A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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The Plot

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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 church is challenged by new ideas and powerful princes. Dom Paulo, the current abbot, struggles to preserve the abbey against outside influence. Thon Taddeo, a brilliant but arrogant scientist, reveals more about the Leibowitz memorabilia in a few minutes than the monks have been able to in centuries. In a symbolic scene, a crucifix is taken down so that an arc lamp can be installed for the thon. The abbot, arguing that the pursuit of knowledge, though not evil in itself, cannot be the purpose of humankind, orders the crucifix to be returned to the wall. Thereafter, all will read ad Lumina Christi, or “in the light of Christ.”

The third section, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“let there be your will”), is directed against humanism, a view that argues that humanity is the proper focus of human attention. In c.e. 3781, atomic war breaks out, and millions are poisoned with radioactivity. The government sets up mercy camps, offering euthanasia to those dying in agony. Two characters frame the issues significant to Dom Zerchi, the latest abbot. Dr. Cors, a mercy camp administrator, argues that suffering is evil and should be alleviated. The abbot, in contrast, rejects euthanasia as a violation of God’s will. The other significant person in this section is Mrs. Grales, a mutant who wants Rachel, the dormant extra head on her shoulder, to be baptized. Dom Zerchi, fearful of the implications, puts off her request. A bomb hits the abbey, killing Mrs. Grales and mortally wounding the abbot. At this moment, however, Rachel unexpectedly comes alive. As his last act, Dom Zerchi struggles through the wreckage to baptize her. Thereafter, the Vatican sends three bishops into space in an emergency plan to preserve the apostolic succession.

Literary Techniques

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A Canticle for Leibowitz is based on three separate shorter works published during the 1950s. Since the different parts are so widely separated in time, each has a separate cast of characters (except for Benjamin who is more a peripheral commentator on the action than a protagonist) and a different set of political, social, and technological problems. The danger a writer faces in such a situation is that the work may lack unity—it may seem to be three distinct stories on related themes that have been...

(This entire section contains 544 words.)

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conveniently packaged together as a book, but not a novel. Miller overcomes this difficulty brilliantly, in part by the essential thematic unity of his work, but also by his use of a variety of images and motifs that serve both to link the three parts and to emphasize their significant differences.

The novel's progression from Dark Age through Renaissance to Nuclear Age is viewed from within the confines of a monastery founded by Isaac Edward Leibowitz (a scientist and Jewish convert who dedicated himself to the preservation of knowledge during the Great Simplification and was martyred by angry “Simpletons”). The Monastery and the monks who live there, as they develop through the ages, are a key linking device, as are the traditions, rites, and structures of the Catholic Church. All of these help to establish a background of continuity against which changes can be measured. The Memorabilia, the monastery's collection of artifacts, books, and manuscripts preserving the past, provides yet another link and another sign of change as it develops from a collection of misunderstood relics to a comprehensive record of the past that helps to bring about a new age of learning and of danger.

Miller also uses motifs that recur in all three parts to suggest both continuity and change: mutants, whose very existence constitutes a reminder and a warning; buzzards that circle the monastery in times of danger; a statue, supposedly of Saint Leibowitz but apparently modeled after Benjamin, with his sardonic and knowing smile that mocks human folly; the violent deaths suffered by a number of monks; and finally the enigmatic figure of Benjamin himself.

Having established continuity, Miller is able to stress change. The period of time covered by each section grows progressively shorter (from thirty years to three years to a few months), more crowded with changes (political and technological), and more ambiguous. The word of Part 1 is harsh but in some ways simple; by Part 3 it seems that there are no more clear-cut moral decisions, no possibility of certainty. Miller has, in a sense, encapsulated human history in its pattern of accelerating change and complexity. Perhaps the most striking indication of the changes among the three parts and of the morally ambiguous nature of progress can be seen in the deaths suffered by monks. Francis (Part 1) is shot from behind by robbers as he prays his rosary—a quick and nearly painless death; Marcus Apollo (Part 2) is drawn and quartered after being flayed alive by a tyrant, and his friend Dom Paulo dies of ulcers brought on by the anxieties of the age; Dom Zerchi (Part 3) dies buried under piles of radioactive rubble, his world literally blown apart by the forces of technological change that humanity has failed to control.

Literary Precedents

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A Canticle for Leibowitz belongs to a class of novels and stories that warn against the various calamities threatening the human race in the twentieth century. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell, 1949) and Brave New World (Huxley, 1932) are often cited, although Miller's novel is much closer to Huxley than Orwell in its humor and satiric wit. A Canticle for Leibowitz also may owe a general kind of debt to a large group of stories depicting nuclear wars and their aftermaths (see Andre Norton's Star Man's Son, 1952, or Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, 1955, as fairly typical examples; Nevil Shute's On The Beach is sometimes cited as an antecedent, but it was published in 1957, after at least two of the stories later incorporated in Miller's novel had already appeared). A Canticle for Leibowitz itself influenced most such stories that appeared after its publication. Critics, observing Miller's concern with Catholicism and his frequent (gentle) satire of Church politics and Catholic foibles, have also suggested a possible influence by J. F. Powers, known for his satire of modern Catholic clerics in books like Presence of Grace (1956) and Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947). Another major science fiction novel dealing with Catholicism is James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958), a work comparable to Miller's in quality and in the seriousness of its concerns, but probably written too late to exert any influence on Miller.

Bibliography

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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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