Harrison Middleton University

Reading Rabelais, Part I

Reading Rabelais, Part I

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


May 19, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I remember my first experience with Chaucer. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I tried reading his stories in the original Middle English and was very disoriented. Of course, I had a lot of footnotes to rely on, but these also overwhelmed my slim teenage patience. I remember wondering why we still read this book. It seemed so ancient.

I would have a lot to tell that teenage self now. The good news is that I did finish Chaucer, and what’s more, I ended up loving his work. Not that everyone needs to love a text that they struggle with, but I think the struggle taught me a lot about myself and also about how there are truly universal issues in the world. I marveled at the idea that something from Chaucer’s day might somehow be relevant to my life.

All those years ago, I did not appreciate the great thinkers of the past. One hundred years seemed immeasurably ancient. Now, having taught various ages, I am convinced that representations of ancient worlds present one of the biggest challenges of translation. Today, we expect water to run from faucets, instant lighting, endless aisles of food at the grocery store, and Google to get us where we’re going. We have no real experience with old ways of transportation and communication. These things happen instantaneously for us. So, jumping into old texts can be really challenging for students.

My favorite way to teach the classics is to align them with the contemporary world. I comprehend the problems associated with this technique, however, I typically believe that getting someone’s foot wet might be the first step to a love of literature … just as it was for me so many years ago with Chaucer.

Currently, the HMU staff is reading Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. I won’t lie: it hasn’t been easy. I experienced the same sense of disorientation as I did as a teenager. I find myself wondering: what is the point of the text (a question I’ll circle back to in a future post)? He makes fun of almost everything, but a lot of the humor is specific to a time and place that no longer exists. This specificity is impossible to translate accurately, as is the comedy.

Originally published in a series between 1533 and 1550, Gargantua and Pantagruel demands a lot from the reader. Rabelais, first a priest and then a medical doctor, was purportedly the first to dissect a human body. Whether or not this is true, I can see that he enjoys dissection because of the way that he skewers language and incorporates anatomically accurate descriptions.

What follows are just a few examples of connections that might bring Rabelais into the present, despite the distance of time, ancient languages, and unknown people and places. This compilation of ideas came from weekly discussions with Fellows in Ideas as well as staff. We have generated too many connections for one week’s blog, so the list will continue into next week as well!


Book 1, Chapter 22 reads a lot like Shel Silverstein. Rabelais’s list of games, some invented and some likely real, read like a nonsensical Silversteinian rhyme. There’s “prickle me tickle me;” “hide and seek, or are you all hid;” “who doth the one and doth the other;” “cat selling;” “unoven the iron;” “pilferers;” “earlie birdie;” “mustard peel;” etc. This list goes on for a full page, but what can it mean? Is he making fun of the amount of games that humans play? Perhaps his fun connects with the seemingly endless ribaldry between the sexes. Either way, this is an easy comparison with Silverstein’s silliness, but also with games of today: “Roblox;” “Fortnite;” “Red Dead Redemption;” “Pokémon;” “Super Mario Brothers;” etc. The obvious question remains: is the world of Rabelais really that different from our own?

Next, Book 1, Chapter 25 introduces war in the name of cake. Bakers and shepherds sling insults back and forth, aware that they need each other, but unable to stop the game of one-upmanship. What begins with insults ends with whippings and jockeying, cudgels and arms. When they part ways, the cake-bakers present their woes to the king who determines to devastate the opponent. Thus, the cake war begins. The story mirrors Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book to a T.

Closely following this, Book 1, Chapter 27 introduces a warrior-monk, reminiscent of a Tarantino protagonist. The monk quickly demonstrates his greatness, both in virtue and in war. Still, the reader struggles to square saintliness with lust for war. His brutality is unsurpassed. And yet, the reader becomes inexplicably attached to him, much like the viewer’s attachment to Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Size, shape, and dimension continually change in this text. In Book 1, Chapter 36, Gargantua threatens a castle. According to the text, Gargantua is so large that he could crush the castle (not just the citizens, but the whole castle) without any effort. So, the situation is absurd from the beginning. Gargantua shouts a warning to the soldiers who guard the castle, but one plucky fellow fires back. The narrator explains: “[A] ruffian gunner, whose charge was to attend the portcullis over the gate, let fly a cannon-ball at him, and hit him with that shot most furiously on the right temple of his head, yet did him no more hurt, than if he had but cast a prune or kernel of a wine-grape at him.” (43B) It probably goes without saying that Gulliver and the Lilliputians immediately come to mind. So too, Alice in Wonderland. (Read previous blogs about Gulliver on our website: https://hmu.edu/2021-12-17-humoresque-reading-comedy/ and https://hmu.edu/2021-10-29-swifts-version-of-grotesque/.)

And this is only the beginning. Next week, we will continue with contemporary allusions to help teach a text as challenging as Rabelais.

Photo credit: Gustave Dore – Gustave Dore, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4716015

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