Long before the day when Fielding and Smollett began to be read on the sly, and before the comic Muse of Congreve and Wycherly began to be looked at askance, that English moral sentiment, over which Macaulay was to philosophize more than a century later, had solidified in ignoring Rabelais. Nothing is to be said against the sentiment itself. This has always been fairly righteous, if just a bit undiscriminating. A great humorist, showing himself content to grovel in the dirt, is, beyond question, deserving of black looks and shut doors. But more than most old masters of a type, strong, albeit coarse, Rabelais—from the distinctly marked physical attributes of his chief personages—may claim certain good points which, drawn out and grouped together, ought to fall within the circle of those tales which interest children.
I have read Rabelais twice in my life. Each time, I have read him in that old French, which has no master quite so great as he; and each time in Auguste Desrez's edition, which, in its careful Table des Matières, learned glossary, quaint notes, Gallicized Latin and Greek words, and a complete Rabelaisiana, shows the devotion of the rare editor, who does not distort, because he understands, the Master whom he edits. When I first peeped into his pages I was a lad, altogether too young to be tainted by profanity, while I skipped, true boy-fashion, whole pages to pick out the wondrous story of his Giants. When I came back to him, after many years, I was both older and, I hope, wiser. Being older, I had learned to gauge him better, both in his strength and in his weakness. I had come to see wherein an old prejudice was too just to be safely resisted; and, on the other hand, wherein it had got to be so deeply set that it had hardened to injustice. As I went on, it did not take me long to discover that it was quite possible for my purpose—following, indeed, the path unconsciously taken in my boyhood—to divide Rabelais sharply into incident and philosophy. That this had not been thought of before surprised, but did not daunt me. I said to myself: I shall limit the incident strictly to his three Giants; I shall hold these, from grandfather to grandson, well together; keep all that is sound in them; cut away the impurity which is not so much of as around them; chisel them out as a sculptor might, and leave his philosophy with face to the wall. This done, I turned the scouring hose, full and strong, upon the incidents themselves, clearing out both dialectics and profanity thoroughly. I did not stop until I had left the famous trio, Grandgousier, Gargantua, and Pantagruel where I had, from the first, hoped to place them,—high and dry above the scum which had so long clogged their rare good-fellowship, and which had made men of judgment blind to the genuine worth that was in them.
In this way I believed that I saw the chance to free Rabelais' Giants, so long kept in bonds, from a captivity which has dishonored them. To do this was clearly running against that good old law which has invariably made all Giants—far back from fairy-time—thunder-voiced, great-toothed, rude-handed, hard-hearted, bloody-minded creatures and truculent captors, never, on any account, pitiful captives. But, to such, the Rabelaisian Giants are none of kin. No more are they of blood to that Giant that Jack slew, or that Giant Despair, in whose garden-court Bunyan dreamt that he saw the white bones of slaughtered pilgrims.
Public sentiment has hitherto illogically retched at the name of Rabelais, while it swallows without qualm "Tristram Shandy" and "Gulliver's Travels." Shall it always retch? The time, I think, is practically taking the answer into its own hands. Rabelais, through some cotemporaneous influence, rising subtly in his favor among men who are neither afraid nor ashamed to judge for themselves, is, in one sense, slowly becoming a naturalized citizen of our modern Literary Republic. Literature and Art are joining hands in his rehabilitation. Mr. Walter Besant, a novelist, has been so good as to write his life; to say bright words about him; and to quote clean things from him. Mrs. Oliphant, a purist, has consented to admit him into her "Foreign Classics for English Readers." Three years ago M. Emile Hébert's bronze statue of him was unveiled at that Chinon, his birthplace, which he lovingly calls "the most ancient city of the world." And, to crown all, as the latest expression of a tardy recognition, his bust by M. Truphème was, only the other day, uncovered at that Meudon of which he was, for a time, the famous, if not always orthodox, Curé.