Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Analysis

  • Tone

    Realismus Ipso Facto Ironica

    Which, of course, translates to "realism by the fact that it is ironic to be realistic and all, and a bag of chips." We think. Our Latin is pretty rusty. And wasn't particularly good to begin with.

    But the tone of A Canticle does strike an excellent balance between the realistic and the ironic even if we can't write it in Latin. Just consider this little tidbit:

    Having completed the facsimile, Brother Francis found himself disappointed. The drawing was too stark. There was nothing about it to suggest at first glance that it might be a holy relic. The style was terse and unpretentious—fittingly enough, perhaps for the Beatus himself, and yet— (7.86)

    We can see realism in the way Brother Francis approaches the Memorabilia. As he plans to illuminate the copy, he considers how to best display the work of his soon-to-be patron saint. The tone of the story realistically portrays the reverence one would expect a monk to have for such a holy relic.

    But then the whole scenario rests on a comfy cushion of irony. We know the blueprint shows the guts of a "'STATOR WNDG MOD 73-A 3-PH 6-P 1800RPM 5-HP CL-A SQUIRREL CAGE'" and realize this is just a perfectly ordinary part of a perfectly ordinary motor (7.54). Leibowitz created the thing as an electrician, not a saint. It's no holier than any number of other such doodads we have lying around patent offices.

    This tone of realism-resting-on-irony continues throughout the story, although not always with such comical results. Images of war are always presented in detail, but the characters engaged in those wars never actually want to be fighting them.

    Like the Poet at the end of Fait Lux. Characters like Hannegan and the Defense Minister—the ones who seek out the bloody battles—don't fight them themselves.

    Ah. Realism and irony: what a wickedly awesome pair.

  • Genre

    Science Fiction, Comedy, Magical Realism

    To Boldly Go

    …where every man has gone before. Yeah, this is not Star Trek. The novel has no phasers set to stun and no alien races in need of rescue and/or seduction. There's barely even a spaceship, and no main character ever leaves Earth.

    But A Canticle for Leibowitz remains science fiction all the same. The novel invests much of its time, plot, and thematic energy in debating the importance of science. The novel questions whether or not science is necessary for human progress, who should control the technological output, and whether or not science will inevitably destroy our society.

    These questions start off small, when the cutting-edge innovation of the story is nothing but a light bulb. But they become really important in the final section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, when technology has finally produced nuclear weapons, spaceships, and the dreaded Autoscribe.

    In this way, A Canticle is like all great science fiction stories. It's less about the science of the future, and more about the society of the present.

    Laughing in the Face of Death

    A Canticle is a comedy. Sure, it's filled with death, its cup brims with what Hobbes would call that "short, brutish, and nasty" life, and if you don't cry by the end, double check to make sure you aren't a machine sent back to kill and/or protect John Connor.

    But that doesn't mean we can't have a good time, right? The novel employs what those in the know call gallows or black humor. That is, the humor derives from the treatment of the story's dark, disturbing, and sometimes downright violent subject matter.

    We laugh when the monks need to scoot on their treadmills to get a single light working, even though it's pretty sad at the same time (18.30). Similarly, we chuckle at the sermon that tells of the nuclear holocaust in a style similar to the Book of Job, never mind that it describes a frightfully awful event (18.9). And let's not forget when Taddeo mistakes a play with robots in it for a historical tract, even though the implications of such mistakes can have lasting consequences when made by influential men like the thon (22.83).

    The subject matter may be dead serious (pun intended), but then again, so are the laughs.

    I Have the Power

    Finally, A Canticle is magical realism. Maybe. See, magical realism exists when a story has a few magical elements in an otherwise possible and realistic narrative. Depending on how you read A Canticle, it may or may not qualify as such.

    You have that power.

    But before you start power-tripping on us, let's discuss what you're committing to. For the novel to be magical realism, it needs some supernatural elements. So, you've got to decide whether or not Benjamin is immortal, and whether or not Rachel really visits the dying Zerchi.

    In both instances, we are given reasons to believe these things might not be true. Benjamin could just be a crazy old coot living too long under a maddeningly hot desert sun. Rachel could be a figment of Zerchi's imagination made extra potent thanks to blood loss.

    But these incidents could be real. We don't know for sure.

    Either way, remember that your choice isn't set in stone or writ in blood or anything like that. You can totally change your mind if you feel like it. That's one of the best parts of literary interpretation, if you ask us.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    It's kind of a tricky title, we know. Well, a and for are pretty straightforward, and once you start reading the story, you figure out what a Leibowitz is pretty fast. But canticle requires some digging.

    A canticle is a hymn or song of praise. Although any song of praise can be called a canticle for artistic purposes, the name is mostly reserved for songs of praise taken directly from the Bible.

    For example, the Benedictus (or the Canticle of Zachary) takes its lyrics from Luke 1:68-79. But A Canticle for Leibowitz doesn't come from the Bible. It's science fiction.

    So what is Mr. Miller doing by throwing the word canticle in his title?

    Canticle in a Can

    Consider this: canticles are songs, and so they have a rhythm to them. In the same way, the events of A Canticle are set to the rhythm of history. Our history went from Early Middle Ages to Renaissance to Modern Era, and so does the fictional future history of the novel.

    The people maybe different, and the events given different names, but the underlying beat remains unchanged.

    Canticles teach religious heritage as well, often by snatching their lyrics right out of the Bible. So when you learn a canticle, you learn the teachings of the Bible. A Canticle plays with this nature of the canticle by blending religious heritage with scientific heritage, and contemporary issues.

