Classic Review – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)

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Overview

Synopsis An order of Catholic Monks survive the post-apocalpytic wasteland of rural Utah over the course of 1,200 years.

Author Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Publisher J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Genre Science Fiction

Length 334 Pages

Release Date October 1959

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an art form is for it to get popular. This is not to say that popular entertainment is bad, but popularity introduces market forces into a creative medium and forces it to bend the knee to marketability. This is why most science fiction nowadays looks like Star Wars and Star Trek and most fantasy looks like Lord of the Rings. When one looks back into the golden age of a medium, though, one sees unmitigated creativity. You also see a lot of bad and derivative stories.

The best ones stand out and remain paragons of the nascent days of their genre: H.G. Well’s The Time Traveler, Asimov’s Foundation, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Robert Heinlein’s Strangers in a Strange Land, Olaf Stapleton’s The Last and First Men, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the subject of this month’s classic review – Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As we shall see, the heights of a creative art form can go on to inspire decades of new ideas and to capture themes with depth and specificity, like how an explicitly Catholic science fiction novel would go on to win a Hugo Award and inspire the likes of Carl Sagan.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The book is explicitly Catholic and explores themes of faith, wisdom, knowledge, and how they interact and conflict in a complicated moral world of death, decay, war, and evil.
Violence: The settings is a post-apocalypse, and characters frequently die swift deaths described in brutal unromantic detail. Many are stabbed, crushed, or severely irradiated by nuclear fallout.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language including s*** and d***
Sexual Content: Minimal to none
Drug/Alcohol Use: Minimal to none
Other Negative Themes: Very dark subject matter with occasionally unsettling implications.
Positive Content: Themes of faith, knowledge, and the eternal nature of truth in a world set on descending into horrific ends.

A monk holds a book while staring up to heaven

Review

A Canticle for Leibowitz is going to be immediately familiar to anyone today as a progenitor of the modern post-apocalyptic genre, of which it is a foundational text. Fans of the Fallout series may have their ears perked by the idea of mutants and wanderers roaming the radioactive wasteland of North America, while a cult revere and rebuild the technology of the old world. Such ideas are merely the aesthetics of a book like Canticle for Leibowitz, which is first and foremost a work of heady philosophical consideration. That sounds pretentious, but it isn’t exaggerating to say that this futuristic novel is one of the most overtly Catholic works of fiction of the 20th century.

This has not dampened the reputation of the book in the public consciousness, though. It won the 1961 Hugo Award after being compiled from three short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It has remained in print ever since. It would become the only novel the author finished before his death by suicide in 1996. Miller had worked on a 600-page manuscript for a sequel called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but fell into reclusion and depression before finishing it. It was finished and released in 1997 by another author, but it isn’t quite as well regarded.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is widely regarded by Christians and Secularists alike as a work of stunning prose, moral consideration, and depth. Even the great secular astronomist Carl Sagan, host of Cosmos and author of the anti-religious Demon-Haunted World, wrote of Miller’s novel that it was “so tautly constructed, so rich in the accommodating details of an unfamiliar society that they sweep me along before I have even a chance to be critical.”

Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, Fiat Voluntas Tua

I must abdicate my normal plot summary customary with these classic reviews, for the simple reason that the reader would actually lose something by knowing too much detail going into A Canticle for Leibowitz. The Odyssey is a better novel if you go into it with a general understanding of its structure and what you ought to expect to get out of it. Little can be ruined in a poem like The Song of Roland where the tragic events presuppose its epic lengthy conclusion.

When reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, you will realize that structure is a major part of understanding what the book is saying and how it is saying it. You are meant to examine the changes in the story as it progresses, what doesn’t change, why things do and don’t change, and what values the reader ought to come away with from its apocalyptic setting and story.

A Monastery in the Desert

The book is set in the same location but across three time periods spanning 1,200 years. Set nearly 600 years in the future from a nuclear war, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Catholic monastery located in the deserts of Utah, has continued to operate both as a religious order and a scientific order. It is named for a displaced Jewish scientist who took shelter in the monastery after surviving the war.

Each of the three time periods is noted with a Latin quote — Fiat Homo (“Let There Be Man”), Fiat Lux (“Let There Be Light”), Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Thy Will Be Done”) — and reflect the symbolic moments that each of these three time periods reflects. The first story is set against a lifeless wasteland of raiders and loose settlements, the second story takes place in a vaguely medieval setting at the cusp of a new scientific revolution, and the third story is in a future where two human empires have begun colonizing other planets.

