A Canticle for Leibowitz - Synopsis and Introduction

A Canticle for Leibowitz is in three parts, or acts. The first takes place circa 2600 A.D., the second takes place about 3200 A.D., and the third act circa 3800 A.D. – in other words, six hundred years from now, twelve hundred years from now, and eighteen hundred years from now. The setting of the story is North America, somewhere in the southwest desert wilderness between Utah and Texas, at the Catholic monastery of the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz” – a fictional order of monks dedicated to recovering human learning and science after its loss in the great nuclear holocaust, that according to the book, took place sometime in the late twentieth century. Each act has its own set of characters, atmosphere, and plot line leading to its own climax. The first act is meant to resemble the Dark Ages, when the Church is the only civilized structure in the midst of a barbaric world; the second act is like the Renaissance, with thriving political powers, sly diplomacy, and a renewed secular quest for learning; the third resembles the Space Age, something like our own times but even more advanced, since interplanetary colonization by human beings is already off and running. The common thread tying the acts together is the monastery itself and the abbots who must deal with the circumstances of each age: Abbot Arkos in part one, “Fiat Homo” (Let there be man), Abbot Paulo in part two, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light), and Abbot Zerchi in part three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let your will be done). There are also mutants who appear in each part, whose shocking genetic changes were caused by the radiation of the “nuclear deluge”. In each part, the reader is permitted to enter into the personal and inter-personal histories of the important characters involved (in one way or another) with the abbots. There is, first, the hapless but determined Brother Francis, who discovers the new relics of the “Blessed Leibowitz”. After finally being cleared of the suspicion of madness, Brother Francis devotes his life to making illuminated copies of ancient industrial blueprints found in the fallout shelter. At the end of part one he travels as a pilgrim to New Rome to see the Pope (first on a donkey, but then on foot, after being accosted by a mutant robber-band). In the second part we meet the “Poet”: the slightly mad “court jester” with his removable glass eye and utter lack of inhibition about speaking the truth at the abbot’s table. Then there is Thon Thaddeo, the high and mighty “Renaissance” scholar, who visits the abbey to investigate the monk’s daring scientific and technological achievements – with a good deal of professional envy. Finally the third act introduces us to Mrs. Grales, who has (yes) a second head growing out of her shoulder; she lives in a hovel near the six-lane superrobotic GPS-equipped highway that swooshes past the monastery in the year 3781. Mrs. Grales may be poor and deformed, but her role in the story is most profound: she has a way of helping the people she meets see truth. Only one character appears in all three parts: a wandering, wise beggar dressed in a burlap sack, who appears to have a very long lifespan indeed … Each part of the book is set in a particular social, political and economic context that fits the stage of civilization (or uncivilization) of humanity depicted in each part of the book. The political structures in the first part are very primitive, and nations do not exist as yet; in the second part, we experience international intrigue and rumors of warfare involving the American continental nations of Denver, Laredo, Texarkana and Chihuahua, while the monks, who have succeeded in generating light through electric-power once again, see the fruit of their preservative labors begin to be shared with a larger, secular world. But how will the growing world use this recovered knowledge and technology? The chilling answer is developed in the final third of the book, as nuclear firepower once again has spread around the globe…along with the glimmer of hope reflected from a certain upward-thrusting starship, carrying a collection of monks and laypeople, and heading for Alpha Centauri…

and rapidly. working in “complete obedience” to the communist regime in Moscow. (In these conflicts. traded on his war-time alliance with Britain and the USA to insist on keeping Eastern Europe (including East Germany) under communist control. and the fear was not only of the blast. What were the political causes of the “Cold War”? The Cold War followed from a political shift that took place immediately after the end of World War II in 1945. in Cuba and Vietnam in the sixties and seventies. Russia and the USA. as a political. and more or less Christianized society.. In the first chapter of Canticle for Leibowitz. The victory in Europe was won with the help of communist Soviet Russia.A Canticle for Leibowitz . the United States (in conjunction with the major Allied Powers of Britain and France) fought and defeated Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Brother Francis of Utah. i. it was Marxism vs. and set up puppet totalitarian regimes there. The world scene had changed profoundly. the “Cold War” consisted in a half-century-long climate of fear that the world would soon be engulfed in “World War III” – an all-out nuclear war between the Communist Bloc (led by Russia) and the Free World (led by the USA). An “Iron Curtain” had descended across Europe. in Angola. free-market. they also had “fifth columns” (spy-networks) operating in all the nations of the globe. France. accomplished by the first (and to this day the only) actual use of atomic bombs in the world. posed “a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization”. as Winston Churchill (the war-time Prime Minister of England) declared in a famous 1946 speech. Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Joseph Stalin. Through those forty-five years. Britain. but also of the after-effects: the chemicals released by an atomic explosion – such as cesium. except that in the case of Afghanistan. an atheist/materalist “Marxist revolution” faced off against a free-market. many Americans built “fallout shelters” – family-sized bomb shelters. democratic West (or “Free World”). in Churchill’s words. Afghanistan. The two opposing belligerents were backed by Communist Soviet Russia and/or Mainland China. a young novice monk. on the one side. an Islamic movement). now flourished in the form of Soviet totalitarian dictatorships planted in a dozen small satellite nations. as it was then called). strontium and iodine – would cause cancer and birth defects for a long time to come. the communists were not only strong in Europe and Asia. But the scene changed dramatically after 1945: once the Allies had conquered Nazi Germany. Russia held onto its gains in East Germany and Eastern Europe.e. the takeover of China by communists under Mao Ze-Dong added the world’s most populous country to the Communist Bloc. the fear of an all-out nuclear war was more or less intense. and the USA on the other. The war ended in 1945: in Europe first (May). In 1949. there were ominous clouds on both horizons. In the fifties and sixties. While the Allies helped West Germany and the rest of Europe to rebuild as part of the post-war. stumbles into one of these by accident in about the year 2600. quasi-religious doctrine with aspirations of world-conquest.Background Information What was the “Cold War”? When A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1959. the victory over Japan was finally. generally speaking. stocked with non-perishables to survive the actual war and the radioactive fallout that would poison the air immediately afterwards. In the Pacific theatre. Germany and her allies vs. the world was in the grip of the “Cold War”. Unfortunately. and then in Japan (August). by the United . while the Allies supported a rebuilt Western Europe. democratic. the communist dictator of Russia (or USSR. How did the “Cold War” become associated with the threat of nuclear war? In World War II. with the result that (as explained above). The two “sides” in the First and Second World Wars had been mainly composed of the same countries. Although this conflict never reached the magnitude of an all-out worldwide conflict like World War I (1914-18) or World War II (1939-45). and El Salvador in the seventies and eighties). During the same period of time (the lifetimes of your parents and grandparents) there was a series of regional and civil wars around the globe (in Korea in the early fifties. which lasted from about 1945 to about 1990. As Churchill said. Marxist-Leninist communism. fires and radiation. and Emperor Hirohito’s Japan. these movements.

