Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Themes

  • Time

    "Wheel in the sky keeps on turning, I don't know where I'll be tomorrow." Hey, far be it from us to correct Journey, but if they'd read their Miller, then they'd know the answer to this meditation: the same place they are today. In A Canticle, time is cyclical. The years pass, dates grow, but these futuristic eras are all equal to periods humanity has already visited in the past. The story of Fiat Homo takes place in a future society equivalent to the Dark Ages. Fiat Lux takes place in a repeat Renaissance, and Fiat Voluntas Tua occurs in a new modern age very much like the mid-20th century. Can humanity escape this recurrent nightmare of history already lived? Maybe. But don't bet on it.

    Questions About Time

    1. What do you think the novel's ending says about the theme of time? How about the awakening of Rachel? Has history's recurrent nightmare ended with the realization of space travel, or is this just another link in an ever-growing chain?
    2. Why do you suppose Miller chooses to re-imagine three eras: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and then a futuristic time period? What is important about these three?
    3. Looking toward our own history, do you see evidence to support Miller's idea of cyclic time? Why or why not? Don't forget to use examples from the book to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    Miller's concept of repeating history isn't the same as destiny. The struggles of characters such as Dom Paulo and Zerchi suggest free will could potentially break the cycle.

    Time in A Canticle of Leibowitz counters the idea of time in most science fiction novels. Instead of A Canticle's cyclical time, most sci-fi novels portray time as a linear form of uninterrupted progress.

  • Mortality

    In his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett created a figure of Death who is unintentionally hilarious, cares for humanity, and enjoys a tasty curry. In A Canticle, death cares neither for humanity nor has much of a taste for curry. But he remains pretty humorless all the same. More than any other aspect of life, death pervades the trials and conflicts of A Canticle's characters. Their past and present are shaped by a worldwide holocaust, and their future seems bent on sweeping them toward even more tragedies. In short, death is as pervasive in this novel as it is in our own reality. Wow, depressing. If you'll excuse us, we need a Discworld chaser.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What is the importance of having a character die at the end of each section? What do you think the novel is trying to say with all this death, and why does Miller choose the characters he does for the chopping block?
    2. What kind of knowledge is shown to be mortal in this novel? Is any knowledge shown to be immortal? What is the relationship in A Canticle between death and ideas?
    3. It's hinted that the old Jewish wanderer is immortal. If you believe this reading of the wanderer, why do you think A Canticle would have this one immortal character, when basically every other character shuffles off that coil most mortal? If you disagree with this reading of the character, then how do you think the three similar wanderer characters inform our understanding of mortality in the book?

    Chew on This

    The relationship between Rachel and Mrs. Grales represents the relationship between life and death—all on a single pair of shoulders.

    The novel never portrays the death of any political figures or advocates of violence (like the robber, Mad Bear, Hannegan, and the Defense Minister), only those who oppose it or are neutral toward it.

  • Religion

    Like The Legend of Zelda, A Canticle for Leibowitz has a thematic Triforce and it's composed of religion, scientific knowledge, and primitivity. Both religion and science are positioned to counter humanity's primitive, violent tendencies, but do they succeed? If you've finished the book, you'll know the answer is a big fat nope. When religion, here represented by the Catholic Church, succeeds, it does so because it's a centuries-old institution. When the Flame Deluge hits, it remains the sole vestige of civilization. It must survive to preserve both moral teachings and scientific knowledge. But its strength is its ultimate weakness. Religious ideals do not change to meet the times, which results in a church that cannot properly grasp the Memorabilia's content. If the Memorabilia will not assimilate their teachings to the new world, they will continue to be outmaneuvered by ever-evolving political forces. What a crazy game of chess. And what high stakes.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does the Church become responsible for the Memorabilia during the Simplification? Do you think the pairing of the Memorabilia and the Church is being lauded by Miller, or is he criticizing the union of Church and State? Explain your reasoning with evidence from the text.
    2. In which of the novel's three sections does the Church have the most power? Why? In which of the novel's three sections does the Church have the least power? Compare these two sections. What do you think the novel is trying to say about the purpose of the Church in our society?
    3. What purpose do you think Mrs. Grales and Rachel serve in the novel, specifically in relation to the theme of religion?
    4. On his rubble deathbed, Zerchi gives an absentee Dr. Cors his theodicy—a.k.a. an answer to the problem of evil (29.35). Do you agree with his answer? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    A Canticle has elements of magical realism, but it is careful to present possible explanations for the magical stuff it contains. The author provides these explanations in order to keep the question of religion and God's existence open for debate.

