The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The novel has three sections, with narratives separated by about six hundred years between sections. From the perspective of the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz, church history is recapitulated in a future “Dark Age,” a “Renaissance,” and an apocalyptic “Modern Age.”

The first section, “Fiat Homo” (“let there be man”), begins about c.e. 2600. A twentieth century atomic war and a repressive Age of Simplification have almost wiped out the past. Brother Francis, a simple monk fasting in the desert, uncovers an underground chamber with “Fallout Survival Shelter” written over it. He believes that Fallout is the name of a demon and has no conception of the war that destroyed civilization. The shelter contains documents written by Leibowitz, an engineer who stayed on at the abbey after the war and devoted himself to the preservation of knowledge.

In the timeless life of the abbey, the Blessed Leibowitz finally is declared a saint. Brother Francis devotes fifteen years to illuminating a wholly meaningless blueprint. On the way to New Rome to present his illumination to the pope, he is robbed by mutants. The pope gives the monk enough gold to buy back the illumination. In the second encounter, however, the mutants steal the gold and cannibalize him, casting him as a martyr.

In the second section, “Fiat Lux” (“let there be light”), set in c.e. 3174, the...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Canticle for Leibowitz is based on three separate shorter works published during the 1950s. Since the different parts are so widely...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Canticle for Leibowitz belongs to a class of novels and stories that warn against the various calamities threatening the human race...

(The entire section is 226 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 443 words.)