A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
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A Canticle for Leibowitz
AuthorWalter M. Miller, Jr.
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction
PublisherLippincott (Book club ed.)
Publication dateJanuary 1, 1959
Media typePrint (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages311 pp (Book club ed.)
ISBNISBN 0-06-089299-4 (2006 paperback)
Followed bySaint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1959. The first section of the book is based on an earlier short story from 1955. The book won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

It is set in an abbey in the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, and takes place at intervals of hundreds of years apart as civilization rebuilds itself. The plot combines elements of dark comedy with more serious examinations of the issues surrounding faith, knowledge, and power. The book was inspired by the author's witnessing of the destruction of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II.

Plot summary

A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three parts:
  • Fiat Homo (Latin – "Let There Be Man," Gen. 1.26 [?])
  • Fiat Lux (Latin – "Let There Be Light," Gen. 1.14)
  • Fiat Voluntas Tua (Latin – "Thy Will Be Done," Matt. 26.42 [etc.])


Around the end of the 20th century, industrial civilization was destroyed by a nuclear war, known later as the "Flame Deluge". Subsequently, there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons — the "Simplification". Anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed. Illiteracy became almost universal, and books were destroyed en masse.

Isaac Edward Leibowitz had been a Jewish electrical engineer working for the United States military. After surviving the war, he converted to Catholicism and founded a monastic order, the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz", dedicated to preserving knowledge by hiding books, smuggling them to safety (booklegging), memorizing, and copying them. A principal base for the order was an abbey Leibowitz founded in the American southwestern desert (near the military base where he had worked before the war). The exact location of the abbey is not revealed, but it is on an old road that was "a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso" (Chapter 1). Leibowitz was eventually betrayed and martyred—he was killed by simultaneous hanging and burning. Later he was beatified and became a candidate for sainthood. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving the "memorabilia", the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science.

Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, a novice training to become a monk, is sent out from the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz on a Lenten mission of "penance, solitude, and silence" in the desert. While there, Francis encounters a traveler, who points out a rock that might help him complete his shelter. In moving this rock, Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing "relics", such as handwritten notes on crumbling memo pads bearing cryptic texts like "pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma". Brother Francis soon realizes that these notes appear to have been written by his order's founder, the Blessed Leibowitz himself.

The discovery of the ancient documents causes an uproar at the monastery, as the other monks see the traveler as a miraculous sign from their patron. This leads Francis into conflict with Abbot Arkos, the head of the monastery, who worries that the discovery of so many miraculous signs in such a short period may cause problems with Leibowitz's canonization. In order to prevent such enthusiasm, he shows outward disfavor towards Francis, forcing him to remain as a novice for seven additional years. Francis does not become a full brother until New Rome approves the validity of the relics and begins formally advancing the case for Leibowitz's sainthood.

Francis makes a faithful copy of a blueprint of a circuit diagram, and then spends 15 more years making an illuminated manuscript version of it. Meanwhile, evidence found in the shelter helps propel the monks' effort to have Leibowitz canonized. The abbey is visited by Monsignors Aguerra (God's advocate) and Flaught (the Devil's advocate), both of whom encourage Francis to finish his illumination.

Eventually, at least 15 years after the discovery of the shelter, Leibowitz is canonized, based partly on the evidence Francis discovered in the shelter. Brother Francis is sent to New Rome (St. Louis) to attend the canonization mass. He takes the documents found in the shelter and the illumination he has spent years working on. He intends to give the illumination to the Pope as a gift.

En route, he is robbed, and his illumination is stolen. The highwayman, accompanied by two cannibalistic mutants, tells him that if he returns with gold, he'll ransom the illumination. He lets Francis keep the original manuscript, thinking it worthless.

Francis completes the journey to New Rome, attends the canonization mass, and has a personal audience with the Pope afterwards. He explains how he is distraught at having lost the illumination, but the Pope reassures him, telling him that all his work on the illumination made the original seem (by comparison) worthless, and thus protected it from the thieves. Before he leaves, Francis is given the gold necessary to get the illumination back.

Francis returns to the spot where he was robbed, but finds it empty. He decides to wait there, until the thieves return. While he is waiting and praying, the two mutants sneak up on Francis and shoot him between the eyes with a bow.

Afterwards, the same traveler who pointed out the rock for the fallout shelter happens to wander by. He buries the partly eaten body, and notifies New Rome about it. The Church has the body retrieved and returned for interment in the abbey.

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)

In 3174, the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz is still preserving the half-understood knowledge from before the Flame Deluge and the subsequent Age of Simplification. But the new Dark Age is ending and a new Renaissance is beginning.

Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, a secular scholar, is sent by his cousin King Hannegan of Texarkana (placenames have survived fairly well from the ancient times) to the mission. Thon Taddeo is one of the smartest men of the age, compared, probably correctly, with the barely remembered sages of the old civilization (Albert Einstein in particular).

At the mission, Brother Kornhoer has just finished work on a "generator of electrical essences" (p.130), a tread-mill powered electrical generator that powers an arc lamp. He gives credit for the generator to the work done by Thon Taddeo. The work is being done in the library, to the disdain of the chief librarian, Brother Ambruster.

Dom Paulo, leader of the abbey, goes out to see the old Jewish hermit living nearby to ask advice. The hermit makes several references to brother Francis's discovery of the fallout shelter, implying that he was the traveler whom Francis met. He also implies (once again) that he is the Wandering Jew.
  "That was during my earlier career, of course," the Old Jew went on, "and perhaps such a mistake was understandable."
  "What earlier career?"
In the same conversation, however, the old Jewish hermit hints that he is Lazarus. He claims to be waiting for one who told him to "come forth", the words Jesus said to raise Lazarus from the dead in some versions of the Bible.

Meanwhile, Hannegan makes an alliance with the kingdom of Laredo and the other civilized nations surrounding the midwestern plains against the threat of attack from the nomadic warriors. But Hannegan secretly makes an alliance with their leader Mad Bear, supplying them with weapons to attack Laredo. He also secretly makes alliance with Laredo—to attack the nomads, and infect their cattle herds with disease. The resulting wars effectively neutralize all of Hannegan's enemies and let him conquer the entire region.

Thon Taddeo, by studying the memorabilia, has made several major discoveries. For example, he describes how he spent a great amount of time deciphering the extremely compact notation for representing mathematical systems (this is likely the Einstein summation convention).

Monsignor Apollo, the papal nuncio to Hannegan's court, sends word that Hannegan intends to attack the empire of Denver next, and that he intends to use the abbey as a base of operations from which to conduct the campaign. For his actions, Apollo is executed, and Hannegan declares loyalty to the Roman Catholic church to be punishable by death. The Church excommunicates Hannegan and calls on Catholics to take up arms against him.

Shortly thereafter, several members of the honor guard that came with Thon Taddeo are found scouting and mapping the abbey, intent on bringing that intelligence back with them. The plans are confiscated, and the Thon and his guard leave the abbey. Before departing, the Thon comments that it could take decades to finish analyzing the memorabilia.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done)

The third section of A Canticle for Leibowitz takes place in the year 3781. Technology has advanced beyond where it was prior to the Flame Deluge — mankind has starship technology. However, two world superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, have been embroiled in a cold war for 50 years, and both sides have "hydrogen weapons" (a reference to the hydrogen bomb, invented just a few years before the book was written).

The section begins with a press conference. Reporters are questioning the defense minister of the Atlantic Confederacy. It is revealed that there are abnormally high levels of radiation on the "Northwest coast" (likely in or around present-day Oregon). They also ask about recent rumors that both sides are assembling nuclear weapons in space. The minister denies everything.

Meanwhile, at the Abbey, Dom Jethras Zerchi, the current abbot, is in contact with the authorities in New Rome. He suggests that the Church should reactivate the Quo peregrinatur grex ("Whither wanders the flock") plans involving "certain vehicles" — plans the church has had since 3756.

The next chapter begins with another news conference. The reporters are again questioning the defense minister, but this time about the worsening international crisis. A "nuclear incident" has occurred in the Asian Coalition city of Itu Wan — an underground nuclear explosion has destroyed the city. The reporters ask what happened and by whom, while the defense minister angrily replies that it was an Asian nuclear test and that to say otherwise is sedition. Shortly after Itu Wan was destroyed, the Atlantic Confederacy evidently fired a "warning shot" over the South Pacific.

While crossing the highway together, Zerchi and Joshua encounter Mrs. Grales, a local tomato vendor. She is a mutant with a seemingly lifeless second head she calls Rachel. While Mrs. Grales is speaking, Joshua sees Rachel smile. Joshua asks Zerchi if he saw the smile, but Zerchi tells Joshua he was imagining it.

An old Jewish hermit visits the abbey. He has intimate knowledge of the actions of the previous hermit, hinting that it is the same man. When asked for his name, he answers "call me Lazarus".

That night, Joshua dreams of Rachel. In those dreams she calls herself "The Immaculate Conception."

