Fleury, Rabelais is a sober reformer, an apostle of earnest work, of sound education, of rational if not dogmatic religion, who wraps up his morals in a farcical envelope partly to make them go down with the vulgar and partly to shield himself from the consequences of his reforming zeal.
It is somewhat curious that some of those who claim Rabelais as an enemy of the supernatural in general have been the loudest to condemn this blemish, and that some of them have made the exceedingly lame excuse for him that it was a means of wrapping up his propaganda and keeping it and himself safe from the notice of the powers that were.
Budaeus was his friend, Rabelais his faithful secretary and doctor; men of letters, like Etienne Dolet, and the poet Salmon Macrin, were indebted to him for assistance.
This war is described at great length, the chief hero of it being the monk, Friar John, a very unclerical cleric, in whom Rabelais greatly delights.
In France it was necessary for a Rabelais to hide his free-thinking under a disguise of revolting and unintelligible jargon.
What does, however, seem probable is that the first book of Pantagruel (the second of the whole work) was composed with a definite view to this chap book and not to the existing first book of Gargantua, which was written afterwards, when Rabelais discovered the popularity of his work and felt that it ought to have some worthier starting-point than the Grandes chroniques.
But irreverences of this kind, as well as the frequent burlesque citations of the Bible, whether commendable or not, had been, were, have since been, and are common in writers whose orthodoxy is unquestioned; and it must be remembered that the later Middle Age, which in many respects Rabelais represents almost more than he does the Renaissance, was, with all its unquestioning faith, singularly reckless and, to our fancy, irreverent in its use of the sacred words and images, which were to it the most familiar of all images and words.
No one reading Rabelais without parti pris, but with a good knowledge of the history and literature of his own times and the times which preceded him, can have much difficulty in appreciating his book.
According to others, of whom we have had in England a distinguished example in Sir Walter Besant, Rabelais is all this but with a difference.
It was undertaken with the simple design of furnishing a preface to his younger son's translation of Shakespeare; a monument of perfect scholarship, of indefatigable devotion, and of literary genius, which eclipses even Urquhart's Rabelais - its only possible competitor; and to which the translator's father prefixed a brief and admirable note of introduction in the year after the publication of the volume which had grown under his hand into the bulk and the magnificence of an epic poem in prose.