writ large. It occurs to me that Rabelais' use of this literary device may be seen a kind of rejoinder to Plato's 'Republic'. In 'The Republic,' man was writ large in the form of an ideal city to explore the question: how should a man live? Then, in 'Gargantua and Pantagruel,' perhaps the corollary occurs: the city or society is writ large in the form of a giant man to explore the question: what is the end of life?

And if this be the case, then Rabelais tell us, in effect, to chill! There you go! There's your modern urge to reduce everything to one formulaic pithy equation: just chill. Rabelais seems to be saying: what's the use in being so pretentious and tight-assed? Humanity is funny, flawed, tragic, comic, both beautiful and ugly - and driven by passion and appetite more so than its rationality. Relax, understand this, and stop pushing. If you don't mind bawdy jokes, gutter humor, satire, and enough crude body functions to start a riot in a whorehouse, this will be a delightful, if somewhat long read. Let it have its effect on you. On other hand, “If you say to me, master, it would seem that you were not very wise in writing to us these flimflam stories, and pleasant fooleries...” as Rabelais writes, near the end of Book II, “I answer you that you are not much wiser to spend your time reading them." Tis a sentiment truer than meets the eye, because to respond out of impatience to this book is to have missed much of the point.
Show Less
LibraryThing member baswood
Gargantua and Pantagruel at over 1000 pages can be a gruelling read. The penguin classic edition contains all five books published under Rabelais name in 16th century France and Mr Screech in his excellent introduction says that many students are advised to read only a part of book four. I am no
Show More
student and so I started at the first page of Rabelais prologue to book 1 "Pantagruel: The horrifying and Dreadful Deeds and Prowess of the most famous Pantagruel; King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua" and finished with the last page of "The fifth book of Pantagruel" which probably was not written by Rabelais. It is gruelling because I found the writing very uneven, some marvellous passages full of ideas, satire and bawdy humour are interspersed with some typical medieval writing with its mania for lists. Some of these lists go on for pages and many of them are meant to be funny, but the passage of time and the translation from the old French have taken away much of the humour.

Book 1 tells the story of the early life of Pantagruel, his birth, his infancy, his studies in Paris, his meeting with Panurge; his lifelong friend and finally his battle with the giants where he becomes the King of the Dipsodes (The Thirsty ones). Much of this book is bawdy, some of it is gross and most of it is fantastical. Here is an excerpt from a story told by a mendicant friar: A wounded lion comes upon an old woman who falls backwards in shock with her skirts chemise and petticoats riding up above he shoulders:

"He contemplated her country-thing and said, 'You poor woman! Who gave you that wound?'
As he was saying that, he saw a fox and called him over: 'brother Renard. Hey! here! Over here! There's a good reason'
When Renard came up the lion said:
'My fellow and friend, someone has given this woman a nasty wound between her legs. There is manifest dissolution of continuity. See how big the wound is: from her bottom to her naval it measures four, no, a good five-and-a-half spans. It's a blow from an axe. I fear it may be an old wound, so to keep the flies off, give it a good whisking inside and out. You have a brush fine and long. Whisk away; whisk away I beg you, while I go looking for moss to put in it. We ought to succour and help one another. God commands us to.
Whisk hard; that's right my friend, whisk hard, that wound needs frequent whisking; otherwise the person cannot be made comfortable. Whisk well my good little comrade, whisk on. God has given you a brush; yours is becomingly grand and gross. Whisk away and never tire. {A good Fly-whisker, ever whisking flies with his tassel, himself will ne'er fly whisked be. Whisk away, well-hung! Whisk away my dear} I won't keep you long"

The humour or bawdiness here has not travelled well from 16th century France and while Frenchmen at the time may well have been splitting their sides, it did not have that effect on me today.

Book 2 is titled Gargantua and tells the story of Pantagruel's father. In some ways it is a similar story to Pantagruel dealing with Gargantua's birth, infancy, education in Paris and then his battle against the tyrant Picrochole who invades his kingdom, however in Rabelais prologue it is clear that he is looking for this book to be taken more seriously as he invokes both Plato and Socrates in the first paragraph. More time is spent detailing Gargantua's education and it is very much a humanist education. He is taught to excel in the arts of both peace and war, there are chapters on the ideal lay abbey, there are chapters on politics, heraldry and the true meaning of colours. There is still much bawdiness, but it does not now take centre stage, however Gargantua's fight with the army of Picrochole is just as fantastic and over the top as Pantagruel's exploits in the previous book.

