François Rabelais (YGtCTO Words #58)

Gargantua and Pantagruel

Book written by François Rabelais

It has been a few decades, but the truth of the matter is that I did not read everything assigned in high school English class. I read a lot of it, but sometimes it was just too much to ask. I specifically remember two works: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Gargantua and Pantagruel. No doubt I remember both lapses because the teacher made the pieces seem worthy of the attention of a teenager like me. Wilde will have to wait a bit more, but I have now read the Rabelais’ entire masterwork. Let English teachers everywhere rejoice!

In school, we actually read a few mere excerpts from Gargantua and Pantagruel from one of those Norton anthologies that were everywhere at the time. I checked both volumes of the Everyman Library version out of the local library for this go-round. I mention this because it has an interesting introduction about the translation (the originial was written in Renaissance French), which was done in the 17th century, nearly a hundred years after Rabelais’ death. It seems Thomas Urquhart, the translator, tended to expand on the jokes. So, the numerous funny lists could always use a few more puns. For that matter, Rabelais’ may have been making up words. I wouldn’t know, but the English text is littered with unexpected terms. Let me open at random. Pages 322/323 of Volume One contain the following words: chironomatic, culbutizing, ithyphallos, Jack-pudding, sempiternal, etc.

Yes, we’re all wondering why someone would read all of that. The fact is that the books are funny. The pages are littered with jokes, many of them filthy. Rabelais’ made fun of the Catholic church, lawyers, doctors, soothsayers and bureaucrats endlessly. He had no patience for bad rulers or pointless wars. Relations between men and women provide endless fodder for ribald humor.

François Rabelais

Written as five books filled with short chapters,
the plot moves along at a staggering pace. Halfway through, I realized that it felt most like reading someone’s blog as a long-form work. In this case, it was not exactly autobiographical so much as an unending work of fiction.

Also, the perspective gained is truly remarkable. This was written before Shakespeare and Cervantes. The reality is that people were fed up with hypocrisy and stupidity five hundred years ago. They did see all the ways that warmongers took advantage of people’s credulity. Getting married was a shot in the dark for happiness. Monks (like Rabelais) had children and did much worse things. There are no original sins. Our fault is refusing to recognize them when they reappear before they do more harm.

What’s weird is that I can’t justify encouraging anyone to read this. It is definitely hard work. The references to contemporary events are beyond anyone but a true scholar of the period to comprehend (I am not one). The jokes were written long before modern theories of humor took hold. For instance, the idea that the best jokes list three things was a long way off. Any funny list for Rabelais started somewhere around ten and ended upwards of a few hundred.

Lastly, the books end with… well, let’s just leave it at they do end.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 127 more to go.

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