Zerchi receives a response from New Rome telling him to go ahead with the Quo peregrinatur plans and to prepare to leave within three days. He tells Brother Joshua that this is an emergency plan for perpetuating the Church on the colony planets in the event of a nuclear war on Earth. Zerchi goes on to explain that the Church has a starship, and that every monk and priest with experience in space has been assigned to the abbey to crew any necessary mission.

That night, the Atlantic Confederacy launches an assault against Asian Coalition space platforms. The Asian Coalition responds by using a nuclear weapon against the Atlantic capital city of Texarkana. A ten-day cease-fire is issued by the World Court.

Brother Joshua and the space-trained monks and priests depart on a specially chartered flight for New Rome, hoping to leave Earth on the starship before the cease-fire ends.

The abbey, at Zerchi's approval, offers shelter to people from the regions affected by fallout from the nuclear attack. The abbey is soon overrun by refugees, many of whom are dying of radiation poisoning. Zerchi is approached by Dr. Cors from Green Star, a government emergency response agency (a futuristic counterpart to the Red Cross). He allows a Green Star hospital to set up in the abbey, provided they do not advise anyone to go to a Green Star "mercy camp" (euthanasia center). Later that day, Zerchi hears that Green Star is setting up a relief center nearby. From a tower in the abbey, he uses binoculars to view the work and realizes with horror that it is a mercy camp.

That night, Zerchi meets with Cors again. Cors confesses that he broke his promise and recommended suicide for one particularly ill woman and her infant child. Cors offers to leave immediately. Zerchi seeks out the dying woman, gives her a rosary, and encourages her to pray.

The ten-day cease-fire ends that night. The newscasts report that the superpowers are conferring with their governments, and that a new round of talks is expected. Meanwhile, word arrives at the abbey that the pope has stopped saying Mass for peace, and has begun saying Mass "in time of war" and "against the heathen" — a clear sign that the Vatican diplomatic service (a generally more reliable source of news than the broadcasts) believes war is inevitable.

The next day, Mrs. Grales asks Zerchi to hear her confession. He sees "Rachel" smile during their conversation. Zerchi agrees to do so after running an errand in town. As he drives into town, Zerchi encounters the dying woman he met the day before walking down the road. When asked, she says she is going to town. Zerchi offers her a ride to town in his car.

Zerchi, suspecting that the woman was really headed for the mercy camp, tries his best to convince the woman not to commit suicide. As the car passes the mercy camp, Zerchi is pulled over by the police. When the car stops, the woman gets out. Zerchi tries to hold her back, but is restrained by the police. The woman enters the camp with her baby.

The police serve Zerchi with a restraining order to prevent him and the other monks from protesting the camp. Dr. Cors approaches and tries to talk to Zerchi, but Zerchi punches him in the face. Cors tells the police that he won't press charges, and Zerchi returns to the abbey.

After making his own confession for attacking Cors, Zerchi hears confession from Mrs. Grales. While hearing Mrs. Grales' confession, Zerchi also hears a second voice coming through the screen. The confessional booth suddenly becomes bright and hot. A nuclear weapon has gone off nearby. Zerchi tells Mrs. Grales to run away. Zerchi runs to the tabernacle to retrieve the Eucharist, but the building collapses around him.

When Zerchi regains consciousness, he is pinned under several tons of rock. He notices that the explosion opened up the crypts and bones are scattered in the rocks. He is able to work loose a nearby skull with an arrow protruding from the forehead, presumably the remains of The Venerable Brother Francis Gerard of Utah.

Zerchi falls asleep, and awakes to hear singing nearby. He sees a woman approaching. It is Mrs. Grales, but her head is unconscious and Rachel's is awake. Zerchi offers to baptize Rachel (Mrs. Grales had asked him to baptize Rachel earlier), but she refuses. Instead, she offers him the Eucharist. Zerchi accepts.

Just before he dies, he realizes what Rachel is:
  "The image of those cool green eyes lingered with him as long as life. He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence from the shoulder of Mrs. Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts of Eden—those gifts which Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since he first lost them. He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection. One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards, he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited.
  Nothing else ever came—nothing that he saw, or felt, or heard."

Joshua and the Quo peregrinatur crew reach their starship, and take off as the nuclear explosions begin. The last crewmember to board knocks the dirt from his sandals (which is an homage to Jesus' words "If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them." from Mark 6:11, Matthew 19:14, and Luke 9:5), murmuring the latin words "Sic transit mundus" (Thus passes the world).

