Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Setting

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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.