    You can peep this mélange in the novel's very own made-up canticle, a "Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz":

    V: Lucifer is fallen.
    R: Kyrie eleison.
    V: Lucifer is fallen.
    R: Christe eleison.
    V: Lucifer is fallen.
    R: Kyrie eleison, eleison imas!
    (24.25)

    The religious and the scientific heritage together here. The Lucifer of the verse signifies the atomic bomb, and the response of the choir is for God's mercy (source). This canticle also sounds very much like something written during the Cold War, when nuclear war seemed a very real prospect.

    The fear was so real that schools had drills for just such a war, complete with cartoon turtle spokesmen and everything. And again, notice the repetition featured in this canticle; this repetition parallels our own history, as we discussed earlier.

    So that's that. Now, dear Shmooper, you know why Mr. Miller put the canticle in A Canticle for Leibowtiz.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Okay, we know why you're here. There you were, just reading away, and then: bam. Shark. You've just got to know what's up with that carnivorous fish, right?

    We've got plenty of ideas about that, but you're going to have wait for us to discuss the rest of the ending first. Or, if you're only here for the sharks and nothing but the sharks, just scroll down to our shark section.

    To Infinity and Not Far Beyond

    So we've come to the novel's end. It's a small chapter, but one jammed with important imagery.

    The Quo Peregrinatur is boarded by children and monks, and nuclear weapons are blowing the world back to something that would make the Stone Age look advanced by comparison. Then:

    The last monk, upon entering, paused in the lock. He stood in the open hatchway and took of his sandals. "Sic transit mundus," he murmured, looking back at the glow. He slapped the soles of his sandals together, beating the dirt out of them. (30.5)

    Finally, the ship launches "itself heavenward" with the Memorabilia (30.6).

    For starters, let us note that this is one of the few places where children are specifically mentioned in the novel. Most of the story takes place at an abbey, so we haven't seen a lot of kids running amok before.

    The only other notable mention of children in the whole novel is the poor child who suffered from radiation sickness. In contrast to that kid, these kids have survived the nuclear holocaust, and so they symbolize what you'd expect children to symbolize: the future of humanity.

    Then we come to the monk. His murmuring translates to "so goes the world" or "so passes the world" and his removing the dirt from his sandals evoke his act of leaving the Earth (literally and figuratively) behind (source). He doesn't want to take the Earth with him as he ascends into space. It's a fresh start. With clean feet.

    Calling the move into space a "heavenward" journey hints that better times awaits those who have managed to leave the fiery hell of Earth. In fact, in many classic science fiction stories, the move to space results in transcendence for humanity as it shows us leaving our primitive, old school problems behind for something better.

    You can check out Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End for a classic example. But the Memorabilia remain.

    As Joshua notes earlier, the Memorabilia could be a blessing or a curse. That depends on whether or not the Memorabilia are "perverted by Man, as fire had been" (26.60). So, we're left to wonder what will become of humanity as it colonizes the stars.

    Space travel might symbolize a new beginning, but it's no guarantee. Will the cycle finally be broken when humanity moves into space, or will it merely repeat itself on a cosmic scale? Will our hopes for humanity's progress amount to nothing?

    Shark Weak

    Now onto that confounding shark.

    After the world has been laid to nuclear waste, the ocean washes driftwood and a plane ashore. Then the dead shrimp and dead fish flow onto the beach. And at long last, a "shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents" (30.8). He's "very hungry that season" (30.8).

    Let's not forget that these beasties have been around a long time. Approximately 200 million years before the earliest known dinosaurs, to be exact (source). Sharks were built to last.

    So the shark returning to its "old clean currents" suggests that it will survive the fallout, even if its survival will be a hungry one. Life on Earth will not vanish, but simply regress back to an older state—the one that existed well before us people-things arrived.

  • Setting

    The Abbey Leibowitz in the World of Tomorrow, Yesterday

    Discussing the setting of A Canticle for Leibowitz requires you to consider the traditional setting duo of time and place. Or perhaps we should have said times and place.

    Each part of the novel takes place in the same general location: the Leibowitz Abbey in the future state of Texarkana (located in what we'd refer to today as the American southwest). Sure, the novel takes a few detours to places like New Rome and the plains, but mostly it stays centered on the Leibowitz Abbey and the surrounding area.

    As for time, each story of the novel occurs in its own era. These three stories are separated by about 600 years, and the first of them happens in the 26th century, roughly 600 years in our own future.

    That's roughly 1800 years of future history we have to consider, so we'd best be on our way.

    Days of Future Past

    Yep, we're total comic book nerds. Although the future in A Canticle is as dark as that of Earth-811, that's pretty much where the similarities end. Instead of a dystopian future where mutants hide in fear of Sentinels run amok, we get a future where nuclear holocaust quiet literally blew the world back to the Dark Ages.

    Well, nuclear holocaust and a little event called the Simplification.

    During the Simplification, a large group of people who dubbed themselves "Simpletons" were reasonably upset that their rulers destroyed the world. Their response, however, was anything but reasonable.

    The Simpletons went on a crusade of anarchy and anti-intellectualism across the world. They burned all the books they could find, murdered the former rulers, crucified scientists, and even killed people for the crime of being able to read. (For a more detailed analysis of the Simplification, click on over to our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.)

    Afterward, the world entered a sort of Dark Ages. This is where A Canticle comes in. Each of its individual sections is based on an actual period in Western history.

    Fiat Homo is based on the Early Middle Ages, a.k.a. the Dark Ages. It's an era of hard living, highway robbery, and death followed by more death. The novel even calls it one of those "dark periods when man's 'knowledge' of wind, stars, and rain was really only brief" (9.38). Sounds like a Dark Age to us.

