The framework of the story starts off with an introduction to explain how the story was found. Apparently, a man by the name of John Andrew had men digging in a meadow, and during the dig he and the men uncovered a tomb of unknown origin. They found a section of the tomb where an engraving read “Hic Bibitur,” which in Latin loosely translates to here drink, drink here, or here drunk. Inside the section and hidden under a flagon, Andrew’s men found a peculiar pamphlet written on the bark of an elm tree. Supposedly, John Andrew calls in the narrator to translate. According to the narrator, the pamphlet contains the full genealogy of Pantagruel, including his exploits. The narrator claims he will translate the story as faithfully as possible.
The story begins with Gargantua’s parents. Grangousier, a hedonistic man who overindulges with drink and salted meats, marries Gargamelle, the daughter of the King of the Parpaillons. She too is noted as being overindulgent. The two make for a gluttonous and lustful pair, and they are noted as having vigorous sexual relations. Gargamelle becomes pregnant, and after 11 months gives birth to a son, Gargantua. The manner in which she gave birth, though, was quite strange.
Grangousier and Gargamelle had invited everyone to a giant feast, so that they could get rid of their overabundance of food before it went bad. Even though Grangousier tells his wife to eat sparingly, since she is close to delivering her child, and because the food is really not that great, Gargamelle ignores him and eats an excessive amount of tripe, amongst other foods. Amidst the festivities, Gargamelle becomes ill, and her husband believes that she is about to have her child. The midwives come, but instead of having a child, Gargamelle has a violent bowel movement that causes her to rip her sphincter muscles. A noted she-physician comes to Gargamelle’s aid, but the aid she administers involves gluing and sewing-up Gargamelle’s anus and vagina. Unable to give birth the natural way, Gargamelle’s infant son crawls up inside of Gargamelle’s body and is born out of her left ear. The baby’s first words upon being born are “some drink, some drink, some drink.” Grangousier acknowledges his son’s booming voice and powerful throat with the following French phrase: “Que grand tu as et souple le gousier!” As these were the father’s first words upon hearing his son, the guests urge Grangousier to follow an old Hebrew tradition and named his son in a manner after these first words. Both Grangousier and Gargamelle approve of the tradition and named their son Gargantua.
By the amount of food and drink it takes to feed baby Gargantua, it is clear to the reader that this child is a giant. To emphasize the size of Gargantua, the narrator explains how it takes hundreds upon hundreds of yards of fabric to make clothing for Gargantua. The main colors of his clothes are blue and white, as chosen by his father. His clothes are of the finest fashion and adorned with jewels worth a sizable fortune.
Gargantua is a foolish youth, but crudely clever and witty. He does everything wrong, but he seems to do it wrong on purpose. He is vulgar in his manners, and touches his governesses inappropriately, although he is never reprimanded for his action. Instead the women seem to fawn over the beautiful boy, and even have pet names/euphemisms for the boy’s penis. They want to teach the boy how to ride a horse, but since he is not old enough yet, they instead give him wooden horses and other make-believe play toys, to which he uses extensively and makes clever jokes and innuendos about. He impresses adults with his quips and his bathroom humor, and proceeds to impress his father with this style of humor as well. Gargantua’s father seems most impressed by how his son tells him about which material works best for wiping one’s bottom. Impressed by his son’s wit, Grangousier decides that his son must be trained in the classic sense. So, Gargantua spends many years with tutors to learn the great philosophies.
Although Grangousier knows that his son is clever, he feels that the tutors were perhaps not fit to their callings, for they have taught his son how to be overindulgent and how to engage in foppish activities. Grangousier complains to his friend, Don Philip of Marays, the Viceroy or Depute King of Papeligosse. The two discuss how to test Gargantua’s intellect by comparing him to Eudemon, Des Marays page. After one simple conversation, it is clear that the young Eudemon, a boy of less than 12 years, knows far more than Gargantua. Grangousier decides he must get his son a better tutor, to which Des Marays recommends Eudemon’s tutor, Ponocrates. Des Marays also advises his friend that, if he wants Gargantua to be well educated, then Gargantua should be around educated people, such as those who live in Paris.