A Novice, A Poet, and an Abbott

Each time period focuses on a new protagonist and plots their journey and relationship to the monastery, as well as the role said monastery plays as the world continues to grapple with new ideas, new challenges, and cataclysmic tragedies. All the while, it remains intact and unchanging. Each of the three novellas is structured the same, beginning with a character introduced during a time of stress and change for the monastery. By the end of the story, our character has had a hand in shaping the future of the world and seeing to it that humanity continues to survive — before they die a brutal, unromantic death, as this is a harsh post-apocalyptic world.

The opening lines of the novel introduce us to our first of three major protagonists, Brother Francis. He is an initiate of the Order who has been sent into the desert alone for a Lenten fast to meditate upon his vocation for the monastery. By chance, a mysterious old man discovers him building a shelter. The man shows him a stone that would serve well for his structure, but in pulling it he finds himself falling into a fallout shelter bearing the name of his order’s founder. He finds a series of technical manuals belonging to the man and returns them to the monastery. This comes at an awkward moment, as the monastery is currently working to appeal to New Rome for Sainthood for the blessed Leibowitz.

600 Years Later…

Hundreds of year in the future, the order is approached by a charismatic man named Thon Taddeo. The man is the most brilliant scientist of his age and is angling to access the preserved ancient tomes of pre-war knowledge that might allow him to revolutionize the world. Meanwhile, the threat of war hangs over the monastery as the neighboring territories of Texarkana and Denver prepare for a war that could draw the Order out of safety.

Finally, the story concludes a further 600 years into the future as humanity has fully rebuilt from the aftermath of the first nuclear war and grown into an interstellar civilization. When rumors surface that the respective Asian and American superpowers are secretly plotting nuclear first strike against one another, the Abbot of the order of St. Leibovitz prepares himself and the church for the reality of a second, more devastating nuclear war. 

Book Cover: A monk stands amongst rocks in a barren desert
Thy Will Be Done: The Cost of Enlightenment

The stories echo in terms of theme, tone, and content; but the emotional through line of the flow of history is in constant tension with the consistency of the church. It is in constant tension with everything around it from the Luddism of the barbarians in the first chapter (descendants of survivors who killed scientists and forsook knowledge itself in the “simplification”) to the scientists and politicians later in the book.

Indeed, the book is best explained through its dissonances, the anachronisms that peak their heads out from the woodwork as mysteries disappear without answers. It is a highly episodic text, but also a text deeply structured to make its rhythms and reflections obvious. When something appears without explanation and disappears, it’s there for a purpose.

Lead amongst them is the mysterious character of the Wandering Jew, a mythological figure who appears twice in the first novella and then receives a more serious exploration in the second. The man not only claims to be more than 600 years old and that he’s a relative of Leibowitz but that he is the Biblical Lazarus kept immortal as a curse following his resurrection by Christ. The novel never fully explains the character, leaving his identity and the truth of his claims unresolved. His purpose is cryptic, but he seems to haunt the narrative in a peculiar way — a trickster who possesses enough knowledge about Hebrew to tell the monks their ancient objects are just common items with Hebrew letters written on them. It is almost as though he is part of some older order of things that haunts the Catholic Church.

The Relationships Between The Sections

Each of the settings also creates unique moral questions. In the final novella, the Abbot is approached by a mother and child who were irradiated by a nuclear blast and who are seeking euthanasia to alleviate a horrific death by radiation poisoning. It sparked the most emotionally harrowing argument in the novel. There is no saving this child from a painful death. There is only the reality of Catholic dogma, that euthanasia and suicide are sins against God and that life is precious in all of its forms. A priest must make the difficult decision to explain to someone why the world they live in and their temptations are wrong:

“I cannot understand a God who is pleased by my baby’s hurting!” The priest winced. “No, no! It is not the pain that is pleasing to God, child. It is the soul’s endurance in faith and hope and love in spite of bodily afflictions that pleases Heaven. Pain is like a negative temptation. God is not pleased by temptations that afflict the flesh. He is pleased when the soul rises above the temptation and says Go Satan. It’s the same with pain, which is often a temptation to despair, anger, loss of faith-” “Save your breath, Father. I’m not complaining. The baby is. But the baby doesn’t understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.” What can I say to that?