    Fiat Lux draws influence from the Renaissance. A collegium expands education beyond the walls of monasteries, and science, technology, and the scientific method return to the world—if only by baby steps. The term used in the novel for this era is the "'Awakening Generation'" (13.11).

    Yawn. Okay, Okay, We're Awake Now.

    In Fiat Voluntas Tua, we finally see the resurrection of another modern era. Actually, it's a bit beyond our modern era, since technology has seen the development of spaceships and space colonies, as well as automatons and nuclear weapons. They may not have computers, but since that Autoscribe seems to be blue screening it, we're going to count that as close enough.

    By drawing parallels between periods in Western history, A Canticle is able to explore both the future and the past simultaneously. Again, here, we see the cyclical nature of time. For all of our progress, humanity's current upswing won't last forever.

    There's some inevitable fall to come. Like Rome and countless others before us, our civilization will fall, and then the civilization that follows that will fall. The cycle will go on and on.

    And that's where the Leibowitz Abbey comes in.

    Bricks and Mortar No More

    The Leibowitz Abbey doesn't stand outside the cycles of time. Nothing can. But it comes as close as anything could, and this prevents the Memorabilia and the knowledge hidden within it from being completely lost every time the cycle repeats itself.

    The abbey is first described as being on a road "from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times" (1.5). It keeps the Memorabilia protected by being separated from what amounts to civilization in that dark era.

    In the next era, we learn from Dom Paulo that the abbey has grown into a "'walled citadel'" that has "'never been taken by siege or assault'" (19.27). In the final era, Zerchi splits the abbey's membership, sending some of its monks into space aboard the Quo Peregrinatur to protect the Memorabilia.

    In each case, we see the Leibowitz Abbey evolving to meet the demands of the new era and keep the Memorabilia safe. But as Zerchi notes:

    The Order conform[s] to the times, to an age of uranium and steel and flaring rocketry, amid the growl of heavy industry and the high thin whine of star drive converters. The Order conform[s]—at least in superficial ways. (25.139)

    While the abbey may have evolved its methods from walled citadel to rocket ship, its mission remains the same. This grants the abbey a sort of extra-temporal quality. That is, its mission stands outside the confines of time's cyclical nature.

    The protection of human knowledge is the core of the place forever and always. Aw, isn't that sweet?

    The monks of the abbey also grant the abbey a status outside of time. Sure, the individual members of the abbey are subjects of time, same as anyone. They live and they die. To boot, they often die in particularly horrible ways.

    But the Leibowitz Abbey monks are described as a singular "organism," each working toward the same goal (25.141). This means the abbey lives while the individual parts of it—Brother Francis, Dom Paulo, and Father Zerchi—do not. This also means that the abbey can be viewed as a character in and of itself.

    And the Quo Peregrinatur gives the abbey a chance to survive the destruction of Earth. So while Brother Francis, Dom Paulo, and Zerchi might have lost their individual conflicts, the Leibowitz Abbey lives on. It's basically like there's an unwritten "To Be Continued…" at the end of the novel.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    This one's a toughie. We were thinking, "Maybe it deserves a four. Or perhaps a six. It really depends on you, dear reader."

    Miller's writing has some complex sentences that run a little long, and there are a few words in there that you'll likely need a handy-dandy dictionary to interpret. (We're looking at you, bicephalous.) But his images are clear, and you won't wonder who's who or what's going on in the story more globally.

    The difficulty enters when all those Latin phrases come a-knocking. True, you can skip over them if you'd like, and you'll still understand most of the story. Most. Not all.

    If you want to wrap your head around all of the work's themes and its moral and political nuances, then you'll need to translate that Latin. So unless you're fluent in this dead tongue, the book will prove a little more challenging for you.

    We recommend you boot up your favorite online translator—or even crack open a Latin phrase book, gasp—grab a pencil, and pour yourself an extra cup of your favorite beverage. But don't worry, there's not that much Latin. And there are a lot of cool mutant-children.

  • Writing Style

    The Best of Many Worlds

    A Canticle for Leibowitz is neither a full-on science fiction story nor an entirely literary novel. It's both, existing in that extra-dimensional space between genre conventions. And so it makes sense that its writing style would enjoy a bit of extra-dimensional depth as well.

    Consider this scene:

    Zerchi sat on the floor in the midst of the litter and tried to massage the involuntary tremor out of his forearm, which had been recently electrified while exploring the Autoscribe's intestinal regions. The muscular twitching reminded him of the galvanic response of a severed frog's leg. (24.63)

    We can see science fiction's influence on the writing style in the nonce word, Autoscribe. Science fiction writers love their nonce words—that is, words made up for a particular occasion and not the more recent uses of nonce.

    We also see science fiction's influence in the "galvanic response of a severed frog's leg." Science fiction stories often craft images, similes, and metaphors around technology and scientific history, and this image is a direct reference to Luigi Galvani's famous experiments with electricity and frog legs.

    (Fun fact: Galvani's experiments served as the inspiration for another famous science fiction novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)

    The literary influence comes in the form of sentence structure. The sentences vary in size from short to long but tend, more often than not, to be on the longer side. Like the first sentence in the example above, they tend to be compound-complex sentences and mostly back-ended.

    In other words, they connect many different clauses together, but generally start with a very simple subject and verb—in this case, "Zerchi sat." Then they provide the details in the sentence's back-end.

    If you want to see an exquisite example of this sentence type in literary fiction, pick up any William Faulkner novel or short story.