As a coda, there is a final vignette depicting the ecological aspects of the final human war, as seabirds and fish succumb to the poisonous fallout, and a shark evades death only through moving to particularly deep water, where, it is noted, it was particularly hungry that season.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

Towards the end of his life, Miller wrote a new, previously untold installment of the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz saga, set in AD 3254, eighty years after the events of "Fiat Lux." After Miller's death, Terry Bisson completed the work. These are chronicled within the entry entitled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which summarises details of that work. As it is set between the second and third installments of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it may be more helpful to refer to it as an 'insert' rather than as a sequel, as the events of the final installment, "Fiat Voluntas Tua", occur chronologically after the events of the second novel.

Literary significance & criticism

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Some critics assert that the book espouses a pessimistic, cyclical view of history[1][2] — that is, that history inevitably repeats itself — not unlike the cyclical visions of William Butler Yeats. However, the ending of the book is somewhat ambiguous. Humanity has again reduced itself to an impoverished remnant, but this remnant is moving out to colonize the stars. Does this represent a fundamental new development in the story of humanity, or will they simply repeat the same blunders on other worlds? Miller doesn't say.

Also rich with ambiguity is the subplot concerning Rachel. In abbot Zerchi's vision, as well as Joshua's dream, she is a new Virgin Mary and a new Eve, with abilities and traits characteristic of humans before the Fall. Possibly, this strain in the novel points to a belief in supernatural salvation. Miller's optimistic outlook has been linked both with his faith in the Church and his belief that God would intervene to prevent the destruction of humanity.[2]

There is an alternate reading of the Rachel story: perhaps her miraculous appearance is only a delusion on the part of the dying Abbot, who has extrapolated what Joshua told him, what he saw, and what he heard in the confessional. Seen from this perspective, the incident becomes an exploration of the empirical view of religion, which holds that religion's primary value is the impact it has on the life of the believer. Thus Abbot Zerchi's encounter with Rachel, whether or not it actually occurred, is of value because it allows him to die in peace. Similarly, the value and importance of the work of the Order of Leibowitz is independent of whether their theological principles are based on objective truth, and of whether a Jewish electrical engineer is really a saint in heaven.

The third section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, includes a debate between future Church and state stances on euthanasia (assisted suicide). Walter Miller, himself mentally ill for years, committed suicide several decades after publication of his masterpiece. Just as the Order of Leibowitz in the book could not prevent the death of civilization on earth, the enormous success of the book could not prevent Miller's own suicide.[3] And yet in the book the Order lives on, giving meaning and value to humanity even as it questions its own behavior, just as the book itself lives on after Walter Miller's tragic death — asking similar questions of us all. As Duncan Lawie noted, the book has become its own metaphor.[4]


A 15-part serial of the novel was adapted for radio by John Reed and broadcast in 1981 by National Public Radio (NPR). Directed by Karl Schmidt, it was produced by Carl Schmidt and Marv Nunn. Carol Collins narrated the production.[5]

Latin phrases in the text

Allusions/references from other works

The Babylon 5 episode "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" contains a sequence that is almost identical to the premise of this novel, which the series creator noted.

The highly regarded book of moral philosophy After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre makes use of the idea of a catastrophic loss of all scientific knowledge. He makes an analogy between the disordered and incoherent state of science that would result in the aftermath of such a calamity, and the current state of moral philosophy in the modern world. He proposes that a similar catastrophe in ethics has occurred, but, has gone unnoticed. MacIntyre does not mention A Canticle for Leibowitz directly, but the allusion is clear.


1. ^ Schneider, Dan (2005). A Canticle For Leibowitz. Yet Another Book Review. Retrieved on 2007-06-03.
2. ^ Roberts, Adam (2002). A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr. Infinity Plus. Retrieved on 2007-06-03.
3. ^ Bisson, Terry (1998). A Canticle for Miller; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.. TerryBisson.com. Retrieved on 2007-06-03.
4. ^ Lawie, Duncan (December 3, 1999). A Canticle for Leibowitz. Slashdot. Retrieved on 2007-06-03.
5. ^ Masterpiece Gallery. [1] Crazy Dog Audio Theatre. Retrieved on 2007-06-04.

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Walter Michael Miller, Jr. (January 23, 1923 New Smyrna Beach, Florida – January 9, 1996) was an American science fiction author primarily known for a single novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he published in his lifetime.
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Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997) is a science fiction novel and a continuity insert 'sequel' to Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1959 book A Canticle for Leibowitz.
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Walter Michael Miller, Jr. (January 23, 1923 New Smyrna Beach, Florida – January 9, 1996) was an American science fiction author primarily known for a single novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he published in his lifetime.
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