Harrison Middleton University
Dore Rabelais Physeter
Gustave Doré’s image of the physeter from Book Four.

Reading Rabelais, Part IV

Reading Rabelais, Part IV

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.


June 23, 2023

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

To all the “honest drinkers” – as Rabelais would have it – congratulations! We made it to the final post in this series on Rabelais. Hopefully the various connections have enriched your experience of what is often considered difficult reading. Today’s blog concludes with Book Four, which means that it is up to you to make modern-day connections for Book V.

There’s something necessary in reading Rabelais, sort of like an old cookbook in which the recipes don’t specify cooking temperatures, cook times, or amounts. Those old recipes might say “cook until done” or “bake until hard,” which means that interpretation and style is left up to the cook. Rabelais is rough in the same way. His writing is a precursor to so many bits of literature and has been spun into a variety of voices and styles. It feels as if he introduced a specific type of satire to the world – something beyond the Greek plays. For example, Pantagruel’s followers include a wise fool and the barely lovable sidekick Panurge. These character types continue to be played with from Shakespeare to comics to graphic novels to regular television programming. I have to imagine that Shakespeare, who might have perfected the use of the fool, was inspired by Rabelais. Shakespeare also gives us one of the world’s best flawed characters in Falstaff, and reads like a more sophisticated Panurge. You could certainly also compare Panurge with Batman’s Robin, Samwise Gamgee, Dr. Watson, or Chewbacca.

A future blog will take a look at the evolution of satire, in which Rabelais plays a great part. However, in the meantime, while playing with Rabelais, remember that writing is a lot like cooking, a process in which each mind incorporates, consumes, and refines older ideas. Having said that, I’ll jump into today’s various connections from Rabelais to modern day.

The Catchpoles arrive with an aggressive and physical culture. They live hand to fist, you might say, in a way that includes beatings. During a wedding, for example, the Catchpoles are caught in a game of “fisticuffs” which makes films like Gladiator and Fight Club pale in comparison. The text reads: “[T]humps and fisticuffs began to fly about among the assistants; but when it came to the catchpole’s turn, they all laid on him so unmercifully with their gauntlets, that they at last settled him, all stunned and battered, bruised and mortified, with one of his eyes black and blue, eight ribs bruised, his brisket sunk in, his omoplates in four quarters, his under jawbone in three pieces; and all this in jest, and no harm done. God wot how the levite belabored him, hiding within the long sleeve of his canonical shirt his huge steel gauntlet lined with ermine: for he was a strong built ball, and an old dog at fisticuffs. The catchpole, all of a bloody tiger-like stripe, with much ado crawled home to L’Isle Bouchart, well pleased and edified however with Basche kind reception; and with the help of the good surgeons of the place, lived as long as you would have him.”

A few chapters later, we find a precursor to Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes. The wedding recap reads much like Sherlock’s internal dialogue, both incorporating human anatomy into the conversation. The narrator details the wedding like this: “[T]he wedding, the wedding, the wedding, remember it by this. This he said, striking Basche and his lady; then her women and the levite. Then the tabour beat a point of war, and the gauntlets began to do their duty: insomuch that the catchpole had his crown cracked in no less than nine places. One of the bums had his right arm put out of joint, and the other his upper jawbone or mandibule dislocated; so that it hid half his chin, with a denudation of the uvula, and sad loss of the molar, masticatory, and canine teeth. Then the tabour beat a retreat; the gauntlets were carefully hid in a trice, and sweetmeats afresh distributed to renew the mirth of the company.”

In Chapter 34, Pantagruel bravely slays a monstrous physeter (a type of whale which includes the sperm whale). While there is certainly some connections to be made between the physeter and Moby Dick, I prefer to compare it with Jeff the 600 foot worm in Men in Black II. For one, the ridiculous nature of the event takes on a sarcastic tone which matches well with the sewer worm’s obscene size, dimension, and living situation. Agent J (Will Smith) would play a great Pantagruel in this scene, which reads, “With such darts, of which there was good store in the ship, at the first blow he ran the physeter in at the forehead so furiously, that he pierced both its jaws and tongue: so that from that time to this it no more opened its guttural trap-door, nor drew and spouted water. At the second blow he put out its right eye, and at the third its left: and we had all the pleasure to see the physeter bearing those three horns in its forehead, somewhat leaning forwards in an equilateral triangle.”

I would also love to see the Abbott and Costello version of Book Four, Chapter 37. This book pokes fun at the use of Pythagorean syllable-counting as a way to contrive names. The language play recalls a few Abbott and Costello skits like “Who’s on First” and “13 x 7 = 28.”

In Chapter 40, Book Four, food fights go next level. The Chitterlings, a species of sausages, run around trying to fight the over-sized Pantagruel and friends. In true Rabelaisian style, puns run rampant. Obviously, inspired by Homer’s Trojan Horse, Friar John creates a sow and fills it with well-named warriors, such as: “Sour-sauce, Sweet-meat, Greedy-gut, Soused-pork, Slap-sauce,” etc. This section somehow combines Homer’s Odyssey, I Love Lucy’s puns, and the antics of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s clever, fun, and quickly won.

Finally, Chapter 62 of Book Four reads like a precursor to video games, and more importantly, to the scene in The Matrix when bullets freeze en route to Neo. Rabelais’s Gaster, an enigmatic master of the arts, invents the first “universal machine” which can apparently stop bullets (just as a side note, this machine might bring us right back to the first post and Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book). Rabelais writes: “[T]his universal machine, heaven, air, land, and sea would sooner return to the primitive chaos, than admit the least void anywhere. Now the ball and small shot, which threatened the page with no less than quick destruction, lost their impetuosity, and remained suspended and hovering round the stone: nor did any of them, notwithstanding the fury with which they rushed, reach the page.” You can almost see bullets fall to the floor, Matrix-style. Rabelais has invented a sort of Minecraft-like world in which you make your own reality.

Thanks for walking through all of these connections. To be quite honest, potential connections are so vast that there could be another ten blogs like this. However, I hope that I have offered a few helpful ways that might increase the teachability of a challenging book. Links to past blogs on Rabelais are below.

Reading Rabelais, Part I
Reading Rabelais, Part II
Reading Rabelais, Part III
Considering the Cuckold
Rabelais on Decision-Making

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Skip to content