Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Leibowitz of this novel’s title was, the reader is told, a technician engaged in weapons development at the time of the nuclear war which destroyed all civilization in America and in the rest of the world. A natural reaction of the survivors of this holocaust was to turn on all scientists, on all fragments of science, and to destroy them for being in some degree responsible for the devastation that had taken place. Leibowitz, however, though repentant of his past, received permission from the pope to form a new monastic order of Albertus Magnus, whose role would be to save books and manuscripts from the “simpleton” mobs. The order’s formation was successful, but Leibowitz himself was caught in the act of “booklegging” and was martyred by simultaneous strangulation and burning.

Leibowitz himself never appears in the novel, but its three separate parts follow the affairs of his order at roughly six-century intervals into the future. In “Fiat Homo,” relics of the Blessed Leibowitz are discovered by chance in a fallout shelter and are skillfully used by the abbot of his monastery to have the order’s founder elevated to sainthood. In “Fiat Lux,” the books so carefully preserved by Leibowitz’s followers are at last read by a man capable of making some sense of them, as a scientific civilization begins once more to develop and North America takes a few steps toward reunification. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” scientific progress makes a...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A Canticle for Leibowitz relates that about six hundred years earlier, a nuclear holocaust occurred, and the only organization to survive, at least in North America, was the Catholic Church. When the war began, Isaac Albert Leibowitz was a Jewish electrical engineer in the defense industry. He survived the war, converted to Catholicism, became a priest, and founded a monastery dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. He based the rules of the monastery on the Benedictines and established it near the remains of a highway that ran between Salt Lake City and El Paso. He named the order after Saint Albert the Great, teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the patron saint of scientists. In the first years following the war, the surviving population hunted down and killed the remaining scientists and engineers because they blamed them for the disaster. They also burned all the books they could find. Leibowitz organized “bookleggers,” who smuggled books, and memorizers, who memorized the contents of books. However, he was eventually betrayed by a member of his order, and a mob hanged then burned him. He was later beatified and had become a candidate for sainthood by the time the novel begins.

Part 1, “Fiat Homo” (let there be man), opens with Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, a not-too-bright novice at Leibowitz Abbey, fasting alone in the desert during Lent. He meets a pilgrim, whom the reader eventually learns is Lazarus of the Bible. Lazarus shows Francis the entrance to a fallout shelter, where Francis discovers several artifacts and a corpse that investigators determine to be Leibowitz’s wife, Emily. These artifacts include a grocery list that scholars conclude to be in Leibowitz’s handwriting and a blueprint signed by Leibowitz. The discovery of the shelter becomes a key event in the canonization of Leibowitz, and several priests interview and interrogate Francis. After seven years, which is an...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary and Analysis

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapter 1

New Characters
Brother Francis Gerard: a novice monk at the abbey of Saint Leibowitz

The Pilgrim (also known as Benjamin and Lazarus): a man Francis encounters during his Lenten fast

Brother Francis, a monk who is in Utah, sees a pilgrim with girded loins walking on the road and gradually approaching him. He is in the desert, and it is midday, and very hot. As the pilgrim nears, Francis finds a pile of rocks so he can hide from the possibly dangerous pilgrim, and sees that he is an old man carrying a staff and dressed in burlap around his midsection. The pilgrim sits down on a chilled rock and sings as he eats some cheese and a biscuit. Francis, who is under a vow of silence because it is Lent, emerges from the rocks and is greeted with hostility by the pilgrim. However, the pilgrim soon sees that Francis is just a monk, becomes more gracious, and offers Francis some of his cheese and biscuit. Francis is fasting, so should not eat such food, but he is tempted to eat it. Under the angry and deluded suspicion that the pilgrim is actually Satan, Francis throws holy water on the pilgrim to protect himself from this temptation. He runs away from the pilgrim and starts to gather some rocks to build more of his stony hut. This hut is intended to keep Francis safe from the local wolves.

The pilgrim walks over to Francis, who is sitting by the hut, and blesses him after Francis tells him he can find shelter at Francis’ abbey, which is nearby. The pilgrim leaves after finding a rock that Francis can use to help build his hut as Francis sits reading the book called Libellus Leibowitz in order to guide his meditations during his time of solitary Lenten fasting. As the day proceeds, Francis works on building his hut, and comes across the pilgrim’s rock and sees that the pilgrim has written something on the rock. As he pulls the rock off the rubble heap on which it rests, he sees a hole in...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapters 2-3

New Characters
Leibowitz: a survivor of the nuclear war who founded the Order of Saint Leibowitz

