Perhaps there was a time, post Cold War, when the exploration of nuclear fallout in Walter M. Miller’s 1960 post-apocalyptic sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz seemed out of date. It would seem now that time is up.
Part 1: Fiat Homo (chs 1-11; six centuries after Flame Deluge)
The novel opens with Brother Francis Gerard, a novice in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, in the desert on a Lenten vigil that’s required before he can take his official vows. A “pilgrim” approaches his encampment who offers to find Francis a rock to fit in the gap of a structure he’s building to protect himself from wolves. When Francis removes the rock the pilgrim has pointed out after the pilgrim has left, he discovers an old fallout shelter he presumes is from the time of the “Flame Deluge.” His higher-ups at the Leibowitz Abbey don’t want him to explore it because they’re trying to get Leibowitz canonized as a saint and fear it will look to outsiders like they’ve fabricated evidence. After the Flame Deluge came a period known as the “Simplification,” during which books were burned, since human knowledge was seen as the source of the Flame Deluge, but “bookleggers” arose to try to preserve some of this knowledge, Leibowitz starting an organization of such before being hung for doing so, while the efforts he started eventually evolved into the Abbey which still tries to preserve human knowledge six centuries later. Rumors spring from Francis’s descriptions of the pilgrim that the pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, and Francis is not allowed to take his vows for several years. He undertakes a project to make an “illuminated” copy of a particular blueprint made by Leibowitz himself that he discovered in the shelter for a “Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B,” though he has no idea what the blueprint actually means. He works on the copy intermittently for fifteen years before Leibowitz is finally canonized, and Francis is chosen to go to “New Rome” for the ceremony, bearing both the original blueprint and his illuminated copy as gifts. On the way he’s accosted by bandits who take the illuminated copy, presuming it’s the original. He makes it to the ceremony with the original, with the pope informing him that his effort in making the illuminated copy is what saved the original. The pope gives Francis some gold that Francis then takes back to the bandits’ encampment hoping to exchange for his illuminated copy. While waiting for the bandits, he sees a figure approaching in the distance that looks similar to the pilgrim from the beginning, but the bandits kill him before the pilgrim arrives.
Part 2: Fiat Lux (chs. 12-23, year 3174, 12 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Amidst rumors of war involving the ruler Hannegan and tribal leader Mad Bear, the scholar Thon Taddeo makes a request of Monsignor Marcus Apollo to request that the “Leibowitzian documents” be fetched from the Leibowitz Abbey to his collegium. The request is denied due to the dangers of imminent war, and eventually Thon Taddeo travels to the abbey himself, a moment that the abbey’s current leader Dom Paulo considers that which the past twelve centuries of the monks’ maintaining the memorabilia has all led up to. In preparation for the visit, Dom Paulo displaces a drunken poet from their guest quarters and goes to talk to his old friend Benjamin, who claims to have been alive for hundreds of years and who is one of few remaining Jews left. Around the time Thon Taddeo arrives at the abbey, one of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, succeeds in powering a lamp with electricity for the first time since the Flame Deluge, fortunate timing since it enables Thon Taddeo to be able to better discern the text of the old documents. The scholar is amazed at the wealth of information the monks have been sitting on and believes it a travesty that the documents have remained essentially hidden for so long. He predicts that men of science will soon rule, arguing with Dom Paulo about whether he condones the bloody expansion currently being waged by his half-brother Hannegan and saying that while he doesn’t condone it personally that his collegium will benefit from it and thus so will the human race. Thon Taddeo also predicts that “[a] century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works,” also predicting these changes will occur via “violence and upheaval.” He further conjectures that the current race of man is not the original race but a clone race meant to be servants, believing the creators of such great things in the past could not have fallen so far, though Dom Paulo believes this is a way of avoiding man’s responsibility for the Flame Deluge. Despite their differences, Thon Taddeo hands over to Dom Paulo sketches that his escorts have made of the abbey for the purpose of using it as a military garrison in the upcoming conflicts. The section ends with the poet–whose glass eye that he referred to as his “removable conscience” Thon Taddeo took from him in jest–dying after inadvertently getting involved in a military skirmish on the plains.
