Fred Chappell on François Rabelais

Many people have written books. Only a precious few delivered their signature subject matter with such pronounced and memorable style that their name became a word:

Rabelaisian, adjective

1: of, relating to, or characteristic of François Rabelais or his works

2: marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism

synonyms: ribald, racy, bawdy, vulgar, coarse, earthy, risqué, lewd, blue, spicy, exuberant, uninhibited, vigorous, lively, satirical, parodic, irreverent, disrespectful, raunchy.

That might seem like a strange set of adjectives to describe a man who took the holy orders in 1521 as a Franciscan monk, but Rabelais was also a free thinker who lived during a period of momentous intellectual upheaval. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, both the Protestant Reformation and the rediscovery of works by ancient Roman and Greeks provided a powerful lens through which free thinkers, such as Rabelais, could critique the existing order.

It was a satirist’s dream.

Rabelais was also a man of deep learning and feeling who delighted in celebrating and skewering all aspects of God’s creation. He loved the power of language to imagine new worlds, all the while critiquing the one we inhabit. As one observer noted, “Intoxication—with life, with learning, with the use and abuse of words—is the prevailing mood of the book. Rabelais himself provides the model of the exuberant creator. … Rabelais was a writer molded by one tradition, the medieval Roman Catholic, whose sympathies lay to a greater extent with another, the Renaissance or classical. Yet when he writes in praise of the new humanist ideals—in the chapters on education, on the foundation of Thélème, or in praise of drinking from the “sacred bottle” of learning or enlightenment—he easily becomes sententious. His head is for the new learning, while his flesh and heart belong to the old. It is in his absurd, earthy, and exuberant inventions, which are medieval in spirit even when they mock at medieval acceptances, that Rabelais is a great, entertaining, and worldly-wise writer.”

We were delighted when Fred Chappell offered to write an appreciation of Rabelais’ most famous work, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Chappell is a prize-winning poet, novelist and essayist whose mastery of so many forms has distinguished him as a true man of letters. Though his work often focuses on the rural North Carolina land of his youth, he also has a deep interest in fantasy and the macabre.

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.