A Canticle for Leibowitz (Book Review)

I literally can’t stop thinking about it.  When life’s big questions are addressed in a compelling story, you have the trappings of great fiction.  And when you can’t stop thinking about those questions—particularly in the way the story presents them—then you’ve got the makings of a classic novel.  Near universal praise is heaped on Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz (CFL) because those who pick it up end up wrestling with it.

CFL is a futurist dystopian novel that opens on the far side of a 20th century worldwide nuclear holocaust.  Divided into three “books” (Fiat Lux, Fiat Homo, and Fiat Voluntas Tua) that are essentially novellas that contain three “worlds” on earth separated by several centuries, the metanarrative rather than the characters hold them together in unity.  The overarching story is familiar enough to anyone versed in Western history.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, civilization in the West was sustained for a thousand years through the efforts of a church-state symbiosis before the state asserted itself by declaring a secular independence from religion.  In the current historical epoch, what many historians call late-modernity or post-modernity, the question is what next?  Progressive secularists put their faith in a utopian eschaton where secular humanism rules and reigns. More conservative religious people, who are holding out hope of God ushering in the eschatological age of heaven on earth, are deeply skeptical and suspicious of humanity’s ability to even keep the peace in order to prevent the massive destructive tendencies of nationalism, tribalism, and other totalizing ideologies.  CFL answers the question of what is next from a cyclical view of history.

Written in the 1950s when the popularly accepted fear was mutually assured nuclear destruction, Miller proposes that if we did “end it all” with the atomic bomb, history would repeat itself.  A new dark age would eventually give way to a renaissance of learning, and finally the state would swallow up the church and subsequently devour itself.  Rinse and repeat.  What makes CFL so funny, enlightening, infuriating, thought-provoking, and ultimately sobering is the way humanity and history are portrayed as so predictable on the one hand (determinism?), and on the other hand able to learn from the mistakes of history (libertarianism?).  When the chips finally fall and settle, Miller shows himself to be a determinist with a pretty bleak outlook for our future.  Perhaps that is a small insight into his reasons for ending his own humanity with suicide? And yet, he is not resigned to what he seems to believe is the inevitable.  I get the impression the author is content to be Sisyphus, laboring hard to push move the world up the hill of progress, even when it rolls back down to the bottom time after time.

Besides freedom vs. fate, there are several other themes that are weaved throughout CFL.  The nature and preservation of cultural knowledge is an important one.  The monks of the brotherhood of Saint Leibowitz labor tirelessly through centuries of ignorance and cultural darkness to preserve the knowledge of the ancients.  They devote their lives to copying and recopying the written artifacts in their possession.  The reader knows that some of what they preserve is valuable, but much of it is trivial and useless.  But the characters don’t have a clue.  Maddening!

Classical vs. scientific learning is another major theme.  There really is a conflict here.  The guild of scientists arise out of the classical learning that the church alone preserves and champions.  It is her labor of love for fellow man.  And yet, when the fields of science mature in knowledge, especially in the interconnectedness of knowledge, they declare independence from the church, which leads to disdain of organized religion and the Christians who maintain it.  Eventually the scientists persecute the church, biting the hand that fed them and murdering the mother who gave birth to them.  But there is a third character beside the religious and secular scholar—the bard.  He is the eclectic and eccentric poet that serves as a bard or court jester.  At first he functions as a comic relief, but later it becomes clear he plays off the two learned parties as sort of a wild prophet declaring a pox on both houses.

Related to the religious vs. scientific scholar theme is church vs. state.  In the absence of an organizational state at the national level governing its people in a world of other sovereign nations, the church historically fills the gap by ministering to whatever form of government exists.  Whether the church plays chaplain and spiritual authority to regional tribes or kingdoms, it tends to serve society in a ministerial and declarative sense.  For example, abbots of monasteries do not normally presume to command anyone but monks.  But the church does advise culture and function as sort of a cultural conscience.  However, the state’s authority is not merely ministerial and declarative, but carries the force of the sword.  So which one, the church or state, gives when the conflicts pertain to morality.  What happens when the church brings all its moral force to bear on a moral issues, but one puny deputy of the state is sufficient to trump the church’s appeal to the authority of God’s moral law?

The nature of history is yet another interesting theme.  It is linear or cyclical or absurd?  Those who believe history is moving in one direction toward a golden age believe history is fundamentally linear.  Others recognize that history tends to follow certain civilizational patterns (birth-growth-ascendency-maturity-decline-death) and thus conclude history is at base cyclical.  A few believe history has no purpose or pattern, and is thus primarily absurd.  No one can doubt there is evidence for all three views.  Miller appears to favor the cyclical and absurd views, which is curious since CFL is a deeply Catholic book.  If the golden age endpoint of history is in view for Miller, it is ages and ages off in the distant future.  The imminent return of the Savior is clearly not in view.  The characters look more to Christ’s Cross than the Parousia.  But more than either of these, the monks of Leibowitz’s abbey look to the liturgy of the church as it is chock full of saints, feasts, fasts, prayers, worship, and life lived under the communal monastery rule.  I believe the theme here is religion vs the gospel.

CFL is a very religious book.  By this I mean there are lots of depictions of monastery life in the here and now.  Lots of appeals to the church and to saints.  But not so much appeal to Jesus as the coming messiah.  At least not in the abbey.  But every few years when the old abbot leaves the abbey, venturing into the desert to visit his Jewish hermit friend, the gospel becomes a little more visible.  The author uses the characters of a Jew and a Christian to explore how the wisdom of the OT and NT interact with each other.  The reader grows to appreciate their friendship and their “iron sharpening iron” even if one is still looking to a future messiah other than Jesus.

Not only is CFL a religious book, and even a profoundly Catholic book, it is more accurately a pre-Vatican II (Tridentine) book.  There is quite a bit of ecclesiastical Latin interspersed through almost every chapter.  Although the book is intelligible without understanding Latin, having a translation if you can’t read it contributes to a deeper understanding of the book.  My sense is something like this.  If you attend a Latin mass, the liturgy of it will be basically intelligible, but if you knew what the priest was saying then your understanding of what was happening would deepen considerably.  Same with reading CFL.  After skipping over the first two instances of Latin, I searched for help online and found a Wiki page translating all the Latin phrases in CFL, organized by chapter.  You’ll want this page handy every time you pick up the novel to read a little further.

I hope you sense from this brief exploration of the main themes that CFL is a deep and broad book.  It deals with the really big questions that humanity has faced since the dawn of creation and the rebirth of every civilization.  And it does so in an effective, extraordinary way.  From the back of the First Eos paperback edition (2006):

Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature—a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future.  In a nightmarish ruined world slowing awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz.  From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes.  Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze.  It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.


List of Latin phrases in the book

Wikipedia article for the book

The book prompted a college English thesis

Shmoop Literary Analysis

Enotes Literary Analysis

Old Radio World dramatic recordings of the book

Study Guide




Ignatius Insight


New Yorker

Patrick Reardon


Science Fiction Reviews

The Toast

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