The story of Gargantua and Pantagruel is told over the course of five books. In the framework of the first book, it is implied that the book has been recently discovered, recently as in the mid-16th century, and that a scholar has been hired to translate the found manuscript. Within this first book, the narrator introduces the main character, Gargantua, who is literally a giant. Readers discover that Gargantua was born through his mother’s ear, and that during his childhood he was a clever albeit crude little boy. His father sends his son to be educated, but Gargantua’s first bout with education proves fruitless, for his father hired ill-equipped tutors. Fortunately, his father finds a better tutor, Ponocrates, and it is Ponocrates who turns Gargantua from an unintelligent, ill-mannered young twerp into a brilliant, disciplined, genteel man. Shortly after his transformation, Gargantua’s homelands are invaded by Picrochole’s armies. Gargantua, joined by his tutor, Ponocrates, and his group of friends, including Eudemon and Gymnast, set off to go to war. Gargantua’s giant size, as well as the massive size of his horse, add to the comedy of the satire, but his size also aids in his ability to conquer his enemies. After they win their first battle, Gargantua and his companions hear about another man, Friar John, who defended his abbey from Picrochole’s forces with nothing more than a large wooden cross fashioned into a bludgeoning weapon. Gargantua and his companions meet with Friar John and welcome him into their ranks. They all then continue to battle Picrochole’s armies and gain their victory over him and his forces.
The second book tells the story of Gargantua’s son, Pantagruel, who, like his father, is also an actual giant. In a form similar to that of the first book, the second book shows the reader how young Pantagruel was born, how his mother died in childbirth, and how Pantagruel was raised by his father. Since Gargantua worked hard at being a well-educated man, he made sure that his son also pursued knowledge, so he hired Epistemon to be his son’s tutor. With the assistance of Epistemon, Pantagruel traveled throughout Europe, going to different colleges and libraries to advance his studies. Along the way, Pantagruel meets with Panurge, a young man supposedly of noble birth and who had been recently captured and tortured by the Turks. Pantagruel and his companions find Panurge shortly after he has escaped his Turkish captors, so Pantagruel and his companions take Panurge under their care and welcome him into their entourage. Panurge remains as one of Pantagruel’s closest companions throughout the entire series. Although Pantagruel believes that Panurge is a noble man, whenever Pantagruel is not around, the narrator shows Panurge as a lying, cheating, womanizing, con artist. Panurge has countless numbers of schemes that make him money, yet he spends his money faster than he can make it, so he is always broke. He pulls several vicious pranks on the townspeople, but he makes sure to do so in secret. Besides the narrator, who claims to be a servant of Pantagruel, no one seems to accuse or hold Panurge responsible for his heinous actions. Meanwhile, Pantagruel’s homelands are invaded by the Dipsodes, and his father, Gargantua, is out of country and unable to act. Therefore, Pantagruel and all his entourage go to defend Pantagruel’s lands. Even Friar John and some of Gargantua’s friends from the first book join Pantagruel in the fray. Although their forces are much smaller than those of the Dipsodes, Pantagruel and his companions use clever trickery and the element of surprise to win their battles. Like his father, Pantagruel also uses his enormous size as a giant to help him win the day. The final battle includes Pantagruel fighting another giant, Loupgarou, who uses an enchanted mace. Their fight is epic, but eventually Pantagruel wins over Loupgarou, and then Pantagruel uses Loupgarou’s body to bludgeon the lesser giants in Loupgarou’s army. Pantagruel and his armies win over the Dipsodes, and Pantagruel gives the King of the Dipsodes over to Panurge as his prisoner. Pantagruel then relocates the refugees of his land into the land of the Dipsodes, which he claims for his own country.