Grangousier decides to send his son to Paris. At the same time, Grangousier receives a gift from another king, which is the gift of a giant mare that is as big as six elephants, has a horn on its hind quarters, and has a tale as big as a pillar. Grangousier deems such a beast as the perfect horse for Gargantua to ride to Paris. Therefore, Gargantua, accompanied by Ponocrates, Eudemon, and other servants, all travel to Paris. Upon reaching Paris, Gargantua does not know what to make of the city. He is an unlearned young man with crude manners, which explains why he decides to urinate on the masses of Paris. It also explains why Gargantua steals the bells of the church to decorate his horse. The faculty of the nearby school sends Master Janotus de Bragmardo to reason with Gargantua and begs for him to give back the stolen bells. Gargantua, unsure of what he should do, consults with Ponocrates, Eudemon, and the other servants of his house. They decide to listen to Master Janotus, give him much drink and many gifts, while in the meantime they secretly return the bells back to the church.
Once situated in Paris, Ponocrates proceeds in determining how his new student, Gargantua, has been trained. Gargantua explains what he does every day, and Ponocrates quickly learns that Gargantua is a disgusting, lazy young man, with no discipline for learning. Ponocrates also finds out that Gargantua is a degenerate gambler, drinker, and a womanizer. Ponocrates knows he must completely retrain Gargantua, so he consults with a respected physician, Master Theodorus, to determine the best and safest way to move forward. Through the use of medicines, elixirs, a healthy diet, and a strict exercise regimen, Ponocrates turns the ignorant and ill-mannered Gargantua into one of the most learned, disciplined, and genteel men in the country.
Meanwhile, back in his father’s lands, a small disagreement sparks a war. On the borders of the lands owned by Grangousier and the lands owned by Picrochole, King of Lerne, a group of shepherds, servants of Grangousier, happen to see a group of cake bakers, who are the servants of Picrochole. The shepherds want to have some of the cake bakers’ cakes, which they are carrying in their cart. The shepherds offer to trade for the cakes. Instead of being courteous, the cake bakers belittle the shepherds and use all manner of profanity toward them. The shepherds explain that they will treat the cake bakers with the same level of rudeness next time they see each other. The cake bakers pretend to be remorseful, but only to create a false sense of security, so that one of their own can use his whip on one of the shepherds. The hurt shepherd screams out that he is being attacked and murdered, and then he hits his attacker with a cudgel, knocking the cake baker unconscious. A giant fight ensues, and surrounding shepherds and farmers join in. The cake bakers are overtaken, and their goods seized. However, instead of just stealing the cakes, the shepherds and farmers leave a fair payment of trade goods with the cake bakers. The cake bakers go back to their king and claim that they were assaulted without due cause. Instead of investigating the matter and talking matters over with all parties involved, Picrochole decides to go to war.
Picrochole’s armies wreak havoc in the land, as they pillage throughout Grangousier’s territories. None of Grangousier’s people fight back, making it easier for the armies to take over. Grangousier hears about the attacks, but he does not understand why Picrochole has decided to attack. Grangousier is determined to use every tactic of diplomacy to stop the war peacefully. He also sends word to his son, Gargantua, to come home and help them find a peaceful solution.
As Picrochole’s armies lay siege to the land and continue taking over, they come upon the city of Seville. They start to attack the abbey, but, unbeknownst to them, the friars and monks of the abbey will not lay down so easily. Friar John decides he will defend the abbey’s stocks of wine and the abbey itself, and he does so by turning a wooden cross into a large lance. Friar John then defends the abbey and brutally attacks his enemies with his wooden cross weapon. According to the narrator, Friar John viciously kills or horrifically wounds over 13,000 men.
Grangousier’s ambassador attempts to communicate with Picrochole. The ambassador asks that Picrochole stops the attack and allow Grangousier and his people to make amends for whatever grievance has occurred. The ambassador orders Picrochole to turn his armies back, make amends for what damages have been done, and then sit at the negotiation tables to discuss peace. Picrochole refuses to negotiate. Eventually, Grangousier and his ambassador discover what started the incident, and they decide to provide the cake bakers with additional payment for what was taken from them, along with other forms of payment to compensate for any hurt feelings. Picrochole wants war and is disgusted that Grangousier insists on finding peaceful solutions. Picrochole’s advisers tell him to take the compensation for the cake bakers, since the armies need food and financial support. However, they also recommend that Picrochole take over Grangousier’s kingdom and seize his immense wealth. In doing so, Picrochole would be able to finance taking over the entire known world. Picrochole agrees to his advisers’ plans and then splits his armies so that some may take over Grangousier’s kingdom while the rest move on to conquer other lands.
