Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Time

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Time

Chapter 2

While a little wary yet of lurking Fallouts, Francis had sufficiently recovered from his initial fright to realize that the shelter, notably the desk and the lockers, might well be teeming with rich relics of an age which the world had, for the most part, deliberately chosen to forget. (2.13)

As early as Chapter Two, we can see the novel is taking the long view when it comes to time. Francis views something as simple as a desk and a locker the same we might a clay pot from an Egyptian tomb.

Chapter 6

To escape the fury of the simpleton packs, such learned people as still survived fled to any sanctuary that offered itself. When Holy Church received them, she vested them in monks' robes and tried to hide them in such monasteries and convents as had survived and could be reoccupied, for the religious were less despised by the mob except when they openly defied it and accepted martyrdom. (6.15)

This passage links Francis's era (the 26th century) with Europe's Early Middle Ages, a.k.a. the Dark Ages. America and Britain replace the fallen Roman Empire, the Simpleton movement stands in for the Goths, and the Catholic Church represents, well, the Catholic Church. Sure, there are significant differences, but the idea of history repeated is present all the same.

Chapter 11

"Those years were spent to preserve this original. Never think of them as wasted. Offer them to God. Someday the meaning of the original may be discovered, and may prove important." The old man blinked—or was it a wink? Francis was almost convinced that the Pope had winked at him. "We'll have you to thank for that." (11.45)

Ah, foreshadowing. The Pope's comments are on the mark, but if time is cyclic in nature, will Francis want to be thanked for preserving such knowledge in the world? Read on, intrepid reader, read on.

The buzzards laid their eggs in season and lovingly fed their young. Earth had nourished them bountifully for centuries. She would nourish them for centuries more…. (11.94)

And don't think this'll be the last time you see these winged garbage disposals either. The buzzards are a super important symbol in A Canticle (visit our "Symbols, Imagery and Allegory" section, and you'll see). They help connect the theme of time with the theme of mortality, as they appear repeatedly at sites of death.

Chapter 14

It had happened once before, so the Venerable Boedullus had asserted in his De Vestigiis Antecessarum Civitatum. (14.3)

This book's title—Google translated it as "In the Footsteps of the Ancestor Civilization"— rings true with one of the most famous verses from Ecclesiastes: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" (1:9). Miller's thematic inspiration is Biblical, yo.

Chapter 16

"Tell me, what do you think of him?"
"I haven't seen him. But I suppose he will be a pain. A birth-pain, perhaps, but a pain."
"Birth-pain? You really believe we're going to have a new Renaissance, as some say?"
"Hmmm-hnn." (16.74-77)

Even the characters in the story seem to realize that time is cyclic. It makes us wonder why they are so surprised when time goes all Of Mice and Men on them. Also note the connection to change and pain. That is, even a blessed change, like childbirth, comes with its share of pain.

Chapter 20

But surely [Thon Taddeo] must know that never during his lifetime can he be more than a recoverer of lost works; however brilliant, he can only do what others before him had done. And so it would be, inevitably, until the world became as highly developed as it had been before the Flame Deluge. (20.88)

Poor Thon Taddeo. But if you think about it, how much of our education is really about discovering "what others before [you] had done"? Is knowledge partially responsible for the cyclic nature of time?

Chapter 25

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. (25.27)

The image of the Phoenix is an ironic one. Generally, the idea of rebirth seems to be everyone's favorite part of the Phoenix myth. But with Zerchi standing at the edge of the fiery-death part, the idea loses a bit of the romance. (And, as A Canticle has shown us, the Phoenix's rebirth isn't exactly candy and sunshine either.)

Chapter 26

Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. (26.88)

And the circle is complete. Zerchi's speech to the priestly astronauts has undertones of Leibowitz's struggles during the Flame Deluge.

Chapter 30

The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season. (30.8)

The shark seems like a new player in the theme of time. After all, it's been buzzards up until this point. Has the cycle finally been broken? Swing on over to our "What's Up with the Ending?" section for more on this fishy business.