    The character of Abbot Arkos represents what happens when politics and religion mix—and no, he's not a decent guy.

  • Science

    Like religion, scientific knowledge is one of the Forces of Good that oppose the violent aspects of human nature in A Canticle. And also like religion, knowledge doesn't really succeed in this battle. It's not that science is depicted as a bad thing in the book. Far from it. Particularly in Fiat Homo, science represents an invaluable resource to humanity, and its near-total loss is a tragic event. But scientific knowledge alone, the novel seems to argue, will never be enough. Science without a guiding light—perhaps religious morality—will unwittingly lend a hand to our primitive impulses. Like war. This argument stands in stark contrast to the majority of science fiction written during Miller's time. In Asimov's Foundation, for example, science is the de facto savior of the human race. Here, science is a powerful tool, but one that can be used to destroy as well as to create. Oh boy.

    Questions About Science

    1. Dom Paulo and Thon Taddeo have different opinions on who should have the power of scientific knowledge. Which character do you agree with and why? Feel free to agree with neither or both, but do explain why, please.
    2. Brother Kornhoer and Brother Armbruster argue over the placement of the arc lamp. How does their argument speak to the relationship between religion and science? Who do you agree with? Why?
    3. Where in the novel do you see science serving humanity negatively? Where do you see it serving humanity positively? What do you think science's purpose is in our society, according to the novel?
    4. Why do you suppose there are no science-minded characters in Fiat Homo?

    Chew on This

    Brother Kornhoer is A Canticle's critique of the archetypal science fiction scientist. He's not so quick to use his invention to change the world (though it totally will).

    Hannegan's plan to use diseased cows to destroy Mad Bear's tribe is a play on chemical warfare, the first subtle hints of science's destructive capabilities in the novel.

  • Primitivity

    Aw yeah, the final part in our thematic Triforce. Primitivity pervades the novel in all three of its eras. Even though they are separated by six hundred years, each one sees humanity wallowing in its primitive nature. People start wars. They kill each other. And when the politics get all primeval, watch out. Although both religion and science seem poised to counter people's inner bent for destruction, neither of them succeeds. The novel might be suggesting that this aspect of human nature—not love or industry or civilization—is what makes us who we are. Perhaps humans and buzzards are not as far apart on the evolutionary tree as we thought.

    Questions About Primitivity

    1. Do you think any of the characters in the novel manage to overcome their primitive natures? If yes, who? And how do they do it? If not, then why do you think this is?
    2. How does the character of Mad Bear relate to the theme of primitivity? Why do you think he gets his own chapter in Fiat Lux, while a character like Hannegan doesn't get his own chapter?
    3. Do you see any of the monks from the abbey characterized by primitivity? If so, who and why? If not, explain why not.
    4. Will humanity finally overcome its primitive nature in outer space? Why or why not? Don't forget to support your idea with evidence from the novel.

    Chew on This

    The Pope's children from Fiat Homo are characterized as the most primitive beings in the novel, but they are also the only characters who seem incapable of understanding ideas like ethics and morals.

    Primitive behavior appears more often in politically minded characters than in scientifically or religiously minded characters.

  • Power

    Who controls your life? Excluding perhaps parental control, your immediate answer might be you. But the deeper you dig, the muddier things become. Are you religious? If so, does the Church control your life? What about the government? That social institution certainly has its say on many aspects of your life, but control? Yes or no? And we haven't even really gotten to the most important question: who should have control, and to what degree? Although A Canticle considers these questions, it never reaches a definitive conclusion. We're left to argue about how we should spend our lives (Fiat Homo), who should own knowledge and where it should reside (Fiat Lux), or on issues such as euthanasia (Fiat Voluntas Tua). Yippee, we love a good intellectual debate. Bring. It. On.

