Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
Partly because France’s greatest comic prose writer was a legend even in his own lifetime, most of the facts of François Rabelais’s life remain hazy. A monk, doctor of medicine, and writer, Rabelais transferred from the Franciscan to the Benedictine order with the Pope’s express permission, because the latter order...
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Partly because France’s greatest comic prose writer was a legend even in his own lifetime, most of the facts of François Rabelais’s life remain hazy. A monk, doctor of medicine, and writer, Rabelais transferred from the Franciscan to the Benedictine order with the Pope’s express permission, because the latter order was more tolerant and more scholarly. The year 1532 found him in Lyons, at that time the intellectual center of France, where he published his first creative work, Pantagruel. As a satirist and humanist, Rabelais labored between the two religious extremes of Roman Catholicism and Genevan Protestantism; he had the mixed blessings of being attacked by Julius Caesar Scaliger, St. Francis of Sales, and John Calvin. All of them warned against his heretical impiety. Rabelais was, first and last, an iconoclast, but he attempted to be moderate in his views and writings. This may have made Rabelais unpopular with his more radical contemporaries, such as Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola, but it also made him one of the most durable and most humane comic writers. As indecorous as his writings are, they also reveal a relatively conservative spirit; they show a sense of proportion and of human limitation in outraging both.
In Rabelais, the spirit of comedy blends with the spirit of epic to produce a novel work without parallel or close precedent. The chronicles are quite inclusive, expressing the Renaissance ambition to explore and chart all realms of human experience and thought. The mood of the narrator matches the scope of the narration. Rabelais attributes his infinite exuberance to his literal and symbolic inebriation, which he invites his readers to share. His curiosity, interest in the things of this world, joy, and unpredictability are greatly enjoyable, as long as the reader is willing to be intoxicated by a distillation of strong wit and language. As a genre, the chronicles may be compared to other books of instruction so popular during the Renaissance—such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640); Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Courtier, 1561), and Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570). They also have been considered a parody of medieval adventure romances. Gargantua and Pantagruel includes history, fable, myth, drama, lyrics, comedy, burlesque, novel, and epic. Its sources include sculpture, jurisprudence, pedagogy, architecture, painting, medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, theology, religion, music, aeronautics, agriculture, botany, athletics, and psychological counseling. All of these elements are thrown together with flair and abandon.
It is a consistency of mood that holds together this diverse and variegated work. That mood is not one of thoughtfulness, for Rabelais is no great thinker. The unifying idea, eternal in its simplicity, is the philosophy of Pantagruelism: “Do as Thou Wilt.” The world of Pantagruel is a world in which no restrictions on sensual or intellectual exploration can be tolerated; excessive discipline is regarded as evil and inhuman. In true epicurean fashion, Rabelais has no patience for inhibitions. People live for too brief a time to allow themselves the luxury of denial. The Abbey of Theleme is the thematic center of the work, with its credo that instinct forms the only valid basis for morality and social structure. Rabelais ignores the dangers of the anarchy this credo implies; he is talking about the mind, not the body politic. The dullest thing imaginable is the unimaginative, conforming mind. His satirical pen is lifted against all who lessen freedom of any kind in any fashion: hypocrites, militarists, abusers of justice, pedants, and medieval scholastics.
The reader of these gigantic chronicles, then, must not expect a plot. Anything so regular is anathema to Pantagruelism. Readers also should realize that the characters themselves are not the focus of the author’s art but are largely indistinguishable. One of the most amusing elements of the book is that they are also indistinguishably large; Pantagruel’s mouth, described in book 2, chapter 32, one of the finest chapters in European literature, is, at times, large enough to contain kingdoms and mountain ranges, at other times, no larger than a dovecote. The exception is Panurge, the normal-size man. He is an unforgettable character who makes so strong an impression, even on the author, that he cannot be forgotten. The third, fourth, and fifth books, in fact, are based on his adventures—just as William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (pr. 1597, pb. 1602) was written to exploit the beloved character of Falstaff. Panurge is the heroic companion of Pantagruel, in the best epic tradition; he also has the cunning of Ulysses, the drunken mirth of Falstaff, the roguishness of Jack Wilton and Tyl Ulenspiegel (his numerous pockets filled with innumerable tricks), the cynical but lighthearted opportunism of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner, the magic powers of Shakespeare’s Puck or Ariel. He is the wise fool of Erasmus and King Lear, and a Socratic gadfly who bursts the pretensions and illusions of all he encounters. The chapter entitled “How Panurge Non-plussed the Englishman Who Argued by Signs” is a literary tour de force, concentrating into one vivid, raucous chapter the comic spirit forever to be known as Rabelaisian. Important in other ways are “How Pantagruel Met a Limousin Who Spoke Spurious French,” for its attack on unfounded affectation; and Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel, expressing the entire range of Renaissance learning, juxtaposed with the chapter introducing Panurge, who personifies Renaissance wit.
Rabelais’s chaotically inventive style, filled with puns, wordplay, and synonyms, as well as with neologisms of his own creation, makes him difficult to translate accurately. His language reflects the rich variety of sixteenth century France; as the first to observe invariable rules in the writing of French prose, he has been called the father of the French idiom. His syntax is flexible, supple, expansive, sparkling with vitality and the harmony of an ebullient character, complex, and original. Rabelais does for French vocabulary what Geoffrey Chaucer did for English, fortifying it with eclectically selected terms of the soil, mill, tavern, and market, as well as scholarly terms and phrases gleaned from nearly all languages. As his comic theme reflects the universal as well as the particular, Rabelais’s language combines the provincial with the popular in a stew fit for the mouths of giants.