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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Subjects of King Picrochole of Lerne


Sometimes

the "glue" of ironic comment rather saturates these units of narrative than surrounds or interjoins them, and this is the case with what follows. The infantine peculiarities of Gargantua; his dress and the mystery of its blue and white colours (the blue of heaven and the white of the joy of earth); how his governesses and he played together; what smart answers he made; how he became early both a poet and an experimental philosopher--all this is recounted with a marvellous mixture of wisdom and burlesque, though sometimes, no doubt, with rather too much of _haut gout_ seasoning. Then comes the, in Renaissance books, inevitable "Education" section, and it has been already noted briefly how different this is from most of its group (the corresponding part of _Euphues_ may be suggested for comparison). Even Rabelais does not escape the main danger--he neglects a little to listen to the wisest voice, "Can't you let him alone?" But the contrasts in the case of Gargantua, the general tenor (that good prince profiting by his own experience for his son's benefit) in that of Pantagruel, are not too "improving," and are made by their historian's "own sauce" exceedingly piquant. Much as has been written on the subject, it is not easy to be quite certain how far the "Old" Learning was fairly treated by the "New." Rabelais and Erasmus and the authors of the _Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum_ are such a tremendous overmatch for any one on the other side, that the most judicial as well as judicious
of critics must be rather puzzled as to the real merits of the case. But luckily there is no need to decide. Enjoyment, not decision, is the point, and there is no difficulty in _that_. How Gargantua was transferred from the learned but somewhat, as the vulgar would say, "stick-in-the-mud" tutorship of Master Thubal Holofernes, who spent eighteen years in reading _De Modis Significandi_ with his pupil, and Master Jobelin Bride, who has "become a name"--not exactly of honour; how he was transferred to the less antiquated guidance of Ponocrates, and set out for Paris on the famous dappled mare, whose exploits in field and town were so alarming, and who had the bells of Notre Dame hung round her neck, till they were replaced rather after than because of the remonstrance of Master Janotus de Bragmardo; how for a time, and under Sorbonic direction, he wasted that time in short and useless study, with long intervals of card-playing, sleeping, etc. etc., and of course a great deal of eating and drinking, "not as he ought and as he ought not"--all this leads up to the moment when the sage Ponocrates takes him again in hand, and institutes a strenuous drill in manners, studies, manly exercises, and the like, ending with one of those extraordinary flashes of perfect style and noble meaning which it pleases Rabelais to emit from what some call his "dunghill" and others his "marine-store."

Also they prayed to God the Creator, adoring Him, and solemnly repledging to Him their faith, and glorifying Him for His boundless goodness; while, giving Him thanks for all time past, they commended themselves to His divine mercy for all the future. This done, they turned to their rest.

[Sidenote: The war.]

It is only after this serious training that the first important division of what may be called the action begins--the "War of the Cakes," in which certain outrageous bakers, subjects of King Picrochole of Lerne, first refuse the custom of the good Grandgousier's shepherds, and then violently assault them, the incident being turned by the choleric monarch into a _casus belli_ against the peaceful one. Invasion, the early triumph of the aggressor, the triumphant appearance of the invincible Friar John, and the complete turning of the tables by the advent of Gargantua and his terrible mare, follow each other in rapid and brilliant telling, and perhaps no parts of the book are better known. The extraordinary felicity with which Rabelaisian irony--here kept in quieter but intenser activity than almost anywhere else--seizes and renders the common causes, excuses, manners, etc., of war can never have escaped competent readers; but it must have struck more persons of late than perhaps at any former time. It would be impertinent to particularise largely; but if the famous adaptation and amplification of the old Pyrrhus story in the counsel of Spadassin and Merdaille to Picrochole were printed in small type as the centre of a fathom-square sheet, the whole margin could be more than filled with extracts, from German books and newspapers, of advice to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nor is there anything, in literature touching history, where irony has bitten more deeply and lastingly into Life and Time than the brief record of Picrochole's latter days after his downfall.


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