    Of course, A Canticle draws on a host of other traditions, not just science fiction and literary fiction. And so we wouldn't be surprised to hear someone arguing for an experimental writing style, or even a classical one.

    Rather than taking our examples here as the be-all-end-all, you should simply consider them a good start. You might just find your own, personal undiscovered dimension inside of the novel. Whee.

  • Light and Fire

    Images of light and fire appear all over the novel, and they often go together. Makes sense, right? Strike a match, and, look at that—you get both fire and light.

    The result is a symbol with a dual nature. The light aspect of the symbol represents knowledge, a very literal take on the concept of enlightening. The fire part of the symbol represents the destructive capability of that knowledge, in the same way that an uncontrolled fire can seriously wreck your day. Not to mention your house.

    But we also need to consider the history of these symbols in other stories. A Canticle is not the first story to use light and fire in this way. It actually draws its inspiration from two famous mythological figures. Because, hey, if it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for A Canticle.

    We Didn't Start the Fire

    The first mythic figure is Prometheus. We won't go into all the details here—mostly because we went into them here. What's important to remember about Prometheus when reading A Canticle is the way fire represents knowledge, specifically forbidden knowledge—a.k.a. the awesomest of all knowledge.

    Dom Paulo forges this link between fire and knowledge when he notes:

    Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were their minds ready to be kindled. (14.2)

    In this way, the symbol of fire in Prometheus is very similar to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. That is, a god doesn't want humanity to grasp some forbidden knowledge, but humanity does just that through the help of another supernatural force.

    Star Light, Star Bright

    And speaking of that other supernatural force, let's discuss Lucifer, the second mythic figure. Lucifer's name is linked to light and fire two times in the novel. The first happens when the monk working the dynamo yells "'Lucifer!'" as he sparks the arc lamp (18.36).

    At the same time, a library clerk mistakes the arc lamp for a fire (18.39). So the scene is a twofer, connecting the name with both light and fire simultaneously.

    In Fiat Voluntas Tua, the Church's code word for nuclear weapons is "LUCIFER" (24.25). As you can probably guess, the boom of nuclear fission contains a whole bunch of light. And even more fire. Not to mention radiation and one crazy shockwave. Dude.

    Of course, the word Lucifer is meant to suggest Satan, Abbadon, the Devil, the Beast, the Opposer, the Antichrist, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Wait, the last one's Voldemort. Sorry, we get them confused sometimes. Point is, the dude's got a lot of names.

    But A Canticle is diving deeper into the Lucifer myth than simply associating the word with the devil. The origin of Lucifer comes from the Latin meaning "morning star" or "light-bringer."

    It's the Latinate name for Venus, because the planet appears in the east in the early morning before the sun rises. So it seems to bring forth the light of day (source). Let there be light.

    Lucifer didn't become associated with the devil until later Biblical translations. When early translators needed a word for the Greek Phosphoros, they used Lucifer. As a result, Isaiah 14:12 reads:

    How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

    Some Bible readers associated the passage with the fall of Satan from heaven and assumed Lucifer to be Satan's proper name. This is why we associate the two together today.

    In actuality, the passage is about a Babylonian king, and Lucifer/Venus is being used as a metaphor for the heavenly heights he'll never reach as an earthly king—not as a proper name. Similarly, Bible readers would come to associate Satan with the trickster Serpent from the Garden of Eden.

    These associations link the word Lucifer with all of the important aspects of light and fire in A Canticle. The word origin for Lucifer links it to light, the Serpent association with forbidden knowledge, and its connection to the figure of the devil with the idea of sin.

    Whew. That was a lot. We know.

    Here Comes the Boom

    Let's get back to the symbol in the novel itself, and how light and fire represent knowledge in its dual capacity: the ability to enlighten, but also to destroy.

    We see the ability to enlighten many times in the novel. When Francis creates his illuminated copy of the Leibowitz blueprint, he's literally illuminating a piece of knowledge that will enlighten later generations.

    Brother Kornhoer's knowledge re-invents the arc lamp, and later illuminates the library for Thon Taddeo. This allows him to read the information stored in the Memorabilia.

    And finally, building a spaceship, the Quo peregrinatur, allows the "small flame of knowledge" to be kept "smoldering" rather than be blown out by nuclear fallout. Get it—blown out by nuclear fallout? Okay, fine, it's not funny.

    But the same knowledge that creates fire for light also creates the fire that burns. Thon Taddeo believes re-introducing scientific knowledge into the world will result in positive change, but that that change must first "'come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury" (20.127, emphasis ours).

    And then there's the big daddy of knowledge as fire: the nuclear bomb. When Zerchi describes the nuclear bomb that destroys the abbey, he focuses on the light and how it "[grows] bright and brighter until the booth was full of bright noon" (29.31).

    The light itself takes on the attributes of fire, and even burns the confessional booth's curtain. In the end, the return of this type of scientific knowledge to the world ultimately destroys it. Boom. (Yeah, we said it.)

  • Skulls and Buzzards

    We know what you're thinking. When skulls and buzzards appear on a list of symbols—together no less—it can't be good news for the novel's characters. You're right; it isn't.

    And it isn't exactly good news for us readers either. Here's why.

    "Alas, Poor Yorick" 

    Images of skulls only appear twice, but they bookend the novel, showing up at the beginning and end of the story. This makes them stand out more than they would if they were buried somewhere in the middle.

    The first skull is discovered by Brother Francis in the Fallout Shelter. As he searches for interesting trinkets from the past, he notices a skull "lying among the rocks in a darker corner, still retain[ing] a gold tooth in its grin" (2.12). Francis becomes frustrated at the skull's grin and wonders, "Why don't you grin at something else for a change?" (2.16)

    The second skull, ironically enough, belongs to Brother Francis. As Zerchi lies dying amongst the abbey's rubble, he finds a skull with "a hole in the forehead" and what "[looks] like the remains of an arrow" in it (29.64).

    Zerchi blesses the skull and wonders what the owner had done for humanity and civilization before they repaid him with an arrow through the dome (29.66). Of course, the author doesn't call Francis's head a dome, but we do.

    Not Inspired by the Beatles

    Unlike skulls, buzzards appear all over this novel:

    • Brother Francis mentions the buzzards in the second paragraph of the novel (1.2).
    • The wanderer chases the birds off the corpse of Brother Francis before burying him at the end of Fiat Homo (11.87).
    • When we first meet Dom Paulo, he's watching the "buzzards circling over the mesa of Last Resort" (13.9).
    • Later on, Dom Paulo fans himself with "a fan of buzzard feathers" (14.81).
    • After the wolves have their go at the Poet, the buzzards also pick at the man at the end of Fiat Lux (23.21).
    • Father Zerchi, like Dom Paulo before him, watches buzzards from the abbey. This time, they circle "'the Green Star camp down the highway'" (28.55). 
    • A buzzard checks out a dying Zerchi before the abbot's final passing at the end of Fiat Voluntas Tua. Zerchi notices that "its feathers were singed from the flash, and it kept one eye closed" (29.73).

    And that's just a few examples. The keen-eyed reader will find many, many more, some out in the open and others well-hidden in the text. But what do they mean?

    Deadly Memo

    All of these skull and buzzard images are what we'd call a memento mori symbol. In Latin, memento mori translates roughly to "remember you will die," and these symbols represent just such a reminder (source).

    A Canticle takes it a bit further than that though. Most memento mori symbols, such as Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas, remind us that death is an inevitable part of our future. No amount of success, beauty, or good deeds will change that.

    The buzzards in the novel serve a similar function. They show up time and time again, always in the distance, a constant reminder that the characters will die in time. When that time comes, the buzzards swoop down from their distant circling to feast.

    But, as that last buzzard shows us, even they are susceptible to death's calling. And what about the skulls? The skulls are a lot like the buzzards, only with an extra layer of symbolism. For extra fun.

    They remind readers not only that they will die, but also that all that has come before them has died as well. Since the skulls bookend the novel, they seem to suggest that death and destruction bookend all human endeavors.

    You can't escape death because it is in the past, present, and future. Depressed yet? We sure are. Then again, that might be the point.

  • Simplification

    The Simplification almost sounds pleasant, in an infomercial kind of way: "Life too complicated? Feel like your day-to-day is as tangled as the wires behind your TV? Then grab some Simplification juice, now in grape flavor."

    But this might be the most horrifying of all the symbols in A Canticle. It wraps up all of humanity's primitive traits into a single futuristic era of terrifying glory. We never witness the Simplification in the novel itself but its vast, horrible consequences are felt throughout the story.

    Here's the rundown.

    Simplifying the Simplification

    The rulers of the 20th century (called "the princes" in the future) sought the power to defend themselves from their enemies. Their scientists (magi) provided the princes with nuclear weapons but warned them to only use the weapons to discourage the other princes from using such weapons themselves.

    This precarious situation worked about as well as you'd expect, and pretty soon the Earth was an enflamed mass of nuclear nastiness. Then came the Simplification. The unwashed, and now rather charred, masses of the world cried out in their hate:

    Let us make a holocaust of those who wrought this crime, together with their hirelings and their wise men; burning, let them perish, and all their works, their names, and even their memories. Let us destroy them all, and teach our children that the world is new, that they may know nothing of the deeds that went before. Let us make a great simplification, and then the world shall begin again. (6.12)

    While everyone could use a fresh start every now and then, the follows of the Simplification took things a wee bit too far. They burned books and destroyed cities.

    The "remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death" (6.13).

    All in all, it was not a pleasant time. To say the least.

    Ignorance is Totally Not Bliss

    The Simplification is all about the dangers of our ignorance. Ignorance of morality, ignorance of scientific knowledge, ignorance of others' wants and needs, all of these fuel the Simplification.
    Ignorance leads the simpletons to take up the more animalistic side of humanity, complete with murder, tribalism, and even cannibalism.

    Now, A Canticle also questions the value and dangers of scientific knowledge and technology. But the consensus seems to be: scientific knowledge might lead humanity to danger, but ignorance certainly will.

    Ignorance = never good. Not once, not ever.

  • The Road

    It's pretty much a rule that whenever you have a road in a work of art, it's a symbol. Ever read Cormac McCarthy's The Road? Duh. And let's not forget On the Road by Kerouac and "The Road Not Taken" by Frost.

    The Rascal Flatts song "Life is a Highway" explains the symbol right in the title. And then there's A Canticle, which joins this group of artistic works, all thanks to the road leading to the Leibowitz Abbey.

    This road appears in all three eras:

    • In Fiat Homo, the road is one "from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times" (1.5).
    • In Fiat Lux, travel to the abbey becomes far more doable, minus the occasional road hazard or bandit.
    • Finally in Fiat Voluntas Tua, the road now separates the various buildings of the abbey. Crossing it is dangerous because the automated vehicles might run you down. As Brother Joshua puts it, it is "like crossing an eon" (24.185).

    This road doesn't represent life or a state of mind like many road symbols. Instead, it symbolizes the progress of humanity, almost serving as a physical timeline for it.