Part 3: Fiat Voluntas Tua (chs. 24-30, year 3781, 18 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Man once again has spaceships and atomic bombs. Word is out that “Lucifer is fallen,” and we get a press conference with the country’s Defense Minister asking him about why radiation counts on the Northwest Coast have significantly increased and the suspicion that hydrogen weapons exist in space as a workaround to a treaty banning nuclear arms. We then follow the current abbott of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Zerchi, who’s having trouble with translating technology as he’s trying to get a radiogram to a cardinal in New Rome about their plan Quo peregrinatur. An old beggar “clad in burlap” that people refer to as Lazarus still skulks about the area around the abbey. Two different nuclear detonations are reported in violation of the treaty, and tensions rise. Dom Zerchi asks Brother Joshua if he will head the Quo peregrinatur mission where all the abbey’s memorabilia will be transferred to space and the order will continue in a space colony; Joshua struggles with whether he’s called to be a leader but accepts, and a group of monks leaves for New Rome, where they’ll board a starship. Another blast happens in a large American city that kills two million, and the abbey takes in refugees affected by the fallout. Dom Zerchi fights with the doctor diagnosing people as hopeless cases about advising them to go to mercy camps, since voluntary euthanasia has been authorized under the Radiation Disaster Act but is against the religious beliefs of the order. Despite his promise to Zerchi, the doctor advises a woman to euthanize her extremely sick baby to spare its suffering; Zerchi, considering this murder, desperately tries to convince her otherwise but ultimately fails. He then goes to hear the confession of “an old tumater woman” named Mrs. Grales who has an “excrescence” growing from her shoulder that resembles a second head she’s named Rachel, and which her priest refused to baptize as she wished. Zerchi’s in the church with her when there’s another nuclear blast, and he hears a strange voice though Mrs. Grales is the only other person there. The building falls in on him, and as he’s dying slowly and painfully, forcing himself to try to endure since that’s what he wanted the radiation-afflicted mother and baby to do, Mrs. Grales comes up, except now it’s only Rachel talking, parroting what he’s saying and seeming very young. He tries to baptize her but she resists and ends up offering him a communion host he blesses and takes instead. Overwhelmed with gratitude that he’s perceived a state of “primal innocence” that he believes is what man lost when expelled from the Garden of Eden, he finally dies. Meanwhile, the monks board their starship as a mushroom cloud blooms on the horizon. The End.
One of the most notable features of this book is that it spans several centuries, but this structure also produces the possible pitfall of losing a main character to carry us through the entire narrative–as with a lot of sci-fi, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the book is more concept- than character-driven. In the first section we have a main character, Francis, who we’re with from the opening line and whose death at the end of Part 1 has the potential to leave the reader feeling adrift. The character we start the second part with, Marcus Apollo, seems positioned to be the focal character of that section but then turns out not to be; for Parts 2 and 3 the abbots of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Paulo and Dom Zerchi, become our main characters, though not to the extent that Francis is, as is reinforced by Part 2 starting with someone else (Marcus Apollo, who’s later reported killed as new rulers assert their dominance) and ending with a scene of the poet, and Part 3 starting not focalized on a character at all but with a general description of man. Man, or humans, really turns out to be the main character of the book–though it’s worth noting that individuals have to be focused on to maintain narrative momentum. The book is charting the cycle of man’s rise and fall, though actually in reverse order, with implications that this cycle will continue, since the monks survive to keep protecting the memorabilia at the end despite the likely destruction of earth. The cycle of man’s fall and rise is ruminated on by Dom Zerchi:
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.
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?
Something that fills the void of a single main character are certain recurrences between sections. Buzzards appear frequently, serving as transitions across centuries and as a symbol of death’s constancy; they eat the bodies of Francis at the end of Part 1 and the poet at the end of Part 2. At the end of Part 3 we no longer need them for transition’s sake since we’re no longer leaping ahead in time, though it also seems notable that we don’t end the overall book with death, but with life–after the monks survive to leave in their starship, we get a final passage about how the fallout dust is swept into the ocean, killing shrimp, but that a shark is able to swim to “cold clean currents,” with the last line of the novel being:
He was very hungry that season.
The fact that we end with a creature still alive–which seems very symbolic of the still alive but now isolated monks who have left with the memorabilia–could potentially be interpreted as a tentatively happy ending, but since we’ve seen that man’s survival ultimately engenders repeating the cycle of destruction, the implications of the ending become more sinister.
The sinister nature of what seems like it should be a good thing extends to the mission of the monks at the Leibowitz Abbey. It’s interesting that their patron saint, whose becoming a saint is a big part of the plot in Part 1, was a scientist who the transistor diagram in Part 1 implies is in large part responsible for the nuclear destruction–this caused Leibowitz to lose faith in scientific knowledge (according to scripture-mimicking lore anyway) but ultimately he’s still martyred for some version of it when he becomes a booklegger. The wood carving of Leibowitz that we see one of Francis’s fellow monks carve in Part 1 resurfaces in both Parts 2 and 3, present in the abbott’s offices as they ruminate.
This recurring carving is connected to another recurring figure, the old man in burlap, “burlap” being our indicator that these figures across the three different sections are connected. The burlap technically appears in the very first line of the book–a line which provides possibly no better example of immediately introducing acute tension–but without being called such specifically:
Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.
