The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel: 120 Woodcuts Envision the Grotesque Inhabitants of Rabelais’ World (1565)

George Orwell lives on, to vary­ing degrees of apt­ness, in the form of the word Orwellian. David Lynch has, with­in his life­time, made nec­es­sary the term Lynchi­an. Though few of us will leave such adjec­ti­val lega­cies of our own, we should at least aspire to do so, and that task requires look­ing back to the orig­i­nal mas­ter: François Rabelais. Mer­ri­am-Web­ster defines Rabelaisian as “marked by gross robust humor, extrav­a­gance of car­i­ca­ture, or bold nat­u­ral­ism.” Rabelais expressed this sen­si­bil­i­ty at great length in La vie de Gar­gan­tua et de Pan­ta­gru­el, a pen­ta­l­o­gy of elab­o­rate satir­i­cal nov­els pub­lished from the 1530s to the 1560s — and more recent­ly endorsed by Harold Bloom, Joseph Brod­sky, Hen­ry Miller, and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

Rabelais died in the 1550s, hence the still-unre­solved ques­tions about the author­ship of the fifth and final Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el book: was it com­plet­ed from his notes? Was it, in fact, a fab­ri­ca­tion by anoth­er writer?

Such was the pub­lic’s hunger for the Rabelaisian that mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent “fifth books” were pub­lished. The sat­is­fac­tion of that same insa­tiable demand seems also to have moti­vat­ed the pub­li­ca­tion of Les Songes Dro­la­tiques de Pan­ta­gru­el ou sont con­tenues plusieurs fig­ures de l’in­ven­tion de maitre François Rabelais. This slim vol­ume, writes the Pub­lic Domain Review’s Adam Green, “is made up entire­ly of images — 120 wood­cuts depict­ing a series of fan­tas­ti­cal­ly bizarre and grotesque fig­ures, rem­i­nis­cent of some of the more inven­tive and twist­ed cre­ations of Brueghel or Bosch.”

There is no main text, just a pref­ace where­in pub­lish­er Richard Bre­ton writes that “the great famil­iar­i­ty I had with the late François Rabelais has moved and even com­pelled me to bring to light the last of his work, the dro­lat­ic dreams of the very excel­lent and won­der­ful Pan­ta­gru­el.” Yet, as Green explains, “the book’s won­der­ful images are very unlike­ly to be the work of Rabelais him­self — the attri­bu­tion prob­a­bly a clever mar­ket­ing ploy.” You can view these amus­ing and grotesque images at the Pub­lic Domain Review, and in the con­text of the book as pre­served at the Inter­net Archive. “Be warned,” says Intrigu­ing His­to­ry, the artist “seems to enjoy the use of a lot of phal­lic imagery, along with frogs, fish and ele­phants.” But who is the artist?

“The cre­ator of the prints is now wide­ly thought to be François Desprez,” writes Green, “a French engraver and illus­tra­tor” who pub­lished a cou­ple of sim­i­lar­ly imag­i­na­tive sets of images with Bre­ton in 1567. Who­ev­er made them, these Rabelaisian wood­cuts remained sur­re­al enough through the cen­turies to catch the eye of none oth­er than Sal­vador Dalí, who in 1973 paid trib­ute to them with a set of lith­o­graphs of his own. (You can see more exam­ples at the Lock­port St. Gallery.) As far as the title, an exe­ge­sis at Poe­mas del río Wang offers a clar­i­fi­ca­tion: “Dro­lat­ic is an adjec­tive of dream,” and so “we must ask what kind of dream is this. It is cer­tain­ly the dream of rea­son, as it gives birth to mon­sters” — mon­sters, as a satirist like Rabelais well under­stood, not alto­geth­er unlike our­selves.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

H.P. Lovecraft’s Mon­ster Draw­ings: Cthul­hu & Oth­er Crea­tures from the “Bound­less and Hideous Unknown”

Visu­al­iz­ing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Draw­ings of Dante’s Infer­no from the Renais­sance Through Today

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Bewil­der­ing Mas­ter­piece The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

Behold Fan­tas­ti­cal Illus­tra­tions from the 13th Cen­tu­ry Ara­bic Man­u­script Mar­vels of Things Cre­at­ed and Mirac­u­lous Aspects of Things Exist­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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