A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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First published: 1959

Edition used: New York: Eos, 2006

Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Apocalyptic fiction; Catholic fiction; science fiction

Core issue(s): Apocalypse; Catholics and Catholicism; devotional life; knowledge; monasticism; reason; sainthood

Principal characters

Brother Francis Gerard, a monk at Leibowitz Abbey

Lazarus, a biblical character whom Jesus raised from the dead

Dom Paulo, an abbot

Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, a secular scholar

Dom Jethrah Zerchi, a later abbot

Doctor Cors, an atheist physician


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 unusually long time for a novice, Francis finally becomes a full member of the order and begins his life work as a scribe. In his spare time, he makes an illustrated and embellished copy of the blueprint. Francis, of course, has no clue as to the nature of the blueprint, entitled a “Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B.” When Leibowitz’s canonization is announced fifteen years later, Francis journeys to New Rome (present-day St. Louis) to present the pope with both the original of the blueprint and his copy. On the way, he meets mutant bandits, who steal both his donkey and the copy. Nonetheless, he makes the rest of his journey on foot, attends the ceremony, and personally delivers the original blueprint to the pope.

Part 2, “Fiat Lux” (let there be light), begins in the year 3174. A scientific renaissance is taking place, and the kingdom of Texarkana is expanding to an empire spanning the continent. Scientists in Texarkana realize that they could speed up their research by examining the archives at the monastery. Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, a cousin of the king, visits the monastery at the same time that one of the monks has deciphered one of the texts and has constructed an electric light. As he is...

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researching the archives, Taddeo has discussions with Dom Paulo, abbot of Leibowitz Abbey during this time, about the relationship between science and faith.

Part 3, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (thy will be done), takes place in 3781. By this time, the human race has rediscovered space travel and built on the knowledge of the twentieth century to the point where people have colonized planets in other solar systems. Unfortunately, humans have also rediscovered nuclear weapons, and the two leading superpowers, Texarkana and the Asian Coalition, are on the brink of war. The Catholic Church prepares for another nuclear holocaust by chartering its own starship with the archives of the Leibowitz Abbey and assembling a contingent of priests, nuns, and Leibowitz brothers who have space experience. The abbey is just outside an area hit by a nuclear bomb and, for a time, is used for triage by Green Star, Texarkana’s emergency response organization. Dom Jethrah Zerchi, the last abbot of Leibowitz Abbey, and Doctor Cors, the head of the Green Star team, have extensive discussions about the morality of euthanasia with respect to a woman and her child who are terminally ill from radiation poisoning.

Lazarus is the only character who appears in all three parts. Because Jesus has raised him from the dead, Lazarus cannot die, and Walter Miller combines his story with the legend of the Wandering Jew. In part 1, he is a wandering pilgrim, In part 2, he is living close to the monastery as a hermit, and Dom Paulo comes to him for advice. In part 3, he is wandering again and stops by the monastery for a visit.

Christian Themes

Science and Christianity are not inherently adversarial, according to Walter M. Miller, Jr., but science for the sake of science leads to pain, suffering, death, materialism, and bondage to technology. The book implies that Leibowitz was guilty of this sin, but that he repented after seeing the consequences. Dom Paulo is a spokesperson for this position, and his secular opponent is Thon Taddeo, who argues that there is no role for religion in science or any part of society.

Miller believes that humans have freedom of choice and are ultimately responsible for their actions. This includes scientists and engineers who assist their governments in making war, such as Leibowitz. Thon Taddeo’s work is supported by a prince who has no interest in science beyond its ability to increase his power. Taddeo tries to wash his hands of his employer’s sins just as Pontius Pilate tried to wash his hands. The novel takes the position that Taddeo is just as guilty as any other follower and possibly more so, because he is intelligent enough to know better.

Doctor Cors regards pain as the ultimate evil and advocates euthanasia, but Dom Jethrah and Miller strongly disagree and believe that God does not send people more pain than they can bear. Cors is both eloquent and compassionate. Because radiation poisoning is a very painful way to die, Miller does not give Jethrah an easy position from which to argue. Miller also indirectly engages in a dialogue with Nevil Shute, whose classic 1957 novel On the Beach also deals with the consequences of nuclear warfare. Shute’s main characters commit suicide when they feel the first symptoms of radiation poisoning, whereas a true Christian, according to Miller, would not.

Sources for Further Study

  • Aldiss, Brian. Review of A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. New Statesman 126 (September 26, 1997): 65-66. Aldiss comments on the novel’s longevity and gives a brief synopsis of the plot. Although he admires Miller’s “brilliant arguments” against the violence and devastation of war, he also notes that the “tedium of religious life was too much for me.”
  • Garvey, John. “A Canticle for Leibowitz: A Eulogy for Walt Miller.” Commonweal 123 (April 5, 1996): 7-8. Garvey praises Miller’s book as a “fine, compassionate, and angry novel.” He traces his friendship with Miller and comments on Miller’s shift in belief from Catholicism to Buddhism. He also briefly discusses Miller’s grief at the death of his wife Anne and his subsequent suicide some months later.
  • Miller, Walter M., Jr. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. This novel, published posthumously, is not a sequel, as it is set between parts 2 and 3. It contains a map and considerable background information.
  • Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Includes the essay “Rediscovering A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Walker was an enthusiastic fan of the book but argues that it is impossible to review.
  • Roberson, William H., and Robert L. Battenfeld. Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in American Literature 3. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Biography and annotated bibliography for all of Miller’s short stories along with commentary, a glossary, and a time line for A Canticle for Leibowitz.
  • Seacrest, Rose. Glorificemus: A Study of the Fiction of Walter M. Miller, Jr. Latham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. Analysis of Miller’s fiction organized by topic, including a map, time line, bibliography, glossary, and plot summaries.
  • Seed, David. “Recycling the Texts of the Culture: Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Extrapolation 37 (Fall, 1996): 257-271. Seed explores the way meaning in the novel is transmitted and preserved, as with fragmentary historical texts. Seed argues that Miller balances the need for retention of history with the constant process of revision and distortion of history. For example, in the book, the linear progression of history ends in the redestruction of civilization in a second atomic war.
  • Sponsler, Claire. “Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play.” Science Fiction Studies 20 (July, 1993): 251-265. Sponsler discusses cyber-punk’s influence on contemporary science fiction. She cites several classic, post-holocaust examples, including A Canticle for Liebowitz, that reveal the ruined landscape as a symbol of alienation and danger. She concludes that although cyberpunk’s acceptance of environmental decay is troubling, it is valuable for its ushering in emerging technologies and its exploration of noncorporeal modes of being.

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