Gargantua and Pantagruel - François Rabelais, J.M. Cohen It gets old after awhile. At first, it’s funny. Funny in the way that a book about codpieces, cuckoldry and urine floods is nestled into Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World list. Rabelais’ is a master of the outrageous even by modern standards. The stories of Gargantua, the giant, and his son, Pantagruel, equally giant, are the French Renaissance equivalent of the tall tales found in American folklore. Think Paul Bunyon but then ignore the lumberjack thing, Babe and everything else except that he’s a giant. Then get him drunk, have him eat people and urinate on a lot of things. That’s pretty much sums up Gargantua. Pantagruel is slightly more complicated. Slightly.

Rabelais gets considerable credit as a satirist. He mocks mostly everything and his twisting of classical tradition is a welcome dose of levity especially for those that may be slogging through the Western canon. But I think Rabelais’ satire lacks the biting wit and focus for social reform which seem to characterize more notable satirists. There really is no plot nor theme, just a lot of loosely connected tales. I’m hard-pressed to think of this as more than merely entertainment. Which isn’t really a criticism- it’s actually a nice change from a lot of the self-important writings of the Great Books.

Gargantua and Pantagruel is bawdy and can be enjoyable. Rabelais undoubtedly loves language and using it. He makes up vocabulary, creates pages of adjective-laden lists and develops dialogue that’s a step above babble. At 700 pages, that’s a lot of absurdity, even for a pantagruelist.