Father Cheroki: a priest at the abbey

Brother Fingo: a monk who works in the abbey as a woodcarver

Francis whispers the litany of the Saints to help protect himself as he advances into the shelter. He slides into a room of the shelter and sees a sign reading, “Inner Hatch Sealed Environment,” and beneath the sign, a warning giving information about the hatch. However, the door to the hatch is blocked by tons of rock. So Francis starts looking around the room and sees a skull with a gold tooth in a corner of the room. Francis is disturbed by this gold tooth as he starts exploring the furnishings of the room, including an old metal desk. He finds it impossible to open the desk’s drawers, but sees a rusty box and manages to pry this box open. He climbs out of the hole to examine whatever is in the box. Francis finds that the box holds some tubes of glass with wire inside them, and a note written on paper inside the box’s lid. The note is signed “I. E. L.,” who says that he has to catch a plane in twenty minutes, and asks Carl, the recipient of the note, to get Em, Francis' wife, “on the alternate list for the shelter.” I. E. L., the note writer, could not get Em on the plane, which is why she needs to get into the shelter. I. E. L. says he doesn’t know if the war has started. Francis reads the note, then takes out some trays from the box to find some notes, papers, and a Memo notebook at the bottom of the box. One of the notes is a short list of groceries, another is a reminder to pick up IRS tax form 1040, and another is a list of numbers. The Memo book is a list of names, places, numbers, and dates, with the dates coming from the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of the folded papers has the words “Racing Form” on it, and the other is a blueprint of a circuit design by I. E. Leibowitz.

Francis assumes that this circuit design is by the Isaac...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapters 4-5

New Characters
Abbot Arkos: the head of the abbey of the Order of Saint Leibowitz

Abbot Arkos, the head of Francis’s abbey, receives Cheroki in his study. He affirms that Cheroki made the right decision in ordering Francis to return to the abbey. Cheroki has deposited the papers from the box Francis found onto Arkos’s desk, and both Cheroki and Arkos dismiss those papers as having nothing to do with Leibowitz. Cheroki declares his intent to go see Francis, and Arkos tells Cheroki to have Francis come see Arkos afterward. Francis comes into Arkos’s study, mentioning that he was told Arkos meant to see him. Arkos maintains that the material in the box is only junk and harshly...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapters 6-7

New Characters
Emily: the wife of Leibowitz

Brother Horner: master of the abbey’s copyroom

Brother Sarl: a worker in the abbey’s copyroom

Brother Jeris: an apprentice in the abbey’s copyroom

The readers learn that the abbey continues to bustle with rumors about the pilgrim and the discovered shelter, which has been ordered closed by Arkos. They also learn that Emily Leibowitz, the wife of Leibowitz, disappeared at the start of the “Flame Deluge.” This Deluge was caused by world leaders who were confident that if they deployed their nuclear weapons skillfully enough, they could conquer the world. The result was nuclear holocaust and a...

(The entire section is 1091 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapters 8-9

New Characters
Monsignor Malfreddo Aguerra: the Church official who advocates canonization of Saint Leibowitz

Monsignor Flaught: the Church official who skeptically examines the case for canonizing Saint Leibowitz

Arkos no longer objects to Francis’s interest in the relics, and Francis is still free to work on the blueprint illumination, which may take decades to complete. Fingo, meanwhile, works in the abbey’s carpentry shop and, in his spare time, works on a wood sculpture of Saint Leibowitz. Francis sees Horner die, and Jeris replaces Horner as master of the abbey’s copyroom. Jeris tells Francis to stop his work on the blueprint illumination, and Francis obediently...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 1 (Fiat Homo), Chapters 10-11

New Characters
Pope Leo Pappas XXI: the Pope of the Catholic Church, who resides in New Rome

Francis departs on his trip to New Rome and, in the second month of his journey by donkey, encounters a robber on a forested mountain far from civilization. The readers learn here that the Valley of the Misborn lies a few miles to the west and is made up of “sports,” who are genetic monstrosities. The Church decided that these sports were, despite their deformities, human beings who possessed immortal souls, and this judgment caused some to call the sports the “Pope’s nephews” or the “Pope’s children.” The robber comes from this valley, and his two children trail along behind...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 12-13

New Characters
Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott: a scholar and cousin of Hannegan II

Monsignor Marcus Apollo: a Church official and nuncio to Hannegan II

Brother Claret: a Church messenger and assistant to Apollo

Brother Kornhoer: a monk at the abbey experimenting with electricity

Abbot Dom Paulo: the head of the abbey of the order of Saint Leibowitz

Hannegan II: the ruler of the Texarkana empire

Brother Armbruster: the librarian of the abbey and its Rector of Memorabilia

Father Gault: an abbey priest and advisor to Dom Paulo

The year is now 3174. Monsignor Marcus Apollo, who is the Vatican’s nuncio to King...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 14-15

New Characters
Hongan Os (Mad Bear): leader of the nomadic tribes of the Plains

The readers learn that the Dark Age of savage nomads, militaristic knights, and illiteracy is beginning to fade away, and the wisdom preserved in the abbey’s Memorabilia is helping bring about a new, better age. Dom Paulo is disturbed from his thoughts about the Memorabilia and the Church’s preservation of old texts by noises in the abbey basement. He goes down to the basement to see Kornhoer and his machine, which includes a variety of axles, pulleys, belts, and wagon wheels covered with copper wire and facing iron blocks also covered with copper wire.

Kornhoer explains to Dom Paulo that...

