Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Skulls and Buzzards

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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.