Gargantua and Pantagruel (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Some books are good for you, and some books are fun to read, but few books are both; Rabelais' novels are among these few. A cornucopia of jokes, unforgettable characters, filth, sex, philosophy, and religion, Rabelais' novels create our cultural DNA while they make us laugh. When we laugh at the mythical giants Pantagruel and Gargantua and their companions we laugh at ourselves. All the while we are following the heroes and their friends and enemies as they react to the burgeoning world of modern nation states,...
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Gargantua and Pantagruel (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Some books are good for you, and some books are fun to read, but few books are both; Rabelais' novels are among these few. A cornucopia of jokes, unforgettable characters, filth, sex, philosophy, and religion, Rabelais' novels create our cultural DNA while they make us laugh. When we laugh at the mythical giants Pantagruel and Gargantua and their companions we laugh at ourselves. All the while we are following the heroes and their friends and enemies as they react to the burgeoning world of modern nation states, modern science, modern law, and modern forms of religion, we can see how we have become what we are today. Without Rabelais and his contemporaries Cervantes and Shakespeare, modernity would not exist as we know it.
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Meet the Author


Born sometime around 1483, in the west of France, Rabelais was a man of vast and profound learning. There were few areas in European society and culture that did not arouse Rabelais' interest, and he made his mark in areas as diverse as medicine, law, botany, and politics. Shortly after arriving in Paris, he became a secular priest, without the permission of church authorities, and had two children, François and Junie, with a widow. Rabelais went to study medicine in Montpelier, the foremost medical university in France, and even though he left for Lyons without having finished his medical studies, he was named doctor of one the largest hospitals in France in 1532. Always on the move and insatiably curious, Rabelais spent time in Italy before he died in 1553 in Paris.
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Introduction

Some books are good for you, and some books are fun to read, but few books are both; Rabelais’ novels are among these few. A cornucopia of jokes, unforgettable characters, filth, sex, philosophy, and religion, Rabelais’ novels create our cultural DNA while they make us laugh. When we laugh at the mythical giants Pantagruel and Gargantua and their companions, we laugh at ourselves. We laugh until we hurt, sometimes having to put the book down or look back over the passage to make sure that we have really read what we think we have. All the while we are following the heroes and their friends and enemies as they react to the burgeoning world of modern nation states, modern science, modern law, and modern forms of religion, we can see how we have become what we are today. Without Rabelais and his contemporaries Cervantes and Shakespeare, modernity would not exist as we know it. Just as tilting at windmills and princely indecision have become commonplace in our modern culture, so too terms such as Gargantuan and Rabelaisian have been used to describe people and things very foreign to the French Renaissance (the term Gargantuan even ends up being featured in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Kill Bill: Volume Two). And yet, like Cervantes’ mock epic and Shakespeare’s plays, Rabelais’ novels are critical texts deeply rooted in their time. Pantagruel, Gargantua, and the other novels are critical not only of the medieval past which provides so many of the ridiculous characters that Pantagruel and Gargantua and their cohorts ridicule with such gusto; they also criticize the new and supposedly modern world emerging from the “gothic shadows” of the medieval past. This critique is always done with a laugh -- albeit sometimes a sardonic one -- because laughter, as the narrator of Gargantua explains, is what makes us human.

Born sometime around 1483, near Chinon in the west of France, Rabelais was a man of vast and profound learning. There were few areas in European society and culture that did not arouse Rabelais’ interest, and he made his mark in areas as diverse as medicine, law, botany, and politics. His curiosity, however, did not always meet with the approval of the powers that be: His travails with authority began early, when he was a young Franciscan monk. The Sorbonne, the theological university in Paris, forbid the study of Greek because it escaped the control of ecclesiastical authorities, and Rabelais, who had begun to study Greek with some of his friends, had his books confiscated. He obtained the right to transfer to a Dominican monastery near Poitiers because the Dominicans were thought to be a more intellectually tolerant order. Even that environment was not challenging enough for him, and, in 1528, he left the monastery for Paris in order to continue his studies. Shortly after arriving in Paris, he became a secular priest, without the permission of church authorities, and had two children, François and Junie, with a widow. Always on the move and insatiably curious, Rabelais went to study medicine, in 1530, in Montpellier, the foremost medical university in France. Despite making a strong impression on his teachers and colleagues, Rabelais left Montpelier in 1532 for Lyon without having finished his medical studies.

