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While looking for the original text of Rabelais' novels in French, I found that different editions have significant differences. Let's compare the first sentence in the beginning of the first chapter.

  1. Edition of circa 1530: Ce ne sera point chose inutile ne oysifve de vous remembrer la premiere source et origine dont nous est nay le bon Pantagruel : car ie voy que tous bons historiographes ainsi ont traicte leurs chronicques, non seulement des Grecs, des Arabes, et Ethnicques, mais aussi les auteurs de la saincte escripture, comme monseigneur sainct Luc mesmement, et sainct Matthieu.

  2. Edition of 1868 by Marty-Laveaux: Ce ne sera chose inutile ne oysifve, veu que sommes de sejour, vous ramentevoir la premiere source et origine dont nous est né le bon Pantagruel : car je voy que tous bons hystoriographes ainsi ont traicté leurs Chronicques, non seullement les Arabes, Barbares et Latins, mais aussi Gregoys, Gentilz, qui furent buveurs eternelz.

  3. Edition by Louis Moland: Je vous remetz à la grande chronique pantagrueline recognoïstre la genealogie et antiquité dond nous est venu Gargantua. En icelle vous entendrez plus au long comment les géans nasquirent en ce monde, et comment d'iceux, par lignes directes, issit Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel ; et ne vous faschera si pour le présent je m'en déporté, combien que la chose soit telle que, tant plus seroit remembrée, tant plus elle plairoit à vos seigneuries, comme vous avez l'autorité de Platon, in Philebo et Gorgia, et de Flacce, qui dit estre aucuns propos, tels que ceux cy sans doubte, qui plus sont délectables quand plus souvent sont redits.

While the first two editions bear close resemblance, the third one reads as a completely different work. At first, I assumed that the third edition was created much later by some editor trying to "improve" the original text. But later I saw that English translation is based on the third edition and it was first published in 1653.

Can anyone explain why such a well-known classic work is published containing such radically different texts?

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The third one reads as a completely different work because it is, in fact, a completely different work. The first two are different versions of the same work, both by Rabelais.

  1. The first paragraph of chapter I “De l'origine et antiquité du grand Pantagruel” of Pantagruel, (full title: Pantagruel, Roy des dipsodes, restitué à son naturel, avec ses faictz et prouesses espoventables : composez par feu M. Alcofribas abstracteur de quinte essence). This is the original 1532 text.
  2. This is the last revision of (1) made by Rabelais. (Pléiade, “Pantagruel —— Notes et variantes”, p. 1239–1241)
  3. The first paragraph of chapter I “De l'origine et antiquité du grand Gargantua” of Gargantua (full title: La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel, jadis composee par M. Alcofribas abstracteur de quinte essence. Livre plein de Pantagruelisme). As indicated in the preface, this is the text of the 1542 edition by François Juste, which is the latest one that was reviewed by Rabelais (Pléiade, Gargantua — note sur le texte, p. 1057).

Pantagruel was written and published first, in 1532, but Gargantua, written and published in 1534, is the first story in internal chronological order. Pierre de Tours made an edition combining both works with Gargantua before Pantagruel in 1542, and most subsequent editions combining the two works put them in the same order.

You can expect a lot of variation on the spelling. Not only was French spelling not yet standardized in Rabelais's time, but it was undergoing a lot of changes in which Rabelais participated. Rabelais was a partisan of including etymological information in spelling and devised his own system. (Pléiade, “Notice sur la langue de Rabelais”, II, p. XXXVII–XLIII; Huchon: Rabelais, p. 131-317) He and his printers revised the spelling between editions of some of his work. Additionally, as 16th century French is hard to read for people who lived in the 18th century and later, many later editions have modernized the spelling.

Rabelais made many minor revisions to the text of the first two books (Gargantua, Pantagruel), and fewer on the next two (Tiers livre, Quart livre). The Cinquième livre is another story: it was published posthumously and there are debates as to which parts were actually written by Rabelais and thus many different claims to authenticity.

In the opening paragraph of chapter I of Pantagruel, the most significant change is the replacement of the mention of Luke and Matthew, biographers of Christ, by “Greeks and pagans”. Rabelais made this change for the 1537 edition by Denis de Harsy (Pléiade, “Pantagruel —— Notes et variantes”, p. 1240). This was one of several changes that removed direct religious references, especially to the New Testament (ib., p. 1232).

References

(Pléiade) Rabelais — Œuvres complètes, coll. Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1994. Notes by Mireille Huchon.

(Huchon: Rabelais) Mireille Huchon, Rabelais grammairien, Droz, 1981.

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