A Canticle for Leibowitz



A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a science fiction novel published in 1960.  The novel, divided into three parts, takes place between 600, 1200, and 1800 years in the future, respectively, chronicling a new Dark Age in the aftermath of a nuclear war.  As in the Middle Ages, the Church survives and preserves learning over the centuries until a new Renaissance can occur.  However, with the rebirth of knowledge and technology come the same forces at work a millennium earlier, and once more the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction.  Wishing to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that (you can read more in the linked Wikipedia article above).  I certainly encourage everyone to read it–no summary does it justice.  In my mind it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and probably the greatest sf novel dealing with themes of faith and religion.  Despite this, I think anyone of any religious persuasion can enjoy the novel, and more importantly find food for thought on the topic of knowledge and whether or not mankind can use it responsibly.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a bit of an enigma.  He is considered one of the most important writers of science fiction of the mid-20th Century, and yet his output was small.  During World War II, he was part of the crew of a bomber that participated in a series of raids against the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino.  Monte Cassino is the historic monastery founded by St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and as such the mother house of the Benedictine order.  During the Italian Campaign in 1944, British intelligence erroneously thought that the monastery was being used as headquarters for German troops, and therefore ordered the bombing raids against it.  The monastery was almost completely destroyed, with the only casualties being Italian civilians who had fled there for shelter, rather than Germans.  Ironically, German troops later did camp in the ruins of the monastery, which were good cover.  Miller was deeply traumatized by the effects of this tragic error, and the effects of this–what we’d now call PTSD–lingered for years.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism, which was to be a major influence on  his work.

During the 1950’s, Miller published many short stories and wrote scripts for television, winning a Hugo Award for his much-lauded short story “The Darfsteller“.  From 1955 to 1957 he published a series of novellas dealing with an order of monks dedicated to preserving human knowledge in a distant, post-apocalyptic future.  The novellas were originally titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “And the Light is Risen”, and “The Last Canticle”.  In 1959, Miller substantially edited and reworked the material in the novellas and published them in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz.  The three-part structure was preserved, with the sections being renamed as “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy will be done”).  The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961, and has been in print ever since.  After this, Miller never published anything again during the rest of his lifetime.  Despite his small oeuvre, Miller is widely considered to be one of the most influential science fiction writers of his time.

Sadly, as the years progressed, Miller became increasingly reclusive, avoiding even most of his family and refusing even to meet with his literary agent in person.  He struggled with depression and the aftereffects of PTSD.  Though he published nothing, he worked for years on the manuscript of a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.  “Sequel” is perhaps not quite the right word–the second novel takes place in the time between the events of “Fiat Lux” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” in the original novel.  In any case, Miller completed some six hundred pages of manuscript over a period of many years.  By the 1990’s, though, he was in ill health and suffering from writers’s block, so he commissioned sf novelist Terry Bisson to complete the novel.  According to Bisson, the vast majority of the work had been completed, and he merely tidied up the text and tied up a few loose ends.  Tragically, in 1996, shortly after the death of his wife, Miller committed suicide.  Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published the following year.

Back here I have discussed at some length my religious background.  To add some details, though I was not Catholic, I had an indirect connection to the Church (though I didn’t really clearly realize it at the time).  My great-aunt–my mother’s mother’s sister–lived about fifty feet down the road from where I grew up.  She–from this point, I’ll call her Aunt K.–and her husband, W., ran a small dime store in my hometown.  W’s family had immigrated to the United States from Poland sometime after the First World War.  How they ended up in the Appalachian coal fields, I don’t know.  Nevertheless, Aunt K. married W. despite the fact that he was Polish and Catholic–a double whammy in mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestant Appalachia in those days.  K., though, was a strong-willed (at times, one might say “bull-headed”) woman with an independent mind, never to be cowed by public opinion.  She wore pants for comfort at a time that pants on a woman were scandalous, and she married a Polish Catholic man regardless of what anyone else thought.  Despite all this, though, she did carry over the typical Protestant Appalachian trait of being very anti-Catholic.  K. and W. were not married in the Catholic Church, and after their marriage, W. quit attending Mass.  Their only child was raised Protestant.  K. attended a Protestant church on and off, and my sister sometimes went with her; but there was no practice of Catholicism (not even any icons or holy cards or Rosaries about the house) in the household until W.’s death, or afterward, until K.’s death about ten years or so later.

