A Canticle for Leibowitz

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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


The plot

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 the "Flame Deluge"—a nuclear war—destroyed civilization as we know it. The "Simplification" followed, a violent backlash against the culture of advanced learning that had led to the development of nuclear weapons, during which anyone of learning was killed. Literacy became almost nonexistent. 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). Leibowitz was eventually betrayed and martyred—he was killed by simultaneous hanging and burning. Later he was beatified and became a candidate for sainthood. Long after his death, the Abbey is still preserving the "memorabilia" — the few surviving writings from before the Flame Deluge, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science.

Fiat Homo

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, a novice on track 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 (It is hinted that this traveler is, in fact, the Wandering Jew). 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 Leibowitz himself.

Francis spends years making a faithful copy of a blueprint of a circuit diagram, and then 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, approximately a decade 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 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 thieves (two of whom are cannibalistic mutants) tell him that if he returns with gold, they'll ransom the illumination. They let him 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.

  "They advanced to within ten yards of Francis before a pebble rattled. The monk was murmuring the third Ave of the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary when he happened to look around. The arrow hit him squarely between the eyes." (Chapter 11)

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

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 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?'

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 decyphering the extremely compact notation for representing mathematical systems (this is likely matrix notation).

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

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 Texarkana, have been embroiled in a cold war for 50 years, and both sides have "hydrogen weapons" (no doubt 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 Texarkana. 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.

While discussing matters with another monk, Brother Joshua, Joshua informs Zerchi that there were recent seismic measurements, indicating a nuclear explosion in the megaton range; it was most likely a tacit threat. Zerchi laments the Texarkana government's policies that keep the people ill-informed,

  "The Government knows. The government must know. Several of them know. And yet we hear nothing. We are being protected from hysteria. Isn't that what do they call it? Maniacs! The world's been in a habitual state of crisis for fifty years. Fifty? What am I saying. It's been in a habitual state of crisis since the beginning—but for half a century now, almost unbearable. And why, for the love of God?"

The next chapter (chapter 25) begins with another news conference. The reporters are again questioning the defense minister, but this time 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 a Asian nuclear test and that to say otherwise is sedition. Shortly after Itu Wan was destroyed, Texarkana evidently fired a "warning shot" over the South Pacific.

Back at the abbey, 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. Brother Joshua asks what the plan is:

  "Well, it started as a plan to send a few priests along with a colony group heading for Alpha Centauri. But that didn't work out, because it takes bishops to ordain priests, and after the first generation of colonists, more priests would have to be sent, and so on. The question boiled down to an argument about whether the colonies would last, and if so, should provision be made to insure the apostolic succession on colony planets without recourse to Earth? You know what that would mean?"
  "Sending at least three bishops, I imagine."
  "Yes, and that seemed a little silly. The colony groups have all been rather small. But during the last world crisis, Quo peregrinatur became an emergency plan for perpetuating the Church on the colony planets if the worst came to pass 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, should it become necessary to crew send the mission.

That night, Texarkana launches an assault against Asian Coalition space platforms, and the Asian Coalition responds by using a nuclear weapon against the capital city of Texarkana. A cease-fire is issued by the World Court, and both sides agree to cease hostilities for ten days.

The next day, the mission (led by brother Joshua) departs on a specially chartered flight for New Rome, and thence to the starship.

The abbey, at Zerchi's approval, offers shelter to those people whose homes were in the blighted regions. It is soon overrun by refugees, many of whom were exposed to high levels of radiation during the attack and are dying. Zerchi is approached by Doctor Cors, a doctor from Green Star, a government emergency response agency. He gives permission to the doctor to set up a Green Star hospital in the abbey, provided that they do not advise anyone to go to a Green Star "mercy camp" (i.e. euthanasia center). Later that day, Zerchi heard that Green Star was setting up a relief center a short way down the road. From the abbey, he used binoculars to view the work and realized with horror that it was a Mercy camp.

That night, Zerchi meets with Doctor Cors again. Cors confesses that he has broken his promise, and recommended suicide for one particularly sick woman and her infant child. Cors offers to leave immediately.

  Zerchi stalked away, then stopped, and called back. "Finish and then get out. If I see you again—I'm afraid of what I'll do."
  "Cors spat. "I don't like being here any better than you like having me. We'll go now, thanks."

Zerchi goes and finds the dying woman, and gives her a rosary and encourages her to pray.