The loins will turn out to be girded in burlap, which will be what causes Francis’s fellow monks to start the rumors that this pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, since this is what Leibowitz wore. In Part 2 the burlap is given to old Benjamin, an acquaintance of Dom Paulo who claims to have been alive several centuries, claiming at one point to have been mistaken for Leibowitz himself and thus directly connecting him to the pilgrim in Part 1:
The priest looked puzzled. “Mistook you for whom? Saint Leibowitz? Now, Benjamin! You’re going too far.”
Benjamin repeated it in a mocking singsong: “Mistook me for a distant relative of mine–name of Leibowitz, so I throw pebbles at them.”
Later in Part 2 Benjamin enters the abbey when Thon Tadio is lecturing about what he’s found there and declares after looking closely at him: “‘It’s still not Him.'” The Lazarus figure in Part 3 seems the least consequential, though does connect him back to Leibowitz when Zerchi thinks:
Lazarus? There was, in the region, an old wives’ tale to the effect that–but what a shoddy sort of myth that was. Raised up by Christ but still not a Christian, they said. And yet he could not escape the feeling that he had seen the old man somewhere.
If the reader is picking up on the clues they’ll likely connect that Lazarus is familiar from the wood carving of Leibowitz we saw Zerchi considering earlier. The figure in burlap feels decreasingly significant to the plot in each successive part: he’s extremely integral to Part 1 and thus the rest of the book in helping Francis locate the diagrams that are implied to be what will, through the aid of Thon Tadio’s taking it from the abbey in Part 2, be the knowledge that will enable the reconstruction of nuclear arms.
One recurrence that’s not in Part 1 but in 2 and 3 is the poet’s eyeball, in a way that again seems to be serving more thematic symbolism than actual plot. In Part 2 after Thon Tadio takes the poet’s eyeball, Dom Paulo explains that he calls it his “removable conscience,” an idea the scholar seems to like, and in Part 3 Dom Zerchi recalls a legend about this eyeball:
No one, indeed, had ever found evidence that such a person as Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball had ever lived: the fable had probably arisen out of the story that one of the early Hannegans had been given a glass eyeball by a brilliant physical theorist who was his protégé–Zerchi could not remember whether the scientist had been Esser Shon or Pfardentrott–and who told the prince that it had belonged to a poet who had died for the Faith.
One can see here how realities are distorted to the realms of myth over time, since we got to see the reality in Part 2, and in that reality the poet did not die “for the Faith” and was more a nuisance to the monks than an adherent of religion himself. This distortion is interesting in light of how prevalent religion–specifically Christian, even more specifically Catholicism–is in this centuries-spanning tale, with the original religious myths that existed before the Flame Deluge still in tact eighteen centuries after it, while most scientific knowledge did not survive. It’s a little hard to believe that religion would exist so unchanged, but the interplay between religion and science, with this religious order of the monks existing predominantly to preserve scientific knowledge, does provide for an interesting plot arc that can be sustained across such a long time span.
It’s worth mentioning that this book is not just worth reading for the plot, but also for the prose, with descriptions like
Disappointed, the black sky-horde rode back to altitude on their invisible elevators of hot air, then disbanded and dispersed toward their remoter aerial vigils.
This passage about buzzards early in the book humanizes them with the emotion of disappointment and and giving them their own religious-seeming rituals–“vigils.” It’s also echoed by a poetic description of a detonated atomic bomb near the end:
The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into hideousness above the cloudbank, rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth.
This description also likens a non-human thing to a more recognizable human form (if titans aren’t technically human) and also invites consideration of how man, supposedly created by God in his image, then created Lucifer, which in this description bears a subtle likeness to man’s image.
The symbolism of someone being mistaken for Leibowitz seems possibly symbolic of the monks mistaking their work as a good thing, mistaking knowledge for salvation. In this context the invocation of the Garden of Eden near the very end is significant: Zerchi gets to see a version of what man would look like if he hadn’t been cast out of the Garden of Eden, which is to say if he hadn’t eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By preserving memorabilia of scientific knowledge, man is essentially partaking of this fruit again. Though Zerchi does not directly acknowledge this implication about the purpose of the abbey’s existence before he dies, the reader must. Man, by nature, can ultimately only destroy itself with this knowledge: the “progress” that is made with it is progress toward our own destruction. It is not so much the fault of the knowledge itself as the fault of the nature of man, which seems reinforced through the figure of Hannegan trying to consolidate his empire in the second section, when nuclear capabilities don’t exist yet. But figures like him will still exist when those capabilities are regained, rendering destruction inevitable. Which is maybe why one shouldn’t read this book in our current times…since ignorance is bliss, as we’ve seen.