Book 3 takes us back to Pantagruel and the first ten chapters are a comic philosophical debate between Pantagruel, now a wise king and his elderly and confused friend Panurge. The style is quite different from Book 1 and yet there is still a little bawdiness, but the humour is more controlled. Here is Pantagruel explaining how a newly conquered territory should be governed:

You will therefore, you drinkers, take note that the way to hold and uphold a newly conquered land is not (as has been to their shame and dishonour the erroneous opinion of certain tyrannical minds) by pillaging, crushing, press-ganging, impoverishing and provoking the people, ruling them with a rod of iron: in short by gobbling them up and devouring them................ I shall not quote you ancient histories on this matter; I will simply recall to your mind what your father saw, and you too if you were not too young. Like new-born babes they should be suckled, dandled and amused; like newly planted trees they should be supported, secured and protected against every wind, harm and injury; like convalescents saved from a long and serious illness they should be spoiled, spared and given strength, in order that they should conceive the opinion that there is no king or prince in the world whom they would less want for a foe, more desire for a friend......

Book 3 then launches the question that will provide the focus for the rest of the book and those that follow; Panurge wants advice as to how he can avoid becoming a cuckold if he chooses to get married. There is much discussion on the legal situation and of legal ethics, Rabelais was trained in law and brings much learned argument to the discussions. Panurge also seeks advice from doctors on possible medical remedies and Rabelais a trained doctor has much fun ridiculing some of the "old wives tales" that Panurge is advised to follow. The question remains unresolved and Panurge and Pantagruel agree to seek advice from the oracle of the Divine Bottle. This involves putting out to sea to travel by the North west passage to india.

Book 4 sees Panurge, Pantegruel and the their comrades; the choleric Frere Jean, Carpalim, Epistemon and Eusthenes on board ship sailing the seven seas and making various landfalls in mystical and semi mystical lands. There is increasing literary plundering from Plutarch's "Moral Tales" and Erasmus' "Adages" as Rabelais targets reform of the Catholic church with a biting satire of the Pope and his entourage. There is also more politics and diplomacy in their dealings with the hostile Chidlings. There is some fine writing throughout this book.

Book 5 is now generally thought not to have been written by Rabelais, although there is much conjecture that it was pieced together from bits of stories and essays that Rabelais left behind. It continues from where book 4 left off. The comrades are still searching for the oracle of the divine bottle. In this book they reach their destination after a tangle with the legal profession on the island of Kitty-Claws. Everything seems to end rather too neatly not at all in Rabelasian style, however there is still much to enjoy.

It has been said that there is nothing quite like Rabelais and after reading him I would agree. The mixture of bawdy humour, philosophy, fantasy, and social satire is a heady one indeed. At times I was astounded by the brilliancy of the writing and at other times I was a little bored. Knowing what I do now I would not attempt another complete re-read, but I will go back and read some selections. There are many chapters and they are quite short and many of them can be read outside the context of the books. The penguin classics edition provides help for the modern reader, each chapter has an introduction from Mr Screech that highlights the sources used and the targets for much of the satire, they also provide a useful summary placing the writing in the context of the times. Rabelais used puns extensively, word games and irony in much of his writing and Mr Screech explains where the translation does not do justice to the word play. Difficult to give this book a star rating, because as a classic of 16th century literature it should get five stars, but I am going to rate it from my own reading experience and so give it four stars.
Show Less
LibraryThing member endersreads
I came to Rabelais through Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" and through Dave Praeger's "Poop Report" website.

Upon reading the first hundred pages of "Gargantua and Pantagruel", I , like George Orwell, thought Rabelais was in need of psychoanalysis. Deeper into the books, I, like C.S. Lewis, came
Show More
to understand that all Rabelais' written perversities were, dare I say, legitimized by the foundations of gospel. The book, we are to understand, was meant to be humorous, in the spirit of Shrovetide, of Mardi Gras, Twelfth Night. It was meant for the people, and the people consumed it with much pleasure, and still do. His influence is broad.

