Wednesday, 23 January 2008


How Pantagruel, being at sea, heard various unfrozen words.

When we were at sea, junketting, tippling, discoursing, and telling stories, Pantagruel rose and stood up to look out; then asked us, Do you hear nothing, gentlemen? Methinks I hear some people talking in the air, yet I can see nobody. Hark! According to his command we listened, and with full ears sucked in the air as some of you suck oysters, to find if we could hear some sound scattered through the sky; and to lose none of it, like the Emperor Antoninus some of us laid their hands hollow next to their ears; but all this would not do, nor could we hear any voice. Yet Pantagruel continued to assure us he heard various voices in the air, some of men, and some of women.

I also remember, continu’d he, that Aristotle affirms Homer’s words to be flying, moving, and consequently animated. Besides, Antiphanes said, that Plato’s philosophy was like words which being spoken in some country during a hard winter, are immediately congeal’d, frozen up, and not heard; for what Plato told young lads, could hardly be understood by them when they were grown old: Now, continu’d he, we should philosophise and search, whether this be not the place where those words are thaw’d.

You wonder very much, should this be the head and lyre of Orpheus. When the Thracian women had torn him to pieces, they threw his head and lyre into the river Hebrus; down which they floated to the Euxine Sea, as far as the Island of Lesbos, the Head continually uttering a doleful Song, as it were, lamenting the Death of Orpheus, and the Lyre, with the wind’s impulse, moving its strings, and harmoniously accompanying the voice. Let’s see if we cannot discover them hereabouts.

The skipper made answer: Be not afraid, my lord; we are on the confines of the Frozen Sea, on which, about the beginning of last winter, happened a great and bloody fight between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. Then the words and cries of men and women, the hacking, slashing, and hewing of battle-axes, the shocking, knocking, and jolting of armours and harnesses, the neighing of horses, and all other martial din and noise, froze in the air; and now, the rigour of the winter being over, by the succeeding serenity and warmth of the weather they melt and are heard.

By jingo, quoth Panurge, the man talks somewhat like. I believe him. But couldn't we see some of 'em? I think I have read that, on the edge of the mountain on which Moses received the Judaic law, the people saw the voices sensibly. Here, here, said Pantagruel, here are some that are not yet thawed. He then threw us on the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, which
seemed to us like your rough sugar-plums, of many colours, like those used in heraldry; some words gules (this means also jests and merry sayings), some vert, some azure, some black, some or (this means also fair words); and when we had somewhat warmed them between our hands, they melted like snow, and we really heard them, but could not understand them, for it was a barbarous gibberish. One of them only, that was pretty big, having been warmed between Friar John's hands, gave a sound much like that of chestnuts when they are thrown into the fire without being first cut, which made us all start. This was the report of a field-piece in its time, cried Friar John.

Francois Rabelais, in the Urquhart and Motteux translation