Using a much different tone and structure than the first two books, the third book is more of a philosophical debate than anything else. The main conversation occurs between Pantagruel and Panurge. After the war with the Dipsodes, Pantagruel has made Panurge Lord over those lands, so Panurge has far more access to money than he has ever had before. Nevertheless, he spends his newly acquired wealth way too quickly and even borrows against his future wealth. Pantagruel disagrees with the act of borrowing, and he even tells Panurge that he should consider changing his ways. Panurge defends the act of borrowing, and explains that the only way he knows he is loved in this life is by how well his debtors follow him. At some point, though, Panurge finds himself completely debt-free, and as a result he decides that he wants to get married. This leads to the main discussion of the book, which is whether marriage leads to cuckoldry. Panurge feels a desperate need to get married, but he cannot bear the thought of being cuckolded. He seeks counsel from all of his friends as well as with a witch, a master of divination, a dying man, a deaf man, a fool, a religious scholar, a doctor, a philosopher, and a lawyer. Many of the answers he receives, however, are unclear and require translation. Whenever Pantagruel translates the answers, he comes to the same answer over and over again, which is that Panurge will be cuckolded, beaten, and robbed. Panurge disagrees with Pantagruel every time, and claims that he can translate the answers to mean the exact opposite. Thus, the two friends spend the entire book arguing over the meaning to the answers they receive from the other parties. Finally, they decide they must find a way to have a definitive answer, so they agree to set out on a voyage to the mythical Oracle of the Holy Bottle. Pantagruel gets permission from his father, Gargantua, to set forth on this mission. Gargantua even tells his son to bring along Friar John and whatever other companions or supplies they need for the adventure. Thus the end of the third book leaves all the characters preparing for their odyssey to strange and distant lands.
The fourth and the fifth books could almost be read as one book, since they both catalog the adventures that Pantagruel, Panurge, and their companions face on the voyage to the oracle. Nearly every few chapters within these books describe a different island or group of people that Pantagruel and his companions encounter. Practically every group is allegorical. The Furred Law Cats, for instance, represent the corrupt legal system, and the Papimen people represent fanatical Catholics. Throughout the voyage, the ship nearly sinks during several storms. During the storms, Panurge’s character development takes a radical turn. Although in the second book Panurge was a witty and maniacal mastermind, in the fourth and fifth books, the storms and the troubles at sea turn Panurge into a weeping coward, afraid of his own shadow. Friar John chastises Panurge for his cowardice at nearly every turn. The wise and all-knowing Pantagruel, on the other hand, refuses to see or even acknowledge the cowardice of his companion. It is only at the end of the fourth book, after Panurge has soiled himself and mistaken the ship’s cat for a demon, that Pantagruel finally acknowledges how Panurge has unresolved issues. Pantagruel does not chastise Panurge, but his tolerance for his friend’s behavior has certainly been affected.
After meeting all manner of people and weathering storm after storm, they all finally arrive in Lantern Land, which is where the oracle is supposed to be located. Once on land, they ask permission from the Queen of Lantern Land to visit the oracle. She grants them permission and provides them with a guide. The guide takes them to the site of the oracle and leads them all below ground, down a spiral staircase, and to the gates of the oracle’s temple. The guide leaves them at the gates, but she instructs Pantagruel and his companions to advance through the gates and meet with the priestess of the oracle, Bacbuc. After arriving inside the temple, Bacbuc and her handmaidens welcome Pantagruel and his companions. Bacbuc also lets them drink from the magical fountain before she prepares Panurge to hear the answer he seeks through the Goddess-Bottle. Bacbuc dresses Panurge in strange clothing, makes him jump and dance around the temple, and then she finally takes him to the fountain of the Goddess-Bottle where he hears the answer “Trinc.” At first the answer makes no sense to Panurge, but Bacbuc explains that he must refer to the book to know the meaning of the word. She explains that he must drink the book, and the book is some sort of magic potion. Upon drinking the book, Panurge gains special knowledge that temporarily leaves him only able to speak in nothing but rhymed verse. In his rhymes, he reveals that he will get married, that he will keep his wife happy, and that he will be merry all his days. He also chides Friar John and claims that Friar John will never be happy, for as a member of the clergy he cannot get married and therefore cannot achieve Paradise in the afterlife. Although Pantagruel and Friar John do not read/drink the book themselves, they too become temporarily unable to speak in anything but rhymed verse. As they rhyme, Pantagruel tells Friar John to let Panurge say what he will, implying that Panurge’s newfound knowledge is nothing more than the words of a fool. Nonetheless, Panurge believes his own words to be true, and as such he praises the power of the oracle. The fifth book ends with priestess Bacbuc explaining that just as the temple is hidden deep underground, so too can the truth often be found beneath the surface.