A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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

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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 rubble, and starts examining the hole. At first, he finds nothing particularly interesting about the hole, and goes on building his hut during the day. But late that day, he returns, and begins excavating the hole. When he pries out two rocks jammed in the hole, the hole opens up, and he slides down into the hole. There, he sees that he is in a nuclear fallout shelter, which has been covered by an avalanche of rocks for six centuries. He reads the sign that gives information about the shelter, and prepares himself to encounter the “Fallouts.” He believes these Fallouts are monsters from the time of nuclear holocaust, which was in the 1960s.

The initial episode of the novel is set in Utah, but not the contemporary version of Utah. Instead, it is an imaginary Utah of the 2500s, six centuries after an equally imaginary worldwide nuclear war in the 1960s. Utah in the 2500s is still suffering from the damage of the nuclear war six centuries earlier, which effectively destroyed civilization and most of humanity. Lingering radiation from that war has created many misshapen and deformed people as well, even though six centuries have passed since the war. This explains why Francis believes in “Fallouts.” Radioactive fallout from the war caused the misshapen and deformed people, but Francis, who is living long after the war, at a time when people have little access to information about the war or nuclear weapons, misinterprets this to believe...

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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the people themselves were “Fallouts,” rather than victims of the fallout.

However, the Catholic Church does still exist, and Francis, as a monk in one of its abbeys, serves his forty-day Lenten fast alone in the Utah desert. Francis’s extreme deprivation during this fast explains why he is deluded into thinking the pilgrim is Satan tempting him with forbidden food. The pilgrim’s dress in burlap around his midsection means he has literally girded his loins, and that, together with his behavior, identifies him as possibly a prophet, and a character who will probably appear again and will have lingering significance in the novel.


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