As I said, I wasn’t fully aware of this as a kid, only learning it in bits and pieces as I grew up.  I didn’t even realize that Mom had been to a Catholic religious service until I was an adult, and heard her mention going to the funeral of W.’s father sometime in the 50’s.  It was in Latin, of course, and Mom thought it was exotic and bizarre.  In any case, I don’t know of any other family connection on either side to Catholicism before my generation.  I grew up in a generic Protestant background, not actually attending any particular church (aside from sporadic Sunday school and summer Bible school in Methodist and Baptist churches), and what vague awareness I had of Catholicism came at first through reading of history (I always liked the Middle Ages) and literature (e.g. Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories).  To the extent that I had an opinion on the Church, it was a kind of vague, genteel anti-Catholicism, along the lines of “It’s good that all that superstition and ignorance of the Middle Ages was swept away by the Reformation.”

I do recall, when I was in maybe the seventh grade, we were reading aloud from the reading books, and the story was “Our Lady’s Juggler“, by Anatole France.  In the story, the juggler expresses the desire to properly honor Mary as the Mother of God.  In the climax, he performs before an image of Mary, and as the prior and the brothers standing about begin to ridicule him, the image of Mary miraculously steps down and gently wipes the sweat from the juggler’s forehead.  I was the one who was reading the story aloud, as it happened.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was at this point in my life a strict little-u unitarian.  I was therefore skeptical enough of the divinity of Jesus; but to invoke a saint, especially Mary–even if it was a just a character in a story I was reading aloud–was right out!  I pondered as I was reading if I should just stop.  That, of course, would have led the teacher to ask what was going on, and I didn’t feel comfortable explaining (there were no Catholics in the class, nor was the teacher Catholic, so it wouldn’t have been a hostile audience; but as an extreme introvert, I didn’t like to speak up in cases like this).  I went ahead and read the story, anyway, justifying it internally as “just a story”, and hoping I hadn’t doomed my soul.  I was always an excellent reader even as a kid, and always put my best effort into reading aloud; but those passages of that story came out sounding hesitant and strained, for sure!  The teacher didn’t remark on it, though, and it was over soon enough.  I’m sure if my twelve or thirteen-year-old self of that time could see fifty-five-year-old me now saying the Rosary (daily, to boot!)–and thus saying fifty-four prayers to Mary (the three initial Hail Marys, the fifty Hail Marys from the five decades, and the closing Hail Holy Queen)–he would have been quite appalled.

Anyway, that’s more or less where I was at spiritually when I went off to college in 1981.  I’ve detailed elsewhere some aspects of my college experience, particularly in terms of my reading.  As I’ve noted, I read as many scriptures of as many different religions as I could get my hands on.  It wasn’t all religion, though.  I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (and was rather disappointed, I must say; but that’s material for another day); I read several other works of science fiction; I’ve previously discussed re-reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull; and in the summer after my freshman year, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, on which I’m preparing a post of its own for later.  In fact, one feature of my otherwise dire freshman year was that for the first time in my life I had easy access to numerous bookstores, new and used, which served as a source of many of these titles.  One day–I don’t remember if it was early fall of ’81 or spring of ’82, but I remember it was a temperate day–I had found out about a used book store I hadn’t previously been to.  I didn’t have a car at this time, so I’d been to every bookstore within walking distance–and books made the walking worth it, so that was still a pretty good radius.  Finding one that I’d not visited within walking distance was the perfect motivation for a walk to check it out.  It was a small hole-in-the-wall downtown, a block or so from Main Street.  The neighborhood was only moderately scuzzy–urban renewal hadn’t hit yet, but this area didn’t need as much renewal as the districts farther north.  Anyway, I don’t remember much about the interior of the store, aside from its being small, cramped, and dark.  The one thing I do remember is that I bought a used copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz there, the edition with the cover shown at the top of this post.  I don’t even remember if I bought anything else there that day, nor do I recall if I ever went back (I don’t think I did, but that store is long, long gone now).  What I did get, though, was enough.

