Where Words Unfreeze: The Terra Incognita of Rabelais

by Denise Ahlquist, leading Seriously Funny: The Fantastical Worlds of François Rabelais

“When they were upon the open sea, feasting, singing and holding discreet intercourse in fair discourse…”

Gargantua und Pantagruel
by Erich Schilling

Imagine you are there, enmeshed in one of the worlds of words created by Rabelais—a world we will bring to life in the Toronto Pursuits 2020 seminar Seriously Funny: The Fantastical Worlds of François Rabelais.

The time is near-tell 1550, only some fifty years since Columbus, still another fifty before Shakespeare and Don Quixote, only barely into the Reformation. Medieval is turning to Renaissance.

Imagine you are voyaging on a ship at the very extreme of the world, sailing the mysteries of the northwest passage to India. It has been cold, but tonight not so much. Your giant king Pantagruel (son of noble Gargantua, student of wise Epistemon, conqueror of the Dipsodes, seeker of the Divine Bottle) speaks:


“‘My companions, can you hear anything? I seem to hear several persons talking in the air, yet I can see no one. Hark!’

At his command we were all attention, our ears lapping up the air like fine oysters-in-their-shells so as to hear any scattered word or sound.

‘I still can’t see anyone, even though I can see a hundred miles all round…I have read that a philosopher named Petron was of the opinion that there are several worlds so touching each other as to form an equilateral triangle at the core and centre of which lay, he said, the Manor of Truth, wherein dwell the Words, the Ideas, the exemplars and portraits of all things, past and future….

I also remember that Aristotle maintained that the Words of Homer are fluttering, flying, moving things and consequently animate.

Moreover, Aristophanes said the teachings of Plato were like those Words which (being uttered in a certain land in the depths of winter, and freezing and congealing from the coldness of the air) are not heard: so too what Plato taught to young boys was hardly understood by them as old men.

It is up to us to make a philosophical inquiry into whether this might perhaps be the very place where such Words unfreeze.’

…. The pilot replied,  ‘My Lord: there is nothing to be afraid of. We are here at the approaches of the Frozen Sea over which there was a huge and cruel combat at the onset of last winter. At that time, the Words and cries of men and the women, the pounding of maces, the clank of the armour of men and horses, the whinnying of steeds and all the remaining din of battle froze in the air. And now that the rigour of winter has passed and fine, calm, temperate weather returned, they melt, and can be heard.’

‘Here: get hold of these,’ said Pantagruel. ‘Here are some which have not yet thawed out.’

He then cast fistfuls of frozen Words on to the deck, where they looked like sweets of many colours. We saw gullet words – gules – and words sinople, words azure, words or and words sable; after they had been warmed up a little in our hands they melted like snow, and we actually heard them but did not understand them, for they were in some barbarous tongue, save for a rather tubby one which, after Frère Jean had warmed it in his hands, made a sound such as chestnuts make when they are tossed un-nicked on to the fire and go pop. It gave us quite a start. ‘In its time,’ said Frère Jean, ‘that was a shot from a small cannon.’

…. And we saw many sharp Words, and bloodthirsty Words too (which the captain said come home to roost with the man that uttered them and cut his throat); there were dreadful Words, and others unpleasant to behold. When they had all melted together we heard: Hing, hing, hing, hing: hisse; hickory, dickory, dock; brededing, brededac, frr, frrr, frrr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou. Ong, ong, ong, ong, ououou-ouong; Gog, magog and who-knows-what other barbarous words; and the captain said that they were vocables from battles joined and from horses neighing at the moment of the charge; and then we heard other ones, fat ones which made sounds when they melted, some of drum or fife; others of bugle and trumpet. Believe you me, they provided us with some excellent sport.”

“A greater magician than he seemed,” said the mystic Eliphas Levi, writing some 300 years later. Indeed, with the magical quality of words and wit, Rabelais sought to cheer a France and Europe mired in the worst of religious, political and intellectual conflict. Farce, satire, puns, the joy of exaggeration and song of carnival, these famously (and infamously) flowed from his pen even more copiously than the wine in his tales. But flowing as well were humanism, erudition, and at times, pure, sheer beauty.

Take this voyage and oh so many more in Rabelais’ books, and find a world made anew with words, creativity and good humour. Look beyond the risqué reputation and find delight and wisdom in Rabelais’ kaleidoscopic art of using language and laughter as tools to disarm preposterousness, disrupt misguided thinking, and deflate narcissistic power figures.

“… it behoves you to develop a sagacious flair for sniffing and smelling out and appreciating such fair and fatted books, to be swift in pursuit and bold in the attack, and then, by careful reading and frequent meditation, to crack open the bone and seek out the substantificial marrow – that is to say, what I mean by such Pythagorean symbols – sure in the hope that you will be made witty and wise by that reading; for you will discover therein a very different savour and a more hidden instruction which will reveal to you the highest hidden truths and the most awesome mysteries…” (Garguantua, Prologue of the Author)

This seminar provides a chance for readers of English to crack open these meaty bones in an excellently translated and annotated volume by M. A. Screech. While it is sometimes said that humour can’t cross borders, the wit of Rabelais grows from life’s abundance and the fecundity of the human body and soul into a festival of deep, universal rootedness. There are plenty of wry grins, chuckles, snorts and belly laughs for all.

Rabelais himself urges us to combat despair by engaging in the most “excellent sport” of good fellowship—the exchange of ideas through conversation, as well as the companionable arts of sharing good cheer, food and drink. Come have some serious fun. It’s positively pantagruelian.

“Dear readers: hereon cast your eyes;
All sterile passions lay aside.
No offence here to scandalize;
Nothing corrupting lurks inside.
Little perfection here may hide
Save laughter: little else you’ll find.
No other theme comes to my mind
Seeing such gloom your joy doth ban.
My pen’s to laughs not tears assigned.
Laughter’s the property of Man.


See you in July!

— Denise


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