Lyon was perhaps the liveliest intellectual center in France in the early sixteenth century for geographical and economic reasons. Intellectual life in Paris was still influenced by the presence of the Sorbonne. The “Sorbonnagres,” as Rabelais called the doughty professors of the Sorbonne, were little inclined to accept the radical critique Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, and other thinkers of their ilk were making of the medieval church and other institutions. Lyon was much more open to the winds of change blowing through Europe, especially from Italy, because of its close commercial ties with Florence. The literary contributions of Lyon were extraordinary, including the Neo-platonic poetry of Maurice Scève and the sensual and provocative poems of Louis Labé, as well as the writings of the unfortunate humanist book printer Étienne Dolet who would be hanged in 1546 in Paris for printing censured books. It was in Lyon that Rabelais’ literary talents began to blossom, but it was his medical expertise that guaranteed his early success there. Despite his lack of a medical degree, Rabelais was named doctor of one the largest hospitals in France in 1532, the Hôtel-Dieu de Notre-Dame de Pitié du Pont-du-Rhône, where he would remain employed until 1535.

It was while he was in Lyon that Rabelais published both of his first two novels. The first, Pantagruel, was published in 1532, and the second, Gargantua, in 1534. Pantagruel was a figure from medieval mystery plays who personified thirst. Rabelais took this figure and made him a giant. Garguantua, whom Rabelais made into Pantagruel’s father, was a figure appearing in very popular books that were sold at the book fair in Lyon during that time. Even if he had published two of the most important novels ever to be written in French, it was thanks to his talents as a doctor that Rabelais was able to make the pilgrimage to Rome that many humanists in Europe were making in order to see the modern vestiges of the glory of the ancient world that they were trying to resurrect in their “renaissance.” When Jean du Bellay, the bishop of Paris, was sent to Rome by King Francis I to negotiate the suspension of Pope Clement VII’s excommunication of the English king, Henry VIII, he invited Rabelais to come along as his personal doctor and secretary.    Rabelais arrived in Rome in January 1534 and immediately set about studying the local flora with the idea of writing a book on Roman botany, which he never published. He would return to Italy again in 1539 and in 1542 with Jean Du Bellay’s brother Guillaume, the Lord of Langey, who had been named governor of the Piedmont, the Italian provinces the French claimed as their own.   In 1542, he published a new and revised edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel in which he replaced some of the more scabrous terms with which he referred to the religious authorities. Despite these changes, two years later the Sorbonne added Rabelais’ books to the list of censured books.

In 1545 Rabelais published his Third Book with a royal privilege; even more importantly, he published it using his own name and not that of Alcofribas Nazier, the pseudonym he had used to publish Pantagruel and Gargantua. The royal privilege might have protected the author and the publisher’s rights in regards to other publishers, but it did not protect Rabelais from the Sorbonne, which condemned him yet again. After the Sorbonne’s condemnation, Rabelais found the atmosphere in Paris a little too hot and took refuge in Metz in the east of France where he stayed from the spring of 1546 through the spring of 1547. When he was sent back to Italy by Jean du Bellay in 1547, for his fourth and final visit, he stopped off in Lyon and dropped off eleven chapters of what would become the Fourth Book with his publisher. This first edition of the Fourth Book appeared in 1548; a lengthier and revised edition of the Fourth Book was printed in 1552. Rabelais returned to France in 1549 and died in 1553 in Paris. A Fifth Book was published posthumously in 1564, but many specialists believe that only part of this last book was actually written by Rabelais himself.

Curiously for an author so often associated with excess, as in the terms Gargantuan and Rabelaisian, perhaps the most recurrent theme throughout Rabelais’ novels is the concept of moderation.  Moderation was a scarce commodity in the bloody and fractious sixteenth century when Protestants and Catholics seemed bent on destroying each other in ways modern readers can only too easily understand by looking at the religious and ethnic disputes ripping apart our present day. Rabelais, like his mentor Erasmus, and the great French essayist, Montaigne, was a moderate in a time of radical and partisan extremism. Throughout his novels, whether he was talking about how to read his works in the prologue to Gargantua, or about salvation in Pantagruel, or making scabrous and scatological allusions about a woodcutter’s “axe” in the prologue to the Fourth Book, Rabelais never ceased making the case for moderation. If we are moderate we can all live together allowing for each other’s differences and foibles; unfortunately it was a lesson lost in the gathering insanity of sixteenth-century France. Catholics and Protestants seemed inextricably locked into a vortex of religious hatred that would end in the ruthless wars of religion that saw thousands of French subjects brutally hacked to death and thrown into the rivers that would turn red with blood as described in the extraordinary, if not highly partisan epic poem, Tragiques, written by the Huguenot Agrippa d’Aubigné at the end of the century.