That night, the ten-day cease-fire ends, along with the diplomatic meeting on Guam between the superpowers. 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 praying for peace, and has begun saying wartime prayers—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, as he drives into town on an errand, Zerchi encounters the dying woman walking down the road (in the direction of the death camp and the city). When asked, she says she is going to town. An obvious lie—she was really going to the euthanasia camp. Zerchi offers to go to town for her, but she insists she must go herself. Zerchi then talks her into going with him in his car. Unable to decline without looking suspicious, she is forced to accept the offer. While in the car, Zerchi tries his best to convince her not to commit suicide. On the way back to the abbey, as the car passed the Mercy camp, Zerchi is ordered by a police officer to pull over. As soon as he does, the woman says she is getting out. Dom Zerchi tries to stop her, but is restrained by the police. Dr. Cors assists in taking the baby from him and gives to the woman, as she enters the camp. Zerchi is served with a restraining order by the police, enjoining the order from protesting. Cors approaches him to talk, but Zerchi punches him in the face. Zerchi is restrained again by the police, but Cors declines to press charges, and Zerchi returns to the abbey.

After making confession for attacking Cors, he himself hears confession from Mrs. Grales, the local tomato vender. Grales, a mutant who has two heads, is a descendant of the mutants caused by the Flame Deluge. Her second head, named Rachel, is incapacitated—it has never opened its eyes or moved. Mrs. Grales had earlier tried to get Zerchi to baptize Rachel. While hearing Mrs. Grales' confession, the confessional booth lights up and gets extremely hot in a matter of seconds—A nuclear weapon has gone off nearby. Zerchi tells Mrs. Grales to run, and Zerchi himself runs to the tabernacle to retrieve the Eucharist. As he turns and is running out of the church, the building collapses on and around him.

When he recovers consciousness, he is pinned under several tons of rock. Alone, he fades in and out of consciousness. During one particularly alert period, 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 Brother Gerard).

  What did you do for them, Bone? Teach them to read and write? Help them to rebuild, give them Christ, help restore a culture? Did you remember to warn them that it could never be Eden? Of course you did. Bless you, Bone, he thought, and traced a cross on its forehead with his thumb.

After sleeping a short while, Zerchi awakes to hear singing from a short distance away. He had heard it twice earlier, but this time it is close. He calls out, and the voice echoes his words back to him. He looks up to see Mrs. Grales approaching him—only, this time, Mrs. Grales's head is unconscious, and Rachel's is alive. He tries to administer baptism to her, but she refuses. Instead, she offers him the Eucharist, and he takes it from her.

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."

In the last chapter of the book (chapter 30), we find out that the crew reached the starship safely, and the crew is blasting off as the nuclear explosions are occurring. The last to board, knocking the dirt from his sandals, murmurs, "Sic transit mundus" (Thus passes the world) — a more final judgement than the conventional Sic transit gloria mundi—"Thus passes the glory of the world".


Some critics assert that the book espouses a pessimistic, cyclical view of history—that is, that history inevitably repeats itself. William Butler Yeats was a strong proponent of this philosophy. However, the ending belies this reading. Although the Earth is most likely destroyed in a final thermonuclear exchange, the fact that the occupants of the spaceship escaping from the planet takes not with it human life, but the Church (Miller at this point was a convert) seems to indicate that, indeed, history does not repeat itself. This hopefullness has been linked with Miller's own faith in the Church, that no matter what, God would not let his people kill themselves. Years later, Miller held a more negative (or perhaps less enthusiastic) view of the Church, as can be seen in the sequel to this novel.

The third section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, takes a strong stance against suicide. Ironically, decades later, Miller himself, mentally ill for years, committed suicide.

The sequel

Miller worked for many years on a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman; it was completed by Terry Bisson, and published after Miller's death.

The Babylon 5 episode "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" contains a scene that is almost identical to the premise of this novel.


  "Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again?" – Abbot Dom Zerchi (chapter 25)
  "Due process, they call it," he growled. "Due process of mass, state sponsored suicide. With all of society's blessings."
  "Well,", said the visitor, "it's certainly better than letting them die horribly, by degrees."
  "It is? Better for whom? The street cleaners? Better to have your living corpses walk to a central disposal station while they can still walk? Less public spectacle? Less horror lying around? Less disorder? A few million corpses lying around might start a rebellion against those responsible. That's what you and the government mean by better, isn't it?" – Dom Zerchi's conversation with Dr. Cors (chapter 27)

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