Rabelais is today considered a Erasmian Christian humanist. You will also find within his writings the teachings of Erasmus' enemy, Martin Luther. I was absolutely fascinated by this. I was blown away with Rabelais' knowledge of the ancient philosophers, of medicine (he was a Doctor of Medicine), of theology (he was a Benedictine), of all things. Truly he was a Renaissance man of deep learning and also a perverse nut.

M.A. Screech's new translation is wondrously filled with fulfilling footnotes. I am usually angered by footnotes and consider the writers of them to be boorish. Not so with Screech.

It pains me to even attempt to review such a work, spanning 5 books and 1041 pages. I would like to digress on scatology, Panurge's codpiece, Pantagruel's stature, and much more, but I am overcome. I highly recommend Rabelais. I find myself quoting him on subjects throughout the day to people I come across. I feel I should perhaps one day read it again and take notes, while laughing aloud. I plan to read those Rabelais quoted so much: Plutarch, Virgil, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Pliny, Cicero, on and on. I wonder what his library looked like?

On his lists: they are excellent and cover several pages at a time. For some reason I was sent into hysterics by: "Additional item: Toasted Tidbits".
Show Less
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
In 1532 Francois Rabelais wrote a story about the giant Gargantua. For the following twenty years he would continue to write producing Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first great novel in French literature. This novel, in five parts chronicles the adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son
Show More
Pantagruel. While many consider Rabelais a difficult writer, he is in many senses a modern novelist, rejecting the rules for the novel, if for no other reason than they had yet to be established. His translator, Burton Raffel, in preface to his 1994 edition, describes Rabelais as "something like a cross between James Joyce and Laurence Sterne (the latter, like Rabelais, an ordained clergyman)". Having read both Sterne and Joyce I would agree that Rabelais ' prose is like theirs, difficult but worth persevering. The bawdy humor helps make the reading a little easier, but I most enjoyed the many lists that Rabelais interjected including lists of fools, animals and food, among others. An excellent description of his style may be found in Mimesis, where Erich Auerbach writes:

"The coarse jokes, the creatural concept of the human body, the lack of modesty and reserve in sexual matters, the mixture of such a realism with a satiric or didactic content, the immense fund of unwieldy and sometimes abstruse erudition, the employment of allegorical figures in the later books---all these and much else are to be found in the later Middle Ages. . . But Rabelais' entire effort is directed toward playing with things and with the mutiplicity of their possible aspects; upon tempting the reader out of his customary and definite way of regarding things, by showing him phenomena in utter confusion;"

Rabelais demonstrates a freedom of vision, feeling, and thought that has led to his book being banned by some ever since it was first published. Remember "Marian, the librarian" from The Music Man? She was chastised by the town in part because she included Rabelais on the town library shelves. Many other towns, states and countries over the years have banned this book. For both this reason and for the vigorous humaneness demonstrated by Rabelais this is worth reading. If you are a reader like me you may share some vicarious pleasure in a romp through the middle ages with Rabelais.
Show Less
LibraryThing member soliloquia
Bawdily funny, grotesque and excessive in its descriptions. One of the most compelling of the hard classics; an encyclopedia of medieval marketplace culture.
LibraryThing member cataryna
The version I had was a hefty 715 pages waste of 18 days in my opinion. I am an abnormally fast reader; another book of this size would have taken me at the most a week to read but this one confounded my senses more than any other book I have ever read. I was forced to reread paragraphs and entire
Show More
chapters over and over just to catch the tiniest glimpse of the meaning of it all. The author loves to ramble and tell stories within stories within stories which became greatly confusing. The author also has a passion for lists, at times taking up pages describing the strangest things.

I will admit that the core story was enjoyable, but the author’s seemingly endless ramblings made it difficult to understand why this book was chosen to be a must read before you die.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Once upon a time, I was reading books on a list of "100 Significant Books" in Good Reading to make sure my mind didn't turn to mush. I was surprised to find I honestly adored just about everything on the list--until I came to number 25, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Reader, I hated it.

Show More
author is one of those names that's become a word in itself, such as Machiavellian, Shakespearian, Darwinian, Freudian... This is how "Rabelaisian" is defined, quite accurately, on

1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of Rabelais or his works
2 : marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism.