In ’78 or ’79 my favorite uncle had bought me The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (which had a second edition under the title The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1995; and the later editions of which are now online).  Through it I became aware of many short stories and novels that I found fascinating and wanted to read–but to which I had no access.  Going off to the big city began to remedy that (and after nearly forty years, I’m still playing catch-up).  One book that seemed fascinating from its description in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia was A Canticle for Leibowitz.  I was thus aware of it when I walked into that dark, dingy little used bookstore, and when I saw it on the shelf I got it immediately.  My main motivation was first to read as many science fiction classics as I could get hold of, and secondly to see what this book, so widely praised, was like.

I found the novel to be amazing, thought-provoking, and deeply resonant, for reasons I couldn’t completely understand.  Certainly the pessimism on mankind’s ability to responsibly navigate the atomic age and refrain from nuclear war fit it with the zeitgeist of the time.  It was still pre-glasnost and pre-perestroika and a good seven years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Cold War tensions were not as high as in the early 60’s; but they were still there.  I can still recall that whenever a special news alert broke into the regular broadcast day (that’s back when they had a regular broadcast day and special news alerts), my first gut-level reaction was always, “They’ve launched the missiles!”  Thus, the pessimism of Canticle matched my feelings in those days.

On a spiritual level, A Canticle for Leibowitz changed my attitude towards Catholicism and the Catholic Church, though I’m not sure I quite realized that at the time.  The novel portrayed Catholics–monks, priests, and ordinary laity–as believable, three-dimensional people just like anyone else.  Though they belonged to an organized religion–the most organized religion of all, in fact–they were not superstitious, mindlessly obedient drones.  They thought for themselves, struggled with moral issues, and did they best they could.  They did all this while still being faithfully Catholic, and letting the teaching of the Church inform–but not force–their decisions.  Moreover, unlike in many Protestant narratives, the Church was the good guy here, while still being painted as an institution composed of ordinary, sinful, fallible humans.  Obviously Miller was writing as a Catholic sympathetic to the Church; but he was not being idealistic or simplistic, either.  In short, Canticle totally knocked down all the strawman stereotypes I had long internalized about the Catholic Church, enabling me to look at it in a much more objective way.  I didn’t go running off immediately to join the Church, please note.  That didn’t happen until several years later.  Still, reading Canticle planted a seed.  It made the concept of being Catholic seem for the first time as something that might–just might–be a viable option.  Canticle didn’t cause me to become Catholic; but without having read it, I’m not sure that I would have entered the Church.

There are two other things I want to note about A Canticle for Leibowitz.  First, there is a scene towards the end that is quite striking.  In the 39th Century, a nuclear strike has happened not far from the monastery where most of the action in the novel takes place through the centuries.  The government has set up a euthanasia center, where those with terminal radiation exposure may come to be painlessly put out of their misery.  Dom Zerchi, the abbot of the monastery, passionately opposes the euthanasia center, which is just down the road from the monastery.  When a young woman with her baby comes to the center, he tries to talk her out of it.  He almost succeeds, as she wavers.  Eventually, though, when his temper gets the best of him and he punches the doctor in charge of the euthanasia center, he is arrested and then released.  In the meantime, the woman goes back to the center and she and her child are euthanized.  The whole thing is heartbreaking to read, and it is one of the most powerful literary arguments against euthanasia I’ve ever seen.

It is often argued in the culture wars that moderns cannot understand Church teachings–such as the wrongness of euthanasia, even when it seems to be a mercy–that conflict with the modern perspective.  There is probably some truth to that.  It is also sometimes pointed out that wagging fingers and thundering condemnations are not really effective ways to get people in line.  Convoluted philosophical and theological arguments–which abound in parts of the Web which I frequent–don’t cut it for 99% of the population, either.  We are story-telling creatures, and we are often more persuaded by a compelling story than any amount of preaching, teaching, or philosophizing.  I think the scenario I’ve discussed in Canticle is a textbook example of how to illuminate a moral issue in literature without propagandizing or damaging a good story.  It seems that few on either side these days have the literary chops to pull this off.  In any event, this is especially poignant in that, as I noted above, Miller himself in the end despaired of his own argument and took his own life.