there are new (or re-emerging) political and religious divisions in various parts of the world. In 1962. human survivors have turned in anger upon any person of learning. “St.000 died in the ensuing four months from the effects of radiation. scientific or otherwise. “Lucifer is Fallen” is a code phrase used to indicate that one of the new world-empires at the time has actually employed a nuclear weapon to start a nuclear war (see page 245). no nation other than the USA possessed nuclear weapons. This strategy was also accompanied by the “Space Race” between Russia and the USA. interestingly. in the mistaken idea that learning and science had caused the destruction of the world. built in 1961. with the new ideological division of the world between the growing Communist Bloc (by 1959 Castro’s Cuba in the Western Hemisphere was added) and the Free World (i. . in the hope that later generations would come to appreciate it again. Isaac Leibowitz. mainly because of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc in 1991. the “Arms Race” became a means to “keeping the peace”. and by the terrible regional and civil wars (mentioned above) fought with “conventional” weapons from the fifties through the eighties. can easily be applied to new situations – and that includes the theme of the spiritual refuge the Church offers to those who seek true human values and a peaceful use of learning and science. named after Albert the Great (the medieval philosopher who taught Thomas Aquinas) and following the Rule of Benedict.000 Japanese civilians lost their lives immediately. The Berlin Wall had become a symbol of the divide between the two sides of the Cold War. Leibowitz” dedicated himself to preserving the learning and truth acquired in the past. as both sides were convinced that if they had approximately the same number of weapons. and reading the story of the “Flame Deluge” and the convert Christian. So. Isaac Leibowitz responded to the “Great Simplification” – the campaign to burn all books and kill all scholars and scientists – by founding a new Catholic monastic “Order of Albert”. (The Berlin Wall. and the main idea is that. When the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed. Eight or nine countries in the world possess them. Paradoxically. however.e. and not the choices people make in how to use their learning and science.sixties. By 1949. The expression. In the third part of Canticle for Leibowitz. At the time. This story is deliberately told in Biblical style. in other words. designed to be launched “at the push of a button” from submarines or underground silos. there are still many nuclear weapons in the world – according to some accounts. South Africa is the only country that has completely dismantled its own nuclear program. with the help of some German scientists who had defected from the Nazis.000 – quite a few.120. a physicist-engineer who had lived through it.120. a process that began with the spontaneous popular destruction of the Berlin Wall by the East Germans in November. the “Cuban Missile Crisis” took place when the USA forced the USSR to “back down” and remove a stockpile of nuclear missiles from Cuba – within ninety miles’ striking distance of the USA mainland.000 . The thematic background of Canticle for Leibowitz. unfortunately.) But the end of the Cold War has. the world is once again (in the year 3781) on the brink of an apocalyptic situation. First. as we all know. but not as many as the 65. neither side could attack without “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) of the other. after the world had gone through the destruction of “World War III” sometime in the nineteen. was built to prevent East Germans trying to escape to West Berlin and to “shelter” the Marxist collective economic system from the effects of the Western economy. and no retaliation was possible. Is the “Cold War” really over? Or the threat of nuclear war? The “Cold War” as described above does seem to be over now. the “Cold War” had begun.000 recorded in 1985 at the height of the Cold War. the non-communist Allies in World War II). not taken away the threat of a nuclear war.000 .States – developed. a total of about 100. Secondly. 1989. To date. and another 100. Soviet Russia had begun to develop its own nuclear arsenal and so. some of them dating back far longer than the “Cold War”. what is the connection of the story of Canticle for Leibowitz with the Cold War nuclear threat? You can get acquainted rapidly with the dramatic setting of the novel by turning to pages 61 to 65. Many East Germans who tried to escape were shot by communist guards. 22. Competition in weapons technology soon brought the more efficient “hydrogen bomb” and the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

rhetoric. and the new nations of Europe would not arise until about 1100. Bologna and Oxford. Christian or pagan. when the universities began to appear in the major cities of Paris. developed the organized study of logic. Of course. . and logic) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic. our current system of academic degrees. modern science had not really developed yet. in its turn. the Benedictine monks (and nuns) of Europe kept alive the study of the Trivium (grammar. Since that empire had disappeared from Western Europe by the year 500. modern science. that had been acