François Rabelais: A Study
The moments in the history of art when a door is suddenly opened onto a wholly new range of possibilities are extremely rare. Monteverdi’s Orfeo marks one such in the history of music; Cézanne’s late canvases another, in the history of painting. The works of Rabelais, beginning with Pantagruel, first published in Lyons in 1532, most definitely mark one in the history of literature.
Historians and scholars are much concerned with origins, precursors, and influences. But when one is faced with something wholly new such considerations can blunt rather than sharpen one’s responses. Is it possible to put oneself in the position of the first readers of Pantagruel? To try to recapture the sense of exhilaration and bafflement that always accompanies confrontation with that which is totally new in art? Such readers would have known that a chapbook had recently appeared, called Les Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et enorme geant Gargantua, and that it had been a wildfire success. They would pick up Pantagruel expecting more of the same, for the subtitle explicitly tells us that this is “Son of Gargantua”—Les Horribles et espouventables faicts et prouesses du tresrenommé Pantagruel, Roi des Dipsodes, fils du grand geant Gargantua. But here, after a brief prologue, is what they would find:
It will not be an idle nor an unprofitable thing, seeing we are at leisure, to put you in minde of the Fountain and Original Source, whence is derived unto us the good Pantagruel; for I see that all good Historiographers have thus handled their Chronicle: not only Arabians, Barbarians and Latines, but also the gentle Greeks, who were eternal drinkers. You must therefore remark, that at the beginning of the world, (I speak of a long time, it is above fourty quarantaines or fourty times fourty nights, according to the supputation of the ancient Druids) a little after that Abel was killed by his brother Cain, the earth, imbrued with that blood of the just, was one year so exceeding fertil in all those fruits which it usually produceth to us, and especially in Medlars, that ever since, throughout all the ages, it hath been called the yeare of the great medlars….
We are present here at nothing less than the birth of the novel. An important moment (though hardly a solemn one), and one we would do well to try to understand. Three aspects of the passage call for comment: the insistence on origins; the invocation of authorities; and the tone.
No medieval story is much concerned with tracing things back to their sources. Either it’s “once upon a time” (“whilom”), or it’s when or after this or that happened (“after that the seige and the assault was ceased at Troy”); other narratives begin with the poet falling asleep or coming to in a dark wood, where the landscape tells us what tradition and what traditional images the poet is evoking. Just as few medieval churches can really be said …
The Rabelais Story February 23, 1978