This is the purpose of the church in each section. The church is the last operational instruction left on earth in the first millennia after the nuclear war. As science advances, humanity moves with the times and leaves the ancient halls of the Leibowtizian Order behind them until they are on the cusp of total annihilation. As Don Paulo in the second novella reflects: “It never was better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.”

Men Without Chests

The heart of A Canticle for Leibovitz is the quintessential question of the relationship between knowledge and wisdom, a question our modern society all too bravely believes has long since abdicated. In our age of scientism and technocratic specialty, we frequently make the classic John Hammond/Oppenheimer mistake of doing something we can do instead of asking if we should do it. This is, of course, the central moral foundation of Catholic morality, that eternal things are eternal and that good hasn’t stopped being good since the Garden of Eden. All departures from that essential timeless goodness are themselves entropic descents that will inevitably lead to death.

Thon Taddeo makes an excellent and relatable stand-in for that modernistic ideal, a man of the 20th century trapped in the distant future of the 32nd century. He is alienated by the illiteracy and superstition of the populace and church alike, and he seeks only to use the monastery’s knowledge to advance secular knowledge and his own esteem. Whereas the knowledgeable scientists of the book push forward human technology and progress, the Monks stand in place and endeavor to preserve their corner of the moral universe until the bitter end.

Even the novel’s bitter conclusion is suffused with moments of hope and continuity, with cryptic Marian apparitions and the implication of some sort of hope that Christian truth will march on among the stars.

A monk studies a science textbook in the distant future
Retvrn to Tradition: The Eternal Nature of Christianity

A Canticle for Leibovitz is ultimately quite edifying and comforting in that sense. Even when it makes you stare into the abyss, it has its feet firmly rooted. It finds a way to ground the earthy pains of material reality with the reality of the divine that feels honest and approachable.

Such a truth was something that deeply impacted Walter Miller. He had served as a gunner aboard an Army Air Force bomber during the American siege of Italy during World War II and participated in the horrific destruction of the ancient abbey in Monte Cassino, which at the time had unknowingly been filled with monks and civilians. As he recalled, “I was writing the first version of the scene where [Spoiler] lies [Spoiler] in the [Spoiler]. Then a light bulb came on over my head: ‘Good [Expletive], is this the abbey at Monte Cassino? What have I been writing?’” Miller converted to Catholicism after the war but the tension of trauma and depression tore away at him until his eventual suicide.

As dark as that all is, it also helps that it’s a joyful novel to read, darkly comic in a very melancholic way. Its anachronistic moments are filled with great bits of humor and irony, and it all ties in beautifully with the core tension of the novel’s premise. As Jon Michaud at The New Yorker writes, there is something deeply comedic about the idea that “the Catholic Church, like a cockroach, cannot be killed by a nuclear war.”

Such is Christianity — a force that fully preserves the fullness of the world and the inner life of man in all of its joy and sorrows. As Lydia McGrew Ph.D., a scholar of epistemology and English literature, says, the book “is all about preserving what can be preserved, even in unlikely places.” She continues, “The Latin Mass is a constant thread in the book (published in 1960, before Vatican II), and it provides a symbol of the continuity of the Church no matter what the rest of man may do.”

The Humble Image of God

In one of my favorite moments of the second novella, Thon Thadeo is speaking to a priest when they view a somewhat dim and unintelligent peasant walking by. The scholar says:

“Look. Can you bring yourself to believe that that brute is the lineal descendant of men who supposedly invented machines that flew, who traveled to the moon…? Can you believe there were such men?…Look at him! No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Peresis. But he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous….Look at him, and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?”

The priest replies, “The image of Christ… What did you expect me to see?” Man does not stop being man in all of his fallenness, brokenness, joy, and pain. Good things will always remain good. As my friend Bethel McGrew writes at The Critic, Miller’s characters offer “the conviction that life, even painful life that ends in a slow, painful death, is good. We are born and grown to die with dignity, not as it has been redefined, but as God has defined it for us, as creatures whose bodies and immortal souls bear a divine stamp.”

Positives

+ Amazingly Tightknit Structure
+ Complex Themes Woven Throughout
+ Excellent and Complex Characters

Negatives

- Novella structure mean characters change constantly

The Bottom Line

A Canticle for Leibowitz remains one of the greatest works of science fiction of the 20th century and one of the most engaging explorations of Christian moral philosophy in contemporary fiction!

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 10

Editing 10

9.6

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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