A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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The Characters

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The most perplexing character of the novel must certainly be the immortal Benjamin Eleazer. Since he is called different names by different people, it is perhaps conceivable that the novel contains three similar but different old Jews, but the reader is much more strongly pointed to a mythological meaning for his character. He seems in fact to be the “Wandering Jew” of popular legend, who struck and mocked Jesus Christ on His way to crucifixion and was told by Christ: “I go, but you will wait till I return.” Since then, the story goes, the Wandering Jew has traveled the earth waiting for the Second Coming of the Messiah. This legend is strongly suggested in one scene in which Benjamin looks into the face of a newcomer, only to say in disappointment “It’s still not Him.” A second legend is equally strongly suggested in the third section, when children shout at an old tramp, “he be old Lazar, same one ’ut the Lor’ Hesus raise up.” Could Benjamin Eleazar be the Lazarus of John 11, raised from the dead by Jesus—and then, in legend, not permitted to die again?

The answer is not clear. Yet the role of “the Old Jew” within the novel certainly is. His function is to present a kind of detachment from the follies of humanity, as one who has literally “seen it all before,” and as one who realizes that the truly significant events are not scientific, or political, or historical, but are those concerned with the salvation that he himself cannot reach. In the end, in an irony characteristic of the book, it seems that the new Messiah comes without Benjamin’s awareness. Nor is the Messiah male, or even immediately recognizable as human. In a minor theme of section three, an illiterate old tomato-woman has been pestering Abbot Zerchi to baptize the rudimentary head she has growing from her shoulder (a result of the mutation-inducing radiation of the previous war). Zerchi refuses, thinking that the head has no soul. As the bombs go off a second time, however, the head comes to life and starts to take over and rejuvenate the body of old Mrs. Grales, while the Grales head dies. Zerchi, dying himself, sees this as a new Immaculate Conception and recognizes the head as needing no baptism from him. Conceivably Benjamin, who is not far off, will recognize his savior in Rachel, if both somehow survive the second nuclear holocaust.

A Canticle for Leibowitz also contains an enormous gallery of mortal characters: the three abbots, Arkos, Paulo, and Zerchi; Thon Taddeo, who in section 2 is seen reinventing basic concepts of electricity with the doubtful aid of the Leibowitzian Memorabilia; Hongan Os, or Mad Bear, chief of the blood-drinking nomads of the future Midwest; and many servants or dignitaries of the Church. Perhaps the most endearing is Brother Francis, who, in section 1, discovers the fallout shelter, guided by Benjamin, and spends most of the rest of his life working on an illuminated copy of the (ironically valueless) Leibowitz-signed blueprint he finds there.

Characters Discussed

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Brother Francis Gerard

Brother Francis Gerard, a young, fresh-faced novice of the Albertian order of Leibowitz. Brother Francis discovers a fallout shelter containing relics of the Blessed Leibowitz (who, apparently, was a scientist in pre-nuclear holocaust America). Francis’ discovery causes a stir in the abbey, especially because rumors allege that the pilgrim he saw prior to his discovery was Leibowitz himself.

The pilgrim

The pilgrim, who also appears as Benjamin Eleazar bar Joshua and Lazarus, an old man who may be the Wandering Jew. His figure appears in each...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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of the three sections of the book, though he is not overtly identified as the same man each time. As the pilgrim, he marks a stone for Brother Francis that leads to discovery of the fallout shelter. As Benjamin Eleazar, he discusses with Dom Paulo the rise of a secular state and waits for a messiah. As Lazarus, he is assigned the role of the man whom Christ raised from the dead and smiles wryly at Abbot Zerchi’s hope that there will not be another nuclear holocaust.

Dom Arkos

Dom Arkos, the abbot of the Leibowitz Abbey in the first section of the book. Arkos attempts to quash the rumors surrounding the man whom Francis met in the desert and turns the examination of the fallout shelter and its contents over to another order. Toward the end of Arkos’ tenure, Leibowitz is declared a saint.

Brother Fingo

Brother Fingo, a man with an unusual pattern of melanin distribution. Fingo carves a wooden statue of Leibowitz that, over the years, vaguely reminds Brother Francis, Dom Paulo, and Dom Zerchi of someone they cannot identify. The implication is that the statue reminds them of the Wandering Jew.

Dom Paulo

Dom Paulo, the abbot of the Leibowitz Abbey in the second section of the novel. He presides over the abbey during a period in which the secular and religious worlds are beginning to diverge. He refuses to send to the secular capital the ancient manuscripts (the Memorabilia) that the abbey holds, but he allows the secular scholar Thon Taddeo to examine them in situ.

Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott

Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, a brilliant secular scholar. An illegitimate son of the ruling family, he was reared in a Benedictine abbey, which provided him with an excellent education. He nevertheless argues the superiority of secular scholarship and scoffs at religion, saying that science should not be constrained by ethical or religious concerns. Thon Taddeo’s abstract work on the nature of electricity leads Brother Kornhoer to construct an electric light.

Brother Kornhoer

Brother Kornhoer, a monk at the abbey who constructs a dynamo to generate power for an electric light.

Brother Armbruster

Brother Armbruster, the librarian at the abbey, who sees Brother Kornhoer’s work as heretical.

Marcus Apollo

Marcus Apollo, a papal nuncio to the court of Hannegan, the ruler of Texarkana. Apollo tries to warn Dom Paulo about Thon Taddeo’s secular loyalties. He is later executed for treason because of his support of New Rome over the political government.

The Poet

The Poet, a guest at the abbey. He has one removable eye, which he claims enables him to see more clearly. The brothers call it “the Poet’s conscience.” The Poet, playing the fool, accuses Thon Taddeo of avoiding the responsibility of preventing misuse that should accompany scientific advances. He tells Thon Taddeo, who has picked up the glass eye, that he has need of it.

Dom Jethrah Zerchi

Dom Jethrah Zerchi, the abbot in the novel’s third section. He must confront the certainty of another nuclear holocaust. He tries to defend the faith in a world gone mad and must argue against euthanasia despite its seeming kindness. The shock wave of a nuclear bomb hits the abbey as he hears the confession of Mrs. Grales. As he lies trapped in the rubble, he receives the Eucharist from Rachel.

Mrs. Grales/Rachel

Mrs. Grales/Rachel, a two-headed woman. Mrs. Grales is confessing her sins when the shock wave of a nuclear bomb hits the abbey. The effects of the bomb apparently kill Mrs. Grales while raising to life Rachel, her previously dormant other head. Rachel seems to Abbot Zerchi to be an incarnation of innocence, perhaps another Mary, mother of Christ.

Brother Joshua

Brother Joshua, a former astronaut. He leads a group to colonize another planet, escaping the effects of the holocaust. They take with them the Memorabilia, on microfilm.

Dr. Cors

Dr. Cors, a Green Star worker. He argues with Dom Zerchi about euthanasia, which the doctor has recommended to a young woman and her baby.

Characters

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The three parts of A Canticle for Leibowitz span a period of nearly two thousand years (from the first nuclear war to the second). With one exception, discussed below, no character appears in more than one part, and, as a result, no one character dominates the novel or fully embodies its themes. Instead, the characters, some well developed, others briefly sketched satiric types, are subordinate to plot and theme. Often they have a major symbolic value, usually suggested by the significance of their names.

Brother Francis Gerard (Part 1), for instance, recalls St. Francis of Assisi, whom he resembles in his remarkable simplicity. Francis often is a fool, naive and superstitious to a laughable degree. But he is also a holy fool, an innocent whose folly calls into question the wisdom of the world. Miller does an excellent job in balancing the two aspects of Francis's nature, never letting one aspect eclipse the other. Brother Joshua (Part 3), who will lead a new branch of the monastic order into space to escape the coming war, recalls both the lieutenant of Moses who led the people into the Promised Land and Jesus Christ (“Joshua” is a variant form of “Jesus”). Like the Old Testament Joshua, he will lead his people to a new home; like Jesus, he will accept a terrible burden (exile and the crushing responsibility of leadership) to free his people. Neither Francis nor Joshua is merely an allegorical figure; both can be seen as complex and interesting characters as well as symbols.

One character spans the three parts of the novel—an old Jewish man called Benjamin Eleazar, known sometimes as Lazarus. Benjamin is at times a wanderer, at times a hermit, at times a beggar. He is thousands of years old (one of the few supernatural touches in the novel), and at one point claims to be that Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. Benjamin is the Wandering Jew of legend, and Miller uses him as a unifying device to link the novel's three parts and as a kind of chorus, commenting on humanity's apparent inability to learn, its refusal to accept the responsibility that must accompany knowledge and power. Benjamin also represents the profound ethical tradition of Judaism, which, in Miller's vision, is allied with Christianity in its opposition to the rampant amorality of politics and science in the novel.

And as Benjamin represents an old wisdom, Rachel, who astonishingly comes to life just as nuclear death seems to be consuming the world, represents the hope of a new revelation. Rachel is the name that an old mutant woman, Mrs. Grales, gives to her apparently unconscious second head. But in the rubble of the bombed out monastery, Rachel awakens and startles a dying priest by refusing baptism at his hands and yet reverently giving him the sacred host of the Eucharist. Rachel, it seems, is both impervious to pain and free of the original sin that seems to mock all of humanity's accomplishments. She is perhaps merely a vision of hope vouchsafed to a dying man—but perhaps the beginning of a new race to take the place of humanity.

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