The second thing I want to do is give a brief–very brief–discussion of the sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.  I read it when it first came out, and I have to say I was disappointed.  It was a good enough book, well-written, as I’d expect.  It also gave us a bigger view of the world of the Leibowitz novels.  Whereas the first was set almost exclusively in the environs of the monastery, the second novel takes us all over the place across the North American continent of the 33rd Century.  It also makes some of the locations more specific–from reading the first novel, I’d have never guessed that New Rome is in what is now St. Louis, Missouri, as the handy map inside the cover clearly shows.  There is also a bit of retconning in Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.  Of course, as of the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the liturgical language of the Church was still Latin.  That did not change until after the Second Vatican Council, which didn’t even open until two years after the novel was published.  Thus, the novel takes for granted that Latin remained the language of the Church for the next thousand years and more.  Of course, by the time of Wild Horse Woman, the vernacular prevailed in the Church.  Thus, there is a passage explaining why, in the aftermath of the Flame Deluge, the Church switched back to Latin.  That’s fine and all, but I think it would have been better to have just left it as is, and trust the reader to understand the historical context in which the first novel had been written.

Aside from that, Miller seems to wander a bit, looking at things of interest to him.  He paints a detailed portrait of the barbarian plains tribes–spoken of only briefly in Canticle–using Native American anthropology as a template.  He discusses the language of the future a little, refers obliquely to Buddhism, and even has Pope Amen Specklebird allowing ordination of women to the diaconate, as well as portraying married (polygamous!) priests and bishops from Asia.  He alludes to Catholic sex scandals (which at the time of publication had not quite broken open in their full grotesqueness).  He even throws in a character who is basically a mysterious kung fu master (totally not kidding–read the book).  All of this is interesting; but it contributes to a sort of unfocused, rambling feel in reading the novel.

That is really the biggest problem with the novel.  It is very much unfocused and rambling.  To the extent that there is any discernible plot at all, it’s a kind of picaresque coming-of-age story of the young novice monk Nimmy, though whose eyes we see the various political machinations of Church and state as he travels around on various missions for his mentor, Cardinal Brownpony.  Ironically, though A Canticle for Leibowitz was written as separate novellas over several years, the re-edited novelization has a strong sense of unity, and a very powerful overarching theme that it drives home memorably.  By contrast, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, though written as novel to begin with, doesn’t seem to have any strong theme or any real purpose, except to revisit the Leibowitz universe.  Coming from any other author, Wild Horse Woman would be a fascinating novel, good, but not great.  From Miller, and following up on a masterpiece, it is a huge letdown.  To fans of Canticle who have not read Wild Horse Woman, I would say to do so only if you want to revisit Miller’s world out of appreciation for his worldbuilding skills (and I admit that the worldbuilding in the second novel is as strong as, even stronger than, that of the first).  Don’t go in with any expectations beyond that.

Thus, I conclude by saying that A Canticle for Leibowitz merits its place in my personal canon not only because of its greatness, but because it’s the only work of fiction that has, albeit indirectly, changed the course of my life.  It may not change yours; but I would recommend it to all.

Part of the series “Your Own Personal Canon

Posted on 16/07/2018, in 20th Century literature, Catholicism, Christianity, literature, novels, religion, science fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The Wet One

    I read this book in university as well. It was a very interesting story. It was part of my international relations course many moons ago.

    I’d recommend the book to anyone. It did not, however, have much impact on my cradle Catholic faith, which was, by then, already on its way out. That said, I do know how very powerful a book can influence one’s views and future. Mine was “The Five Ages of the Universe.” A book I would probably have been better off not reading on balance, but there’s no point in sticking one’s head in the sand is there?



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