Fred Chappell Appreciates Rabelais

Appreciation of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel by Fred Chappell

The stories of the giant Gargantua and his giant son Pantagruel, of their birth, nurture, education, and heroic feats of arms; of Pantagruel’s voyages through strange lands and exotic cultures in search of ultimate wisdom; of their companions Rondibilis, Frère Jean, and the irrepressible, inexpressible Panurge; of their arriving at last in the abode of the Priestess Bacbuc whose oracular Bottle utters the final truth they have sought —these stories are impossible to summarize and set in order.

It would be presumptuous even to try to do so, since one of the great themes of François Rabelais (1494?–1553) is glorious, raucous, exasperating, exhilarating, universal disorder. The author, a maverick cleric and observant physician, gave our modern world, at the moment of its birth in the Renaissance, its first comprehensive picture of what it was and what it could become. The world borrowed his name for its most treasured and common kind of humor: Rabelaisian, meaning rowdy, rude, satirical, unsparing, obscene, and sometimes cruel.

As Rabelais invented a new literary form, the exorbitant picaresque satire, he invented a new language to express it. His pages are a Babel of polyglot puns, monkish obscurities, legalisms, overblown fustian, and street demotic. Lists abound: diseases and cures, body parts, herbs, geographical oddities, and cusswords in droves.

Here is fantasy rooted in folktale, offering what only the great literary fantasies—­The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Orlando Furioso, The Time Machine, and a few others —can: a vision of humanity in its relationship with the cosmos and with eternity. At the same time, it presents an earthy panorama of daily concerns and relationships. Unique among the great visionary works, Gargantua and Pantagruel is the only slapstick comedy. Among all comedies, it is one of the best.

Fred Chappell’s Top Ten List (with preface)

List sired by Necessity upon Despair: All the very best stories are in poetry: Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Milton, Dante, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and thus off limits. Too bad-but to include poetry would have made the job even more impossible, the list even more arbitrary. These are not necessarily my favorite books. One of them, the Joyce, I haven't even read much of—only enough to persuade me that it is worth a lifetime of attention, one that I haven't got. The Balzac might have been supplanted by Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Cesar Birroteau or a dozen others. But he had to be on the list. Austen and Wodehouse are not there because I couldn't decide among titles. Some of my real favorites don't make it: H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Twain—but they should. Ten—jeez!

1. The Iliad by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?)
2. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615)
3. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1380s?)
4. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais (four books published between 1532 and 1552)
5. The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?)
6. The Aeneid by Virgil (19 b.c.e.)
7. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939)
8. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
9. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)
10. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)


Fred Chappell (born 1936) is a master of many literary forms: poetry, novels, short stories, critical essays and book reviews. A native of western North Carolina his work is noted for traditional Appalachian settings and themes but also fantastical elements. His first collection of poetry, The World Between the Eyes (1971) won the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Cup. Other early collections of poetry include The Man Twice Married to Fire (1977), Awakening to Music (1979) and Midquest (1981, Bollingen Prize), which Fred has described as “a four-volume poetic autobiography.” Other books of poems include Family Gathering (2000), Backsass (2004), and Shadowbox (2009). In novels such as It Is Time, Lord (1963), The Inkling (1965), and Dagon (1968), which won the French Academy’s Prix de Meilleur des Lettres Etrangers, he explores madness, violence, and even horror. His later cycle of inter-connected short stories, The Kirkman Tetralogy included volumes such as I Am One of You Forever (1985) and Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You(1996), focuses on personal experience. His essay collections include Plow Naked: Selected Essays on Poetry (1993) and A Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (1998).