Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais

Chapter 34

How the monstrous physeter was slain by Pantagruel.

The physeter, coming between the ships and the galleons, threw water by whole tuns upon them, as if it had been the cataracts of the Nile in Ethiopia. On the other side, arrows, darts, gleaves, javelins, spears, harping-irons, and partizans, flew upon it like hail. Friar John did not spare himself in it. Panurge was half dead for fear. The artillery roared and thundered like mad, and seemed to gall it in good earnest, but did but little good; for the great iron and brass cannon-shot entering its skin seemed to melt like tiles in the sun.

Pantagruel then, considering the weight and exigency of the matter, stretched out his arms and showed what he could do. You tell us, and it is recorded, that Commudus, the Roman emperor, could shoot with a bow so dexterously that at a good distance he would let fly an arrow through a child’s fingers and never touch them. You also tell us of an Indian archer, who lived when Alexander the Great conquered India, and was so skilful in drawing the bow, that at a considerable distance he would shoot his arrows through a ring, though they were three cubits long, and their iron so large and weighty that with them he used to pierce steel cutlasses, thick shields, steel breastplates, and generally what he did hit, how firm, resisting, hard, and strong soever it were. You also tell us wonders of the industry of the ancient Franks, who were preferred to all others in point of archery; and when they hunted either black or dun beasts, used to rub the head of their arrows with hellebore, because the flesh of the venison struck with such an arrow was more tender, dainty, wholesome, and delicious — paring off, nevertheless, the part that was touched round about. You also talk of the Parthians, who used to shoot backwards more dexterously than other nations forwards; and also celebrate the skill of the Scythians in that art, who sent once to Darius, King of Persia, an ambassador that made him a present of a bird, a frog, a mouse, and five arrows, without speaking one word; and being asked what those presents meant, and if he had commission to say anything, answered that he had not; which puzzled and gravelled Darius very much, till Gobrias, one of the seven captains that had killed the magi, explained it, saying to Darius: By these gifts and offerings the Scythians silently tell you that except the Persians like birds fly up to heaven, or like mice hide themselves near the centre of the earth, or like frogs dive to the very bottom of ponds and lakes, they shall be destroyed by the power and arrows of the Scythians.

The noble Pantagruel was, without comparison, more admirable yet in the art of shooting and darting; for with his dreadful piles and darts, nearly resembling the huge beams that support the bridges of Nantes, Saumur, Bergerac, and at Paris the millers’ and the changers’ bridges, in length, size, weight, and iron-work, he at a mile’s distance would open an oyster and never touch the edges; he would snuff a candle without putting it out; would shoot a magpie in the eye; take off a boot’s under-sole, or a riding-hood’s lining, without soiling them a bit; turn over every leaf of Friar John’s breviary, one after another, and not tear one.

With such darts, of which there was good store in the ship, at the first blow he ran the physeter in at the forehead so furiously that he pierced both its jaws and tongue; so that from that time to this it no more opened its guttural trapdoor, nor drew and spouted water. At the second blow he put out its right eye, and at the third its left; and we had all the pleasure to see the physeter bearing those three horns in its forehead, somewhat leaning forwards in an equilateral triangle.

Meanwhile it turned about to and fro, staggering and straying like one stunned, blinded, and taking his leave of the world. Pantagruel, not satisfied with this, let fly another dart, which took the monster under the tail likewise sloping; then with three other on the chine, in a perpendicular line, divided its flank from the tail to the snout at an equal distance. Then he larded it with fifty on one side, and after that, to make even work, he darted as many on its other side; so that the body of the physeter seemed like the hulk of a galleon with three masts, joined by a competent dimension of its beams, as if they had been the ribs and chain-wales of the keel; which was a pleasant sight. The physeter then giving up the ghost, turned itself upon its back, as all dead fishes do; and being thus overturned, with the beams and darts upside down in the sea, it seemed a scolopendra or centipede, as that serpent is described by the ancient sage Nicander.

The monstrous physetere was slain by Pantagruel.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33