Gargantua and his men leave Paris and make way for Grangousier’s kingdom. They find the land brutalized by Picrochole’s armies. Through the help of powerful neighbors, they begin to plan an attack. Gargantua’s friend, Gymnast, along with Prelingot, scout out the land to find out where the armies are located. In the midst of their scouting, they are surrounded by a platoon of soldiers. Gymnast feigns that he is possessed, performs horse tricks, and scares off most of the soldiers; then, he kills Captain Tripet, the captain of the soldiers.
Upon arriving at the castle near the ford of Vede, Gargantua’s horse urinates, and in doing so floods the land and over-floods the ford, which takes out a large portion of the enemy armies. To fight off the remaining enemies, Gargantua uproots a tree and fashions it into a lance. He moves to attack the castle, and the enemies within start to fire weapons of all sorts. Thanks to Gargantua’s giant size, however, the bullets and cannon balls do not penetrate Gargantua’s body. Gargantua takes his recently made lance and knocks over the castle, thus winning the battle.
Gargantua and his company return to Grangousier’s castle. Gargantua combs out his hair just prior to dinner, and out fall cannon balls and bullets, which Gargantua’s father mistakes for lice. Ponocrates explains that as Gargantua’s tutor and friend, he would never let him stay in a place so infested, and then Ponocrates proves that what has fallen from Gargantua’s hair is indeed cannon balls and nothing more.
After the battle, Grangousier provides a large feast. Gargantua craves a salad, and goes out to the garden to pick lettuce. Within the garden, however, six pilgrims from Picrochole’s lands are hiding. They are afraid that they will be mistaken for spies, so they hide in Gargantua’s garden; but since they are hiding so quietly, Gargantua does not see them, and picks them up with the heads of lettuce. He mixes them into a salad and nearly devours them, but the pilgrims are clever enough to grab hold of Gargantua’s teeth, thus avoiding being swallowed. Gargantua picks out the pilgrims with a toothpick and flicks them aside, but Gargantua still does not see them. Gargantua then relieves himself, and in doing so his urine carries away the refuse, including the pilgrims.
Gargantua and his company hear much about all the other skirmishes in the land. After hearing about Friar John, Gargantua wishes to meet the man, and so sends him a request for his company. Friar John arrives and is welcomed with much warmth by Gargantua. Friar John then sits, eats, and drinks with Gargantua, Grangousier, Eudemon, Gymnast, and Ponocrates. The men joke, discuss the war, talk about why people dislike monks, and then discuss how Friar John’s nose acquired its particular shape. The next day, Gargantua and his company, joined by Friar John, make their way into battle. Friar John uses great words to motivate the company, but as he talks he neglects to pay attention to his surroundings, and accidentally gets stuck in a tree. Luckily, Gymnast and the others help him out.
During the battle, Gargantua and his fellows, along with a small army, realize that they may be outnumbered, but that Picrochole’s armies are untrained and undisciplined. Friar John loudly encourages his comrades to fight, regardless of the size of the enemy, but in doing so he gives away their location. The battle ensues. In the midst of battle, Friar John gets captured, but kills his captors and takes one of the enemy’s leaders, Touchfaucet, as his prisoner. Gargantua and his company, including Friar John and his prisoner, return to Grangousier’s castle. Grangousier explains to Touchfaucet that he will be set free, but that he must encourage his master to stop this war. Touchfaucet returns to Picrochole and begs him to negotiate peace, but to no avail. Touchfaucet is called a traitor, kills one of the other military captains, Rashcalf, and then Picrochole orders his guards to kill Touchfaucet.
As the war continues, surrounding countries pledge loyalty to Grangousier, since they know that Picrochole fights unjustly without cause. Grangousier thanks all who have pledged loyalty to him, but he announces that he wishes to end the conflict quickly without wasting more lives. Meanwhile, Picrochole’s armies are losing morale, as they hear word about how Grangousier’s army is growing. In addition, Picrochole’s armies are running out of food and supplies.
Grangousier, Gargantua, and Gargantua’s friends decide that they must plan a strategy that will end the war immediately. They position their armies to flank and surround their enemies. Friar John leads a battalion and manages to capture a large portion of Picrochole’s army. Gargantua and his armies attack Picrochole directly; in the chaos of war, however, Picrochole, his servants, and his armies retreat, leaving Gargantua and his followers as the victors. With the war clearly over, Picrochole runs away, becomes separated from his people, and finds himself alone. He tries to find his way back, but ends up being beaten, his clothes ripped into shreds. According to rumor, he ends up a lowly porter in some other kingdom.
Gargantua announces his victory with a humble story about one of his father’s previous enemies, King Alpharbal. Like Picrochole, King Alpharbal was obsessed with conquest and pillaging. Upon being captured, Grangousier did not enslave or beat his enemy, and instead treated him with great kindness and allowed him to go home. King Alpharbal was so amazed by such kindness that he forever swore loyalty to Grangousier. Therefore, Gargantua announces that he will treat their current prisoners with the same kindness. Since Picrochole is nowhere to be found, and therefore cannot run his kingdom, ownership of the kingdom will fall upon Picrochole’s son, who is too young to rule. To protect Picrochole’s son, Gargantua appoints Ponocrates as the steward/governor of the land, until such time that Picrochole’s son may rule.
