The Great Gorilla Garantua and His Namesake

Samuel Sullivan

According to Merriam-Webster, the word gargantuan means tremendous in size, volume, or degree. The word’s closest synonyms are gigantic and colossal, but more fascinating are the two gargantuan figures that went by the name Gargantua.

First, the fictional giant that inspired the word gargantuan to be coined in the 1500s. Second, Gargantua the Great, the circus gorilla who saved Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey from bankruptcy after the Great Depression.

( By Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons)

Gargantua the Giant

The great giant Gargantua was one of the protagonists in The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a pentalogy originally published between 1532 and 1564 by the French author François Rabelais.

The translated titles of the first two books of the pentalogy shed light on who Gargantua's character was. Translated to English, the titles are:

Book 1: The Very Horrific Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel.

Book 2: The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua

The works are satirical in nature. With two giants for protagonists who had to navigate the human-sized world, Rabelais had lots of comic situations to ridicule the human vices he observed in society. For example, in one incident, Gargantua accidentally swallows five pilgrims while eating salad.

(By Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons)

The giant Gargantua inspired the word gargantuan, but his son Pantagruel also got a fitting word named after him, Pantagruelism.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word Pantagruelism means buffoonery or coarse humor with a satirical or serious purpose. Gargantua inspired a word for immense size, while Pantagruel inspired a word meaning cynical humor.

As of December 2020, gargantuan was in the top 3% of words in terms of look-up popularity, while Pantagruelism was only in the top 42%. But, there was another great Gargantua, one that was known as Gargantua the Great.

Gargantua the Great

As the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the American economy in 1929, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus found themselves in serious trouble. In 1919, only ten years before the economy crashed, the two formerly separate circuses had combined. The circus needed an attraction that could bring audiences even when patrons did not have disposable income.

A captive lowland gorilla from the Belgian Congo would save the circus. The gorilla had been captured as a baby and bought by Mrs. Gertrude Lintz of Brooklyn, New York, before being sold to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. The baby gorilla was originally named “Buddy” before it was renamed “Gargantua the Great” by the circus after Rabelais’ character.

Gargantua was an intimidating figure. According to the New York Sun, a sailor had hurled acid into Gargantua’s face on his voyage from Africa to America.

(A lowland gorilla by Greg Hume/Wikimedia Commons | Gargantua/Credit: Alchetron)

As pictured above, the differences between the face of a typical gorilla and Gargantua are noticeable. The acid left Gargantua with scars across his face, a sunken nose, and a permanent scowl on his face. A menacing monstrous sneer replaced the soft humanlike countenance of a typical gorilla. It was the outcome of the acid burns that made Gargantua’s face captivating and scary to audiences.

In the book Circus Kings Our Ringling Family Story by Henry Ringling North and Alden Hatch, they recall seeing Gargantua for the first time.

“From behind the bars glowered the most fearful face I have ever looked upon. A tremendous hairy head, great dripping fangs, and the horrible sinister leer of the acid-twisted mouth. In that dim light, cribbed in his box, he looked even bigger than life. Gigantic!”

The Ringling Brothers also witnessed Gargantua’s ferocity and power. While they visited Mrs. Lintz, they witnessed Gargantua throw himself against the bars of his cage and reach for his owner scaring her out of the room. The brothers could not pass up on “the most terrifying creature the world has ever seen."

(By Schmausschmaus/Wikimedia Commons)

Marketing Gargantua was not a difficult task. In posters, they billed Gargantua the Great as the largest and fiercest gorilla ever brought before the eyes of civilized man (above).

Gargantua stood only five feet six inches tall, but some estimates say he weighed 600 pounds. He was a lead circus attraction until his death from pneumonia in 1949. He was one of the main attractions for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus for over ten years and contributed to saving the circus from bankruptcy.

Although the circus went defunct a few years ago in 2017, Gargantua can still be seen by the public on occasion. His skeleton was donated to the Peabody Museum of Natural History after his death.


Whether it is comical situations or captivity, there is a price to be paid for being gargantuan. Those of normal size fear and misunderstand the gargantuan while also being in awe of them and their size.

I will never think about the word gargantuan again without thinking of the two great characters named Gargantua.

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