Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais

Chapter 62

How Gaster invented an art to avoid being hurt or touched by cannon-balls.

Gaster having secured himself with his corn within strongholds, has sometimes been attacked by enemies; his fortresses, by that thrice threefold cursed instrument, levelled and destroyed; his dearly beloved corn and bread snatched out of his mouth and sacked by a titanic force; therefore he then sought means to preserve his walls, bastions, rampiers, and sconces from cannon-shot, and to hinder the bullets from hitting him, stopping them in their flight, or at least from doing him or the besieged walls any damage. He showed us a trial of this which has been since used by Fronton, and is now common among the pastimes and harmless recreations of the Thelemites. I will tell you how he went to work, and pray for the future be a little more ready to believe what Plutarch affirms to have tried. Suppose a herd of goats were all scampering as if the devil drove them, do but put a bit of eringo into the mouth of the hindmost nanny, and they will all stop stock still in the time you can tell three.

Thus Gaster, having caused a brass falcon to be charged with a sufficient quantity of gunpowder well purged from its sulphur, and curiously made up with fine camphor, he then had a suitable ball put into the piece, with twenty-four little pellets like hail-shot, some round, some pearl fashion; then taking his aim and levelling it at a page of his, as if he would have hit him on the breast. About sixty strides off the piece, halfway between it and the page in a right line, he hanged on a gibbet by a rope a very large siderite or iron-like stone, otherwise called herculean, formerly found on Ida in Phrygia by one Magnes, as Nicander writes, and commonly called loadstone; then he gave fire to the prime on the piece’s touch-hole, which in an instant consuming the powder, the ball and hail-shot were with incredible violence and swiftness hurried out of the gun at its muzzle, that the air might penetrate to its chamber, where otherwise would have been a vacuum, which nature abhors so much, that this universal machine, heaven, air, land, and sea, would sooner return to the primitive chaos than admit the least void anywhere. Now the ball and small shot, which threatened the page with no less than quick destruction, lost their impetuosity and remained suspended and hovering round the stone; nor did any of them, notwithstanding the fury with which they rushed, reach the page.

Master Gaster could do more than all this yet, if you will believe me; for he invented a way how to cause bullets to fly backwards, and recoil on those that sent them with as great a force, and in the very numerical parallel for which the guns were planted. And indeed, why should he have thought this difficult? seeing the herb ethiopis opens all locks whatsoever, and an echinus or remora, a silly weakly fish, in spite of all the winds that blow from the thirty-two points of the compass, will in the midst of a hurricane make you the biggest first-rate remain stock still, as if she were becalmed or the blustering tribe had blown their last. Nay, and with the flesh of that fish, preserved with salt, you may fish gold out of the deepest well that was ever sounded with a plummet; for it will certainly draw up the precious metal, since Democritus affirmed it. Theophrastus believed and experienced that there was an herb at whose single touch an iron wedge, though never so far driven into a huge log of the hardest wood that is, would presently come out; and it is this same herb your hickways, alias woodpeckers, use, when with some mighty axe anyone stops up the hole of their nests, which they industriously dig and make in the trunk of some sturdy tree. Since stags and hinds, when deeply wounded with darts, arrows, and bolts, if they do but meet the herb called dittany, which is common in Candia, and eat a little of it, presently the shafts come out and all is well again; even as kind Venus cured her beloved byblow Aeneas when he was wounded on the right thigh with an arrow by Juturna, Turnus’s sister. Since the very wind of laurels, fig-trees, or sea-calves makes the thunder sheer off insomuch that it never strikes them. Since at the sight of a ram, mad elephants recover their former senses. Since mad bulls coming near wild fig-trees, called caprifici, grow tame, and will not budge a foot, as if they had the cramp. Since the venomous rage of vipers is assuaged if you but touch them with a beechen bough. Since also Euphorion writes that in the isle of Samos, before Juno’s temple was built there, he has seen some beasts called neades, whose voice made the neighbouring places gape and sink into a chasm and abyss. In short, since elders grow of a more pleasing sound, and fitter to make flutes, in such places where the crowing of cocks is not heard, as the ancient sages have writ and Theophrastus relates; as if the crowing of a cock dulled, flattened, and perverted the wood of the elder, as it is said to astonish and stupify with fear that strong and resolute animal, a lion. I know that some have understood this of wild elder, that grows so far from towns or villages that the crowing of cocks cannot reach near it; and doubtless that sort ought to be preferred to the stenching common elder that grows about decayed and ruined places; but others have understood this in a higher sense, not literal, but allegorical, according to the method of the Pythagoreans, as when it was said that Mercury’s statue could not be made of every sort of wood; to which sentence they gave this sense, that God is not to be worshipped in a vulgar form, but in a chosen and religious manner. In the same manner, by this elder which grows far from places where cocks are heard, the ancients meant that the wise and studious ought not to give their minds to trivial or vulgar music, but to that which is celestial, divine, angelical, more abstracted, and brought from remoter parts, that is, from a region where the crowing of cocks is not heard; for, to denote a solitary and unfrequented place, we say cocks are never heard to crow there.

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