(The entire section is 723 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 16-17

Benjamin stands at the edge of the mesa watching Dom Paulo approach, then scampers down to the bottom of the mesa to await the encounter. When he sees Dom Paulo with the goat, he brusquely rejects Dom Paulo’s offer to return the goat. Dom Paulo apologizes for having gone five years without seeing Benjamin, and Benjamin reminisces about what he claims to be an encounter with Francis six centuries ago. He adds that he buried Francis and comments on Dom Paulo’s sick appearance. The two climb up the mesa to Benjamin’s dwelling, which is a single room walled by rocks. A sign in Hebrew by the door reads, “Tents Mended Here.” After some conversation about the sign, Dom Paulo turns the discussion to Taddeo...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 18-19

New Characters
Poet: a poet in residence at the abbey

Brother Reader of the abbey stands at the refectory lectern reading from an account of the nuclear war of twelve centuries ago. The account, written by a monk a few decades after Saint Leibowitz died, describes why the war started, what happened during the war, and how Saint Leibowitz was driven to penitence because of the war. The monk describes a prince, or ruler, being tempted by Satan to strike his enemies in order to gain power over them. Rejecting the warnings of his counselors, the prince does this. God punishes the prince, who has made a holocaust of God’s sons, by killing the prince. Soon mankind decides to kill “the...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapter 20

The abbey is ready for the banquet to honor Taddeo. The refectory’s tables are set with quality utensils, and the head table will host Dom Paulo, Gault, Taddeo, and four others from Taddeo’s party, although Dom Paulo wonders who will sit at the eighth place. The seven people sit down, and during Dom Paulo’s blessing, Poet takes the eighth place. Poet cracks a joke about the dinner meal, then makes a joke about apologizing for his presence. He continues the joke about apologetics by referring to his intent to give the goat to Taddeo as a scapegoat. When Poet talks about Hannegan II as planning to seize the abbey, an officer in Taddeo’s party takes out his sword. Dom Paulo, who has been growing more and...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 21-23

Taddeo is spending his tenth week at the abbey when a messenger brings news that Laredo has demanded that Texarkana remove its troops. The King was poisoned the night he made that demand, and Laredo and Texarkana went to war. Hannegan II, the ruler of Texarkana, has won the war. Additionally, he had Apollo tortured and killed, and the Church responded by putting Texarkana under interdict, a condition in which Texarkana citizens could not receive communion. Taddeo converses about this with Dom Paulo but warns that New Rome should not idly threaten Hannegan II. A chill settles over relations between Taddeo’s party and the abbey.

The abbey’s neighbor village, Sandy Bowitts, asks the abbey if the...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapter 24

New Characters
Defense Minister: the minister of defense for the government

Dom Jethrah Zerchi: the head of the abbey of the order of Saint Leibowitz

Brother Patrick: a monk and aide to Dom Jethrah Zerchi

Mrs. Grales: a two-headed woman who sells tomatoes to the abbey

Brother Joshua: a former astronaut and monk at the abbey

The readers learn that in 3781, spaceships exist again. However, mankind has the same problems it always has. After a short medley of scattered sentences discussing time and life and death, the last Canticle of Leibowitz is presented. The Canticle’s text is “Lucifer is fallen. Lucifer is fallen. Lucifer is...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapters 25-26

The Defense Minister is holding another press conference as news of the increases in radiation levels has become common knowledge. A female reporter asks him about two recent nuclear explosions that violated international law, and the Minister claims that only one violation has occurred. This violation, he says, was an explosion at Itu Wan in Asia, which was not his government’s fault. He denies the reporter’s charge that the explosion Joshua and Zerchi have just speculated about occurred, and maintains that the Itu Wan explosion was a test by Asia. He says there will be no war, but his government’s armed forces are ready to be conscripted by the World Court to enforce any ruling it makes against Asia....

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapters 27-28

New Characters
Doctor Cors: a doctor who examines victims of the nuclear war

Father Lehy: a priest at the abbey

Zerchi and his guest, Doctor Cors, are sitting in Zerchi’s study listening to the announcer tell listeners that 2,800,000 people are estimated to have died from the Asian coalition’s attack on Texarkana. The announcer says radiation victims who believe they will die soon must go the closest Green Star Relief Station, where a magistrate is ready to give them writs allowing them to be euthanized. If the victims do not do this, and instead kill themselves, their heirs may not receive benefits provided by the radiation relief law, and anyone assisting such suicides...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapters 29-30

Father Lehy is receiving Zerchi’s confession of his sin against Cors. As Zerchi confesses, he sees Mrs. Grales waiting for him. He prays for twenty minutes as penance, then moved to the confessional to see Mrs. Grales. She tells him she feels “the Dread One about” and needs to confess. She also forgives God for making her deformed, which Zerchi reluctantly accepts. As she begins to confess, missiles are heard being fired, and Zerchi quickly absolves her and tells her to say ten Ave Marias and ten Pater Noster prayers for penance. The sky grows bright from the exploding missiles, and suddenly Mrs. Grales’s voice changes into a soft, sleepy murmur. It says, “I never meant to … I never meant to …...

(The entire section is 743 words.)