Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Gargantua’s Games

The other day I was involved in a conversation with someone who asked me if I could remember which animal the giant Gargantua proclaimed was the best substitute for toilet paper. We’d both read François Rabelais’s 16th-century satire Gargantua and Pantagruel long ago, and from that 700-page book it was this particular detail about which I was being quizzed.

I remembered. In fact, if I’m going to be honest, it’s one of the few details I recall from the book. The answer? A goose, the neck specifically.

I went back afterwards to find the passage, and was reminded that when Gargantua explains to his father Lord Grangousier how “of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed,” the giant also lists a catalogue of other animals he’s tried by way of comparison (a hen, a rabbit, a pigeon, etc.), as well as numerous other items (pillows, bags, various kinds of hats, etc.).

That is to say, Gargantua’s conclusion regarding the excellence of a goose for the task was the result of extensive trial-and-error.

Of course, after reviewing that passage, I had to continue. Say what you want about giants wiping their asses with barnyard animals, one can’t just read something like that, put the book down, and move on.

I ended up spending another hour or so leafing through the thick book, trying to figure out why I had underlined certain sentences or what the little check-marks and stars scribbled in the margins by my younger self were meant to signal. Eventually I came on another of Gargantua’s lengthy lists, this one appearing back in Book I and referring to all of the games he played.

After finishing a massive meal, “a green cloth was laid, and a stock of cards, of dice, and of games-boards were laid out.” Then comes a list of about 200 games Gargantua then played, arranged into two columns and spread over the next three pages.

And people think the 10-game mix at the WSOP is a lot.

The list begins with a number of cards games, and I’m seeing at least a few games that are probably rightly regarded as precursors to poker.

One of the first listed is Primero, a gambling game usually said to have come from Italy or Spain and which was most certainly an antecedent to poker. I’m looking at a translation into modern English, and so other card games listed like Old Maid (which I think originated a couple of centuries later) are probably anachronistic. Looking online, I’m seeing references to another trick-taking game, piquet, which was very popular in France as being among the games Gargantua played (and also often called a precursor to poker), although I think that game has either been omitted or has been replaced by something else in my edition.

The list is historically significant, actually, with many of the games (like Primero) earning their first-ever reference in print here in Gargantua and Pantagruel. And there are a few that probably were never referred to again by anyone except when alluding to Rabelais’s book, like Tweak-nose, Pinch without Laughing, and The Salvo of Farts.

Finally, I’m glad to report I’m seeing no description of Gargantua testing to see whether the playing cards worked any better than a goose’s neck for the above-mentioned purpose. Too small, probably.

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