Gargantua awards each of his friends and servants, (referred to as the Gargantuists), with lands, titles, and castles, as a way to thank them for joining him in battle. To reward Friar John, he offers him dominion over some of the more famous abbeys, to which Friar John cannot accept, for he finds those abbeys corrupt, and requests the ability to build a different kind of abbey, which he names the Abbey of Thelme.
Designed and constructed under the guidance of the Gargantua and Friar John, the Abbey of Thelme would be like no other abbey before it. The only rule of the abbey would be to “do as thou wilt,” implying that no one shall keep time, and that everyone would be free to live their lives as they wish. It would have no walls, for walls create conspiracy. The abbey would house both men and women, and it would allow the men and women to fraternize and even be married to one another. Many women would be educated here in a mostly egalitarian fashion, although certain chores and duties would still be assigned as gender-specific. The entire abbey would be built like an immaculate castle, and the persons living within would be garbed in decadent clothing. The narrator describes that even though these people would live very well, that they somehow would not allow such a decadent form of living to corrupt them or take up their time in a negative fashion. While they would be allowed to do what they wish, they must do so in accordance with leading good, noble, and productive lives.
Upon breaking ground for the construction of the abbey, Gargantua and Friar John find a riddle carved into a piece of copper. Gargantua interprets the riddle as a religious metaphor, namely that individuals must seek out God and not allow earthly matters to drag them down to vice. Friar John, on the other hand, does not interpret the riddle as such. Instead, he interprets the poem more basely as the description of a tennis match. According to Friar John, players go against their opponents, as friends or enemies arrange matches. After each match, the players rest, refresh themselves, and then make themselves ready to play again. Those who win their matches are exceedingly happy, but even those who lose are still happy to some degree.
The climax of book one occurs in the second half of the story. Gargantua and his comrades take part in several battles. As they do so, the narrator goes into further detail concerning the characterization of the supporting characters. Gymnast, for example, appears in the first half of the book as a man skilled in horseback riding and military strategy. In the battlefield, we witness his knowledge put to the test. Not only does he use strategy to scout out the enemy, but he also proves his ability to be a great judge of character. Through watching the enemy, he establishes that the enemy soldiers lack discipline. Gymnast also realizes that these undisciplined soldiers are naïve and subject to superstitious fear. When captured, Gymnast cleverly feigns demon possession to throw his assailants off-guard and to win the day.
The further characterization of Friar John continues the seemingly split personality of the silly monk and the warrior monk. In preparing for battle, though, the silly monk becomes full of bravado. His overconfidence satirically mocks the clergy and, to some degree, the military, since it demonstrates how soldiers and leaders preparing for war become so focused and excited that they become blind to their surroundings. In the case of Friar John, as he tries to encourage Gargantua and his compatriots, Friar John somehow manages to get himself hung up in a tree and unable to proceed. He also talks too loudly at times, giving their position away to the enemy. After so many military blunders, Friar John gets captured and taken away, but that is when the warrior monk comes out.
Oddly enough, Friar John’s warrior abilities seem most pronounced when he stands separate from his associates. Even in the final battle, he fights and captures a battalion far removed from where Gargantua and the others are fighting. From the point of view of the writer, Rabelais may have felt that without someone playing the role of comedic relief that his story would have gone out of satire and into the realm of comedic drama. That could explain why Friar John’s character leans toward the silly monk persona when he is in the company Gargantua has compatriots.
After the war is over and Picrochole’s armies are defeated, Rabelais uses a clever flashback strategy to explain the ideals of Utopia, Gargantua’s homeland. Within the flashback, Gargantua tells the story about one of his father’s previous enemies, Alpharbal, and how his father treated his enemy with compassion instead of malice. That compassion was rewarded with Alpharbal swearing lifelong allegiance to Grangousier. As an exposition, the flashback serves two purposes. First of all, it further establishes Grangousier as a kind and pacifistic ruler, regardless of his hedonistic ways in the beginning of the book. The flashback also foreshadows how Gargantua will run his kingdom and how he will train his son to rule.
To further establish how Gargantua will run his kingdom, he and Friar John get into a conversation about how to redesign the ideal abbey. However, this conversation about the Abbey of Thelme is peculiarly juxtaposed against the character of Picrochole, the warmongering king. In her article, “Was Picrochole Free? Rabelais between Luther and Erasmus,” Eva Kushner discusses this strange pairing of topics. She points out how Gargantua and Friar John foresee that the Abbey of Thelme will house the most skilled and virtuous men and women in the land, and since they are born of noble birth, it will be in their nature to remain peaceful and dedicated to God. This very statement implies that those of nobility have an innate nature to act in a particular way. As Kushner explains, Picrochole is an educated man of noble birth, and yet he started a war without sufficient evidence. Worse than not, he refused to negotiate and would not listen to reason. Kushner posits that Rabelais’s purpose behind these contradicting elements is to promote a satirical methodology showcasing how the ideals of Thelme may not hold true in the real world, since “a man, who is furthermore endowed with royal power, will misuse his freedom and ignore that of other men,” (309). Therefore, a place such as Thelme cannot function to the extent of the ideals dreamed by Gargantua and Friar John, unless such a place remains outside of the control of monarchies. Even then, whoever possesses decision-making power over Thelme, presumably Friar John, may also be susceptible to the corrupting forces of absolute power.