    Francis first meets the wanderer while walking over the road, coming into view like something out of the past. Then the road grows to accommodate many more travelers, and the town of Sanly Bowitz. It eventually becomes a technological marvel, but like all technology in the novel, this marvel is dangerous.

    As humanity progresses, the road becomes larger and easier to travel on, but that travel also becomes more and more treacherous. Francis only had to worry about the occasional stranger, but Thon Taddeo had to concern himself with an entire tribe of rough-and-tumble tribal warriors.

    In the final era, automated vehicles threaten to mow down any passerby not quick enough to scurry out of harm's way.

    So the road simultaneously helps and hurts people, like humanity's scientific progress in general. In the end, A Canticle seems to suggest that if life is a highway, and you're going to ride it all night long—whether you want to or not.

  • Rocks and Stones

    Rocks and stones are everywhere in A Canticle for Leibowitz. We imagine the complete and total destruction of the world would leave you with a surplus of rubble. But the novel doesn't contain references to rocks and stones just to make the novel's wasteland more believable, or to maintain the nuclear holocaust feng shui.

    Here are a couple of the more meaningful appearances of rocks and stones in the novel:

    • Francis is building a shelter out of rocks when the wanderer meets him. It's noted that the rocks he's using are from the ruins of the last civilization, and that "human erosion had all but obliterated [their] resemblance to buildings" (1.72).
    • In Fiat Lux, the soldiers and Thon Taddeo take detailed measurements of the stone walls of the abbey. Dom Paulo also references how the abbey's walls are thick to provide sanctuary for any philosopher seeking it (22.130).
    • When the nuclear blast hits, Zerchi is caught in the destroyed abbey, leaving him buried beneath "[f]ive tons of rock" (29.42).

    Of course, this list is far from complete, but these examples serve our primary point. Among other things, rocks and stones symbolize the cyclic nature of time. The rocks Francis uses to build his shelter come from the buildings of the previous civilization.

    Later, the Leibowitz Abbey builds thick walls from these stones, showing the beginnings of another civilization. But this civilization comes to be destroyed by nuclear weapons as well, and the same thick walls Dom Paulo bragged about bury and kill the new abbot.

    The stones return to the earth and bring Zerchi with them.

    The question remains though: will Rachel use these stones to build a shelter as Brother Francis once did? Guess we'll have to read the sequel to find out. Wait, there is no sequel. Aw, shucks.

  • The Memorabilia

    Memorabilia is defined as something "remarkable and worthy of remembrance" (source). The Memorabilia collection of the Leibowitz Abbey doesn't stray too far from this definition either. It's a collection of books, documents, articles, and other literary mementos collected from the previous civilization to preserve for a time when humanity may be ready for it again.

    The irony of the Memorabilia is that the monks of the abbey can't probably discern what should be "worthy of remembrance" and what is trivial. A tract on nuclear fission and a play about robot workers (22.83) might be housed with racing forms and shopping lists that include a pound of pastrami (2.26).

    As time passes, the important becomes trivial, and the trivial becomes important. But boy, does that process take a long time.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

    In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the narrator has the ability to enter any character's perspective it chooses—and it does just that. One of the best examples of the narrator's third-person omniscient style comes at the end of Fiat Homo.

    Up until this point, we've mostly been stuck inside of Francis's point of view. But then Francis takes a headshot like a noob. So suddenly, we're inside of the old wanderer's perspective.

    Then we enter the perspective of the valley's predators. And finally, we enter no one's perspective in particular when the narrator notes:

    Eventually it was the Year of Our Lord 3174.
    There were rumors of war.
    (12.96-97)

    When a narrator travels in and out of that many characters—not to mention species—and across a couple hundred years, you know it's definitely an omniscient narrator.

    As for the third-person bit, this means the narrator is not directly involved in the story. He's an outsider looking in, telling us what the characters are doing and thinking without being a character himself. This is why the narrator tells the story like this:

    He sniffed. No smoke or ozone to be detected. Finally, he opened his eyes. (24.101)

    If the narrator were inside of the story, those sentences would be written in first-person: I sniffed. Finally, I opened my eyes. Badda-bing, badda-boom, third-person narrator.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      To re-repeat ourselves: A Canticle for Leibowitz can be read as one whole, or as three different stories. In this section, we'll be analyzing how the whole novel fits into Booker's "Tragedy" plot structure.

      But each story could also be considered its own little tragedy… or perhaps even another of Booker's classic seven basic plots. We'll leave that snoopin' up to you, dear Shmooper.

      Anticipation Stage

      Holy Diver

      Basically the entirety of Fiat Homo is anticipation. We learn that the world is an awful place, with some serious Early Middle Ages vibes going on. The monks of the Leibowitz Abbey hope to one day return the world to its former, more civilized ways.

      To help this process, they protect the Memorabilia: a collection of writings from the previous civilization. Brother Francis's discovery of the Fallout Shelter, and the question as to whether or not Leibowitz (the founder of their abbey) is really a saint, help the abbey find focus on this quest.

      Dream Stage

      Got to Believe It's Getting Better

      The first half of Fiat Lux provides the Dream Stage. Civilization begins to experience a kind of Renaissance. Secular scholar Thon Taddeo wants to study the abbey's Memorabilia to verify its authenticity, and learn from it if it proves to be authentic.

      Dom Paulo is reluctant, but accepts Taddeo's offer, believing "[m]ore communication, not less, [is] probably the best therapy for easing any tension" between secular and church scholars (19.65).

      Things get even dreamier when Brother Kornhoer's arc lamp works, returning lost technology to the world. The arc lamp even makes the pompous Taddeo think twice about his views on monks. We're impressed.