The increasingly bitter conflict between Protestants and Catholics matches the ever-darker tones of Rabelais’ humor. The spirit of the Renaissance as a time of renewal and revitalization imbue the early novels, Pantagruel and Gargantua, with a sense of hope. Rabelais, like his contemporaries such as Erasmus and Guillaume Budé thought that the “restitution of good letters” promised a cultural and political future that would stand in marked opposition to the “gothic ignorance” they associated with the Middle Ages. Humanists were especially hopeful that the reign of the new French king, Francis I, who had been crowned in 1515, and who was a supporter of the new humanistic learning, would bring positive change. Francis’ establishment of the College of Royal Readers (Collège des Lecteurs Royaux) in 1530 was indicative of this new spirit of learning and enlightened rule. The curriculum of this college, organized around the study of Greek, Hebrew, and classical Latin, symbolized the hopes of humanists who thought that it was necessary to return to the ancient texts in the original languages in order to establish a new nation both culturally and politically. The College also represented a break with the authority of the Catholic Church since it placed university learning under the auspices of the king rather than the church. The passages in Pantagruel and Gargantua in which Rabelais describes the ideal education of the king cannot be separated from these developments or from texts such as On the Education of the Christian Prince by Erasmus (1516) and the Education of the Prince by Guillaume Budé (1547). Rabelais, Erasmus, and Budé all considered the education of the prince as one of the primary responsibilities of humanist intellectuals such as themselves.

During that time, Francis I also protected French Protestants and the reformers known as Evangéliques who wanted to transform the Catholic Church from within. Both Protestants and Evangelicals wanted to bring the Christian Church back to the Gospel (Evangile in French) and to correct what they perceived as the overly ceremonial nature of the late-medieval church. Francis was especially conscious of this spirit of religious tolerance since his sister, Marguerite, a renowned author in her right, was one of the chief protectors of the reformers both within and without the church. This period of religious tolerance began to become unraveled however in 1534, following the “Affair of the Posters” (L’Affaire des placards) when posters denouncing the mass and other Catholic rituals were plastered throughout France during the nights of 17-18 October, even in the king’s bedroom in Fontainebleau. Religious reform was no longer only a question of theological interpretation, but was now a question of political sedition and the king had to take action against the reformers. The long descent into the horror of the religious wars began.

Modern readers are often struck by the difference in tone between the riotous and often vulgar humor of Pantagruel and Gargantua, and the darker and more biting humor of the Third Book (1536) and the Fourth Book (1552). The optimistic humor of the first books becomes the gallows humor of the last ones; all of them are funny, but the tone of the humor changes. If the first are akin to the humor of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Voltaire’s Candide, the latter are closer to the darker hues of Kafka’s The Trial or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The hope and promise of Pantagruel and Gargantua are grounded in a humanistic optimism about human nature, while the bleaker outlook of the Third Book and the Fourth Book seems to perceive human beings with less benevolent eyes. Yet even in these bleaker tomes, Rabelais never seems to despair of human beings; at heart they have the capacity to do good. Amid the folly of contemporary sixteenth-century society in which obsequious papists (Papimanes) and rigid antipapists (Papefigues) are paired one against the other, the Pantagruelians offer the hope that true Christian charity and true humanist learning can carry the day.

Rabelais has had his critical ups and downs through the centuries. In the seventeenth century in France, Rabelais was much reviled as the comic but somewhat raunchy humor of the Renaissance went out of style. La Bruyère called Rabelais’ books monstrous, and Pierre Bayle had very little to say in his favor. A great exception to this trend is Molière, whose plays share Rabelais’ comic verve. In England, Rabelais was better received in the seventeenth century. It is very likely that Shakespeare knew Rabelais; the pedant Holofern, for example, in Love’s Labour Lost is so close to Tubal Holophernes, Gargantua’s first tutor, in both name and character, that some common influence can be surmised. In a similar vein, Thomas Nash, another enemy of pedants and puritans, shares a prose style close to Rabelais’, and Francis Bacon, one of the most important figures of the English seventeenth-century, called Rabelais “the great jester of France.”French writers of the eighteenth century were divided on Rabelais; Voltaire, who seems so close to Rabelais in so many ways, called Rabelais’ novels extravagant and unintelligible. Denis Diderot, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of Rabelais. Diderot, the author of Jacques the Fatalist, which is imbued with the spirit of Pantagruel and Gargantua, referred to Rabelais as the “sovereign pontife of the cup.” In England, in the eighteenth century, once again, Rabelais was very popular. Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, venerated Rabelais, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift also contains many allusions to Rabelais.

French writers of the nineteenth century were more favorably disposed to Rabelais, especially in the latter part of the century. If, early in the century, the French critic Sainte-Beuve followed La Bruyère’s lead saying that reading Rabelais was akin to trying to cross a large rubbish-strewn square, later writers such as Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert were great fans. Hugo called Rabelais one of the fourteen geniuses who had honored humanity, and Flaubert said that he, as Molière had before him, kept Rabelais on his bedside table. Twentieth-century writers who have taken a somewhat jaundiced but comic view of human existence such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Joseph Heller, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Pynchon can all be seen writing in the wake of Rabelais’ satiric novels. These modern writers, like Rabelais himself, belong to a long tradition of comic and satiric literature that also includes writers such as Aristophanes, Plautus, the authors of the medieval fabliaux, Chaucer, and Bocaccio. It is a tradition that goes back as far as human beings have made fools of themselves; it is likely that this tradition will continue.