    Questions About Power

    1. In A Canticle's struggle between Church and state, who do you think should come out on top and why?
    2. Does any character in the novel manage to have power in both the government and the Church? If so, who? And what does this character suggest to us about the theme of power? If not, then why do you think such a character is absent from the novel?
    3. Is any character free from the influences of the government and the Church? If so, who, and why do you think he or she is free? If not, then why not?
    4. Father Zerchi and Dr. Cors have different opinions on euthanasia. Do you agree with either one? Why? Why not?

    Chew on This

    In Fiat Homo, the Church is the most powerful institution because it holds the power of science and technology simultaneously. But in Fiat Voluntas Tua, the state has surpassed the Church because it now controls technology.

    The Memorabilia contain only worldly sources of knowledge (scientific, historical, and literary). Works of a religious manner, such as the Bible or canticles, are considered separately.

  • Technology and Modernization

    When you think of science fiction, you probably imagine flying saucers, faster-than-light travel, and maybe a robot or two. In other words, you think of technology. What you don't think of is a bunch of monks stuck in the middle of nowhere showing up all the tech savvy of troglodytes (totally a real word). But while A Canticle might not be brimming with the hi-tech marvels, it does use its technological imagery in a unique way. Science fiction stories tend to revolve around plots in which technology saves us all. Have a Godzilla problem? Build some tech. Aliens invading Earth? Hit 'em with a computer virus. But Miller's novel questions this notion. Does our technology really better our lives, or is it merely another bone we can bonk ourselves over the heads with?

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Is any character able to use technology toward a positive outcome? If yes, then who and how? If not, then why not?
    2. Find an example of technology in all three sections of A Canticle. Do you see any similarities between these examples, and how they are used? Any differences? What does this suggest to you about the theme of technology throughout the course of the novel?
    3. In the end, the technology of space travel saves humanity from self-destruction. Do you think this signifies a change in the relationship between humanity and its tools, or do you think the cycle of creation and destruction will repeat itself away from Earth?
    4. Watch this explanation on 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It's fun, we promise.) Now: do you think 2001 and A Canticle share similar positions on humanity's use of technology, or are they coming from different angles? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    In A Canticle, science is viewed as benign knowledge. It is only when science takes a physical form in technology—or the manipulation of nature—that it can be used to hurt others.

    Almost every example of technology in the novel is shown to cause pain in one form or another. Possible exceptions might include the pen, paper and the printing press. Because who doesn't love the printing press?

  • Memory and the Past

    The past directly influences who we are in the present. Well, either that's true, or we wasted a ton of time studying history. Just kidding, of course it's true. But A Canticle takes the idea of historical influences and gives it an ironic twist. The present and future are shaped by the past, but many of the characters' views on the past are terribly distorted. Why? Because they superimpose their own worldviews and beliefs onto history. So it can be hard to tell whether what we're being told in the book is actually world history or just a bunch of made-up baloney. So this is actually one of the funnier themes in the novel. It prompts us to chuckle at a character's faulty memory—and perhaps a bit at our own.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How does Brother Francis's view of the past alter his perception of the present, and the abbey's mission to protect the Memorabilia?
    2. Thon Taddeo and Marcus Apollo have different views on the previous civilization. How are these views different, and what do they suggest to you about these characters? Alternatively, you can consider the different views of Thon Taddeo and Dom Paulo.
    3. Pick one section of the novel. Does awareness of the past ultimately harm or benefit the characters in this section? Why do you think this is? Now pick another. And then ask yourself… Well, you get the picture, you're smart.

    Chew on This

    Rachel seems to lack any memory of the past, which hints to us that the cycle of history has finally been broken on Earth. But the same cannot be said for those spaceward monks and their Memorabilia.

    Whether or not the pilgrim and Benjamin are the same character, they still share the same character trait: they are both bound to a particular understanding of the past.