      Frustration Stage

      You Can't Always Get What You Want

      Then things go south. Thon Taddeo's contempt for the church brings that whole communication angle to a halt right quick. Hannegan also makes his bid for power, as he deems the Pope a heretic and any member of the Church who sides with him a traitor (22.51).

      Frustration builds until Dom Paulo finally confronts Taddeo over whether or not he'll be loyal to Hannegan's war-mongering state. Believing he has no choice, and hating the very idea of working for the Church, Taddeo stays loyal to Hannegan.

      At the end of Fiat Lux, Dom Paulo extends an invitation to Thon Taddeo and other secular scholars to come and study at the abbey whenever they'd like, hoping to keep those communication doors open. We're given some small hope that things will turn out all right.

      But then…

      Nightmare Stage

      Suicide Is(n't) Painless

      Then things really go south. In Fiat Voluntas Tua, we see that the State has seized the power of nuclear weapons but seems no more willing to listen to scholars or wise men than it did in Hannegan's day.

      Things get out of control, and the return of nuclear holocaust becomes more of a promise than a threat. Zerchi and the Church prepare the Quo Peregrinatur to keep the Church and Memorabilia safe in space.

      After that, Zerchi tries to save a woman and her child from accepting State-sponsored euthanasia after both are horribly injured in a nuclear strike. He tries to convince her that such an act is an unforgivable sin, but the woman decides to accept the offer anyway.

      Powerless to stop her, Zerchi despairs over the future of the world.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      Weapon of Choice

      The Destruction Stage occurs when the Earth becomes a crispy, lifeless husk—thanks to a nuclear war. Done and done. Kind of obvious, are we right?

      The abbey is blown to bits, and Zerchi is buried to death beneath its stones. The current battle between Church and State, as well as between peace and violence, has been lost.

      But the outcome of future battles is unknown, and we're very timidly optimistic about having Brother Joshua and Rachel survive. But chances are slim that things will get any better in Mr. Miller's imaginary world.

      Ah, tragedy. How wonderfully depressing you are.

    • Plot Analysis

      A Canticle for Leibowitz is one big novel, but also three distinct stories. Cool, huh? This means that we could analyze the plot structure of the novel as a whole, or we could analyze each individual story's separately. Here, we've chosen to look at how Fiat Voluntas Tua fits the classic plot structure, but hey. Feel free to follow our lead and analyze the other two stories on your own.

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      A Future without Dippin' Dots

      …or even a computer. Weird to think of a science fiction story that doesn't have a single computer in it, huh?

      Anyway, Fiat Voluntas Tua begins with Zerchi's quest to get the Quo Peregrinatur program up and running. During this time, we learn about the war-torn status of the world, we discover Zerchi's personal stake in the whole space mission, and we receive information on how the abbey and its mission have changed.

      Brother Joshua's decision to lead the Order into space mostly signals the end of the exposition. Backstory over. Onward toward the rising action, friends.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

      The introduction of Doctor Cors signifies the rising action. Before, the government served as a type of abstract antagonist (down with The Man, you know), but Doctor Cors gives Zerchi an actual person to be in conflict with.

      Though to be fair to Cors, he's more Zerchi's foil than an antagonist.

      Their disagreement on euthanasia sees the return of the conflict between religion and secular knowledge from Fiat Lux. The conflict's tension rises as steadily as the temperature on a hot day.

      Eventually, Dr. Cors breaks the agreement by advising a woman to accept government-sponsored euthanasia for her child. That's when we're reached the boiling point, which can only mean: the climax. Dun dun dun.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      A Woman and Her Child

      Zerchi attempts to convince a woman to not commit suicide or have her child euthanized. The tension builds and builds, and the turn comes when the woman accepts the invitation into the Green Star Camp.

      The church's power over the individuals has been lost in this new age, signifying a conclusion to a conflict started 600 years in the past with Dom Paulo and Thon Taddeo. The secular has won out over the religious.

      Falling Action

      Boom-Shaka-Laka

      Zerchi is devastated over his inability to save the woman and her child. Then, when the nuclear blast hits, he gets trapped in the rubble. While wasting away there, he has a bunch of time to think about the relationship between Church and State, and his own beliefs.

      This internal dialogue begins resolving—well, potentially resolving—many of the deep philosophical issues raised by the story so far. When Rachel comes around and presents the communion for Zerchi, this stage ends.

      Resolution (Denoument)

      The Resolution Band-Aid

      Ah, the Resolution, the place where all the conflict is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? Wrong. This resolution basically amounts to the complete destruction of Earth.

      Well, it's been burned to a nuclear crisp, in any case.

      But there is room for mystery here. The monks are heading into space, away from the destruction on Earth. So the question remains: will the sins of mankind follow the monks into space?

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Forgive us if we're repeating ourselves, but A Canticle for Leibowitz is both a whole novel and three very distinct stories. So you can analyze the three-act plot structure of the novel as a whole, or you can analyze each individual story's three-act plot.

      But since the novel was nice enough to separate itself into three acts for us, we're going to go that route for now. Happy analyzing.

      Act I

      This act's job is to ensure the reader has all the information necessary to understand the story to come, and Fiat Homo performs this task quite admirably. We learn what kind of a world the Leibowitz Abbey exists in, and we learn how it got that way: by the deadly one-two punch of nuclear war and Simplification.

      We also discover who Leibowitz is, and how the Leibowitz Abbey monks have carried on his tasks of maintaining the Memorabilia. Ooh, ahh.

      Act II

      In this act, we see the action rise, and the protagonist try to resolve whatever problem's at hand… usually through conflict with the antagonist.