This introduction to Gargantua shows the growth and change of the main character. By showcasing his gluttonous parents early on, it foreshadows what type of child such people would produce. Although neither Grangousier nor Gargamelle are evil people, they certainly are not ideal progenitors of a supposedly heroic protagonist. The mood in the beginning of the story further highlights the crude, hedonistic origins of our protagonist, Gargantua. He touches people inappropriately, makes sexual jokes, and discusses wiping his bottom with all sorts of things. At some point, his parents begin to change their ways, as they realize they must take responsibility over their child, which sets Gargantua down the path of education. Granted, his initial education is a complete waste of time, which his father realizes rather quickly. Luckily, his father connects Gargantua with a proper tutor, Ponocrates, who transforms the ignorant child into a heroic figure through discipline, education, and healthy living.
Although the lowbrow humor early on does not do much for creating a heroic figure, it does provide substantial imagery. The narrator takes great care with describing the enormous amounts of food and drink it takes to feed the giant Gargantua. One almost imagines conveyor belts dropping load upon load of food into the mouth of a giant infant. Clothing Gargantua also creates the image of a sea of fabric wrapping around a mountain-sized child. As Gargantua gets older, and as the bawdy humor continues, the narrator describes such vulgar scenes as Gargantua urinating so much on the masses of Paris “that he drowned two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen,” (Book 1, Chapter 17, par. 1). These scatological jokes disgust audiences, but they do produce vivid images of putrid, steaming yellow rivers drowning thousands of poor souls.
Besides showing the characterization of Gargantua, this part of the first book also introduces readers to the powerful character of Friar John. When Picrochole’s forces attack his abbey, Friar John and all the other monks and priests gather together to determine what they should do. Initially, Friar John is not so worried about the safety of the abbey. What motivates him is the act of protecting the wine from the enemy. To rally his fellow monks, he exclaims, “Hark you, my masters, you that love the wine, Cop's body, follow me,” (Book 1, Chapter 27, par. 2). Rabelais makes Friar John obsessed with wine as a way to exaggerate the traits associated with monks. In fact, making fun of the members of the clergy further extends the theme of satire, as it focuses on the stereotypical characteristics of each class and overemphasizes those traits to the most extreme degree.
In the midst of showing Friar John as a jolly character, Rabelais switches the mood from humor to the grotesque, as Friar John modifies his monks’ robes, turns a cross into a makeshift weapon, and lays waste to thousands upon thousands of soldiers. The theme of pairing the grotesque and the comedic happens throughout the five-volume story. In this instance, a young monk cannot bear the thought of losing wine to the enemy, which seems gluttonous and comedic at best. As Friar John praises the wine and tries to enlist the help of his fellow monks to protect the wine, the story still seems humorous. But then this comedic character becomes bathed in the blood of his enemies as he brutally assaults the oncoming army. Every aspect of Friar John’s bone crushing, muscle-ripping, blood-gorging escapade is described in vivid detail. The switch between a silly monk and a warrior monk seems almost paradoxical, for it is difficult to believe that these two personalities belong to the same person.
Mikhail Bakhtin discusses this aspect of grotesque realism in his fantastic analysis, Rabelais and His World. Throughout the book, Bakhtin explores the images of the grotesque in relationship to the body. He argues against the purely negative connections commonly associated with horrific imagery and the human body. Instead, Bakhtin comments that “in most cases these are grotesque images which have either weakened or entirely lost their positive pole, their link with the universal and one world . . . The grotesque image reflects a phenomenon in transformation, and as yet unfinished metamorphosis, of death and birth, growth and becoming,” (24). Thus, the strange pairing between the comedic monk and a warrior monk need not be paradoxical, per Bakhtin, since the grotesque imagery demonstrates a vital aspect of character transformation that makes all the difference between a flat character created for comedic relief and a dynamic character with multiple dimensions.