Like the heroes of the medieval chivalric romances they satirized, Pantagruel, Gargantua, and their cohorts travel in search of a grail which seems forever beyond their reach. All of the books follow the gigantic heroes and their companions in search of answers to specific questions and, more generally, of wisdom. Almost every institution of sixteenth-century society, from the church to the Courts of law, are made the objects of Rabelais’ comic wit during these travels. At the heart of these books is a critical but benevolent gaze on all things human, including the literary tradition. In many ways, it is a somewhat cruel irony to find Rabelais placed on the list of some sacrosanct canon of Western tradition. If he is a part of that tradition, he is, as so many great authors are, deeply critical of any list that might constitute a canon. Like that other great and more recent Pantagruelian, Groucho Marx, Rabelais did not seem to want to be part of any club that would accept him. All the partisan members in the culture wars, spouting off about who is and who is not a canonical author, should never forget that some of the funniest and most biting scenes in Rabelais are made up of lists of preposterous books that are supposed to be part of a great library, and of pompous windbags spouting off in incomprehensible language in front of equally pompous “experts” who greet their colleagues with great applause.    The true Pantagruelians fall to the ground, holding their sides, doubled over in laughter at the idiocy of human conceit. We need to remember that when we laugh at these characters we are laughing at ourselves.

A word on the translation. It is often said that Rabelais is untranslatable. This is probably true. The importance of word play is incalculable in Pantagruel, Gargantua, and the other novels, and these puns and jokes can never be translated; like Renaissance poetry and good wine, Rabelais’ language does not always travel well. Yet, if there have been few successful translations of Rabelais, these are among the best. Thomas Urquhart’s translations of Pantagruel, Gargantua, and the Third Book, published in 1653 and 1693, and Pierre Le Motteux’s translations of the Fourth Book and the Fifth Book published in 1694, have lost little of their comic verve over the years. They capture the tone and verve of the original French (Le Motteux was a Huguenot exile) better than some of the more exact and more “learned” modern translations. If readers trip over the language of the seventeenth century they should remember that modern French readers also trip over the French of Rabelais, even in contemporary editions. They should keep going, however, since Rabelais’ French, even in translation, like Shakespeare’s English, repays the effort needed to read it in kind, and then some.

Michael Randall is an associate professor of French and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University.

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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2004

    A great work and not a particular favorite of mine

    Rabelais does not need my help, and his place in the Literature of the West is secure. The encyclopediac comic mind of the first order exploring the human being with obsessive attention to physical and spiritual function and disfunction has amused generations of readers. Why I do not personally go for it so much I think relates to the reservations of my own character. I do not particularly love scatology .I am not impressed by reading accounts of how we relieve ourselves. More importantly I think the whole irreverent, satirical spirit that makes Rabelais so loved and laughed with by so many readers just does not bring me any joy. It seems to me too easy and cheap. There is also of course the longeurs in listing of the whole thing. And this without at all mentioning the particular place of the scholar's revolt in the world of his time. This is thought by many to be the funniest book of all time but I do not laugh at it this way. Who would however know the history of Western literature must know this work.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2000

    GROSSE AND GREAT

    absolutly grosse, vile, and lewd, i can't believe that someone has written such a perfect novel. anyone who claims that classic litterature can't be fun, has not read this novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2013

    Recommended for fans of The Satyricon.

    Recommended for fans of The Satyricon.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2013

    Read it for a class: I recommend it for those 18+.

    I thought it was okay. I mean, if you like reading 16th century porn then go ahead. I had to read this book for an ethics class. First few chapter are okay but then they start talking about inappropriate things x.x. I reccomend this book to be read by an older audience (as if a teenager would understand old English anyways).
    Overall, I thought it was an easy read dispite its size and large amount of pages.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2012

    This was pretty amusing for an old book. I would read it again.

    This was pretty amusing for an old book. I would read it again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2012

    Bawdy and funny! A great read.

    Bawdy and funny! A great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2012

    CRUEL

    Honestly folks, I like scatalogical humor and irreverence as
    Much as the last fool , but this is not that funny . WHAT REALLY
    TURNED ME OFF WAS THE ANIMAL CRUELTY THAT PASSED FOR
    LAUGHS IN THOSE DAYS !

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2002

    This guy was a Monk?

    Yeah, he was believe it or not and he was kinda looped. He writes about all teh sinful things he couldn't partake in. This set of stores about the giants is absolutely appalling and funny as all get out at the same time.

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    Posted April 10, 2011

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