      Dom Paulo's struggle with Thon Taddeo in Fiat Lux seems to fit this description. Thon Taddeo is a secular scholar who owes his allegiance to Mayor Hannegan. Hannegan wishes to use the knowledge of people like Taddeo to secure his own power and further his war efforts.

      Dom Paulo wishes to see Taddeo and his knowledge serve higher purposes—God for one, and humanity for another. But Taddeo despises religion and feels trapped by the demands of a state he feels is simply a necessary evil; it supports his work.

      The conflict between the two builds and builds until the end of the chapter. At that point, Dom Paulo and Taddeo understand each other, but can't reach an agreement. Then Hannegan's war begins, and we enter Act III.

      Act III

      Or, as it's called in the novel, Fiat Voluntas Tua. This act sees the resolution to the conflicts we've been witness to so far. Be warned: a happy-go-lucky resolution this is not.

      The country Hannegan started has evolved to the point of gaining nuclear power. It also controls all of the knowledge of science and technology. Yikes.

      This super evil, control-freak government brings about a nuclear war. Which is pretty much the be all, end all of conflict resolution, are we right? Father Zerchi and the church attempt to counter the state's willingness for mass destruction, but they just aren't powerful enough.

      The best they can do is send a group of monks into space, thereby saving the Church and the Memorabilia from total destruction. All conflicts are certainly over on Earth, as the planet is now a smoldering mass of nuclear rock. But who knows what happens to those monks in space.

    • Allusions

      Paul Brians's excellent translation of A Canticle's Latinate phrases helped us to find some of these more obscure shout-outs. Thank you, Professor Brians.

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Bible Verse References

      • Matthew 4:1-4 (1.40)
      • Matthew 3:13-17 (1.78)
      • John 13:34 (5.17)
      • Micah 6:3 (5.18)
      • Psalms 133:1 (7.31)
      • Psalms 51:1-3 (7.88)
      • 1 Corinthians 13:11 (8.23)
      • Genesis 32:22-33 (10.55)
      • Genesis 28:16-17 (11.2)
      • John 21:16 (11.9)
      • Matthew 26:42 (13.23, 14.95)
      • Isaiah 9:7 (16.3)
      • Isaiah 9:6 (16.7)
      • Revelation 17:3-5 (16.13)
      • Isaiah 11:6 (17.51)
      • Genesis 1:1-5 (18.23-36)
      • Genesis 1:27 (22.64)
      • Luke 23:34 (22.68)
      • Luke 2:29-30 (22.132)
      • Genesis 3:5 (22.150)
      • Matthew 6:30 (24.96)
      • Mark 14:30 (24.98)
      • Joshua 10:12-14 (24.184)
      • John 19:15 (26.13)
      • Psalms 35:23 (26.55)
      • Matthew 4:10 (26.56)
      • Psalms 91:6 (26.65)
      • Psalms 22:27 (26.67)
      • 1 Corinthians 10:17 (26.72)
      • Psalms 22:31 (26.74)
      • Mark 12:17 (27.35)
      • Genesis 3:13 (27.69)
      • Luke 18:16 (28.93)
      • Matthew 25:41 (28.93)
      • Matthew 21:12 (28.93)
      • Matthew 8:8 (29.96)
      • Luke 1:46-56 (29.100, 29.101)

      Religious (Mostly Catholic) References

      Biblical Character and Place References

      • Job (1.81, 18.1)
      • Noah (6.7)
      • Moses (6.21)
      • King David (7.88)
      • Sheba and Solomon (12.109, 13.10)
      • Ezekiel (13.2)
      • Abraham (14.95)
      • The Prodigal Son (16.10)
      • Methuselah (16.37)
      • Adam (16.96, 22.63, 22.72, 26.13, 28.104, 29.59)
      • Manasses (16.152)
      • Nebuchadnezzar (16.152)
      • Pharaoh (16.152, 18.9)
      • Caesar (16.152, 24.16, 26.13, 28.177)
      • Samuel the Prophet (16.152)
      • Sodom and Gomorrah (18.9, 26.56)
      • Legion (18.13)
      • Jesus' Crown of Thorns (20.50)
      • Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (22.90)
      • Eve (24.19, 24.24, 29.25)
      • Eden (24.24, 26.57, 26.59, 28.104, 29.66)
      • Lazarus (25.162)
      • Cain (26.9)
      • Jacob (26.9)
      • King Herod (26.13)
      • Judas Iscariot (18.9, 26.13)
      • The Burning Bush (26.58)
      • The Exodus of Egypt (26.89)
      • Golgotha (28.93)

      Mythology References

      • Beelzebub (1.29)
      • Angelology (2.11)
      • Succubus (3.39)
      • Satan (10.9)
      • Dryad (14.79)
      • Archangel (18.9, 26.88)
      • Lucifer (18.9, 24.20, 28.49, 30.3)
      • Merlin (24.24)
      • St. George (24.62)
      • Gaia (24.184)
      • Phoenix (25.27)
      • Cockatrice (25.111)
      • The River Styx (29.56)

      Historical References

      • The White House (6.4)
      • Magi (6.7)
      • Hitler (6.21)
      • Cyrus the Great (16.152)
      • Pikadon (18.9)
      • Manifest Destiny (24.2)
      • Nazi Marching Song (24.15)
      • Babylon (24.16, 25.27)
      • Pompeii (24.16)
      • Hiroshima (24.17)
      • Assyria (25.27)
      • Egypt (25.27)
      • Greece (25.27)
      • Carthage (25.27)
      • Rome (25.27)
      • The Empires of Charlemagne (25.27)
      • The Turks (25.27)

      Science References