Gross is right, with a side of crude, and as for the "bold naturalism"--just know that means nature as in bodily effluvia, not the beauty of the wild. There's perhaps nothing more tedious than reading through a longwinded book that's supposed to be uproariously funny and wise but only bores you silly, when you're not going ewwww--and I have been known to laugh at bawdy Shakespeare jokes. This book is pedantic, rambling, misogynistic, and Rabelais was way too overfond of lists. Very, very long lists.

I do get its importance. Sorta. I can certainly see the line connecting Gargantua and Pantagruel to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Joyce's Ulysses, even Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Have I mentioned how much I hate Wicked? I do. (Not a fan of Ulysses either.) I also get how subversive and irreverent it was when published. Nevertheless, as one reviewer put it, there's only so much codpiece jokes one can take. (Never mind poop and fart jokes.)
Show Less
LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
A wonderfully entertaining and clever book, even if it does suffer from a weakness in narrative that isn't uncommon in early novels. Example quote, "A toothache is never so bad as when a dog has you by the leg."
LibraryThing member lukeasrodgers
The first three books are the best. There are some good episodes in the 4th and 5th, such as when a giant flying pig ends a battle between the heros and an army of Chitterlings by swooping down and spreading mustard everywhere.
LibraryThing member stillatim
Imagine that the world insisted that Dante's Comedy, the Vita Nuova, the writings on Monarchy, his book about using Italian instead of Latin, and some random thing written by someone claiming to be Dante were all one book, and insisted on printing them together in one 2000 page behemoth. That is
Show More
what happens here. 'Gargantua' and 'Pantagruel' are rollicking. The third book no doubt repays close study by people really into the Renaissance and who get off on making fun of the Papacy. The fourth book is somewhere in between. The fifth book, according to this translator and editor, isn't by Rabelais at all. Now, these are four utterly different books. I recommend the first two to everyone who appreciates a good dick joke. If you're really, really, really keen on puns, know latin, greek and hebrew, and are deeply, deeply invested in whether it's better to be a Lutheran or a Papist, you'll probably get a lot from the third and fourth. But even if that's the case, I'd go with the first two books here and Erasmus' 'Praise of Folly,' which is funnier, more comprehensible, and much, much shorter.

So, if you're in college and someone offers a course on Rabelais, you should definitely take it. If you're in the soi disant real world, maybe go with the name-calling and farting of 'Gargantua' and 'Pantagruel' instead.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MartinBodek
This collection of books began with the highest of the high, then proceeded immediately to tank miserably until it reached the lowest of the low. I read the version translated by Samuel Putnam, and in his hands, the word "lively" in the title was very well suited. The first book of Gargantua was a
Show More
revelation, rich with linguistic acrobatics, profound in silliness, and filled to hilarity with hyperbole. I enjoyed every moment.

Then Pantagruel was born, and I wished he never was. I prefer the father, and the apple fell far from the tree. The first book on his life contained nothing I can remember. The second book contained hundreds of pages of a meandering conversation about whether or not his friend should marry. The third book had 20 or so pages on a missing hatchet? What a waste of my time.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sirk.bronstad
Tell me, does this ever stop being a big law school in-joke?
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
This is a sweeping epic that is so entertaining and unpredictable that it will carry you along for the ride at a brisk pace. Although it is not perfect, and there are changes of pace and interest throughout, the overall story is very fulfilling and allows one to truly get into the wonder and
Show More
aspects of the story. Personally, I preferred the 1st, 2nd, and 4th book- but the others still have their charms and good points as well.

4.25 stars- well worth the read for anyone interested in classics, epics, grand comedies, and French literature!
Show Less
LibraryThing member tungsten_peerts
I think anyone who loved Tristram Shandy will at least like this book, which comes from a similar place of joy and chaos and learned ... well, *stuff.*

If you *hate* books like Tristram Shandy, well, you probably won't like this. And I probably won't like you. :^) Oh well.

The translation and notes
Show More
by the improbably-named Screech are very, very good. Top class.
Show Less


Original publication date

c. 1532-1552
c. 1532-c. 1564


0852291639 / 9780852291634

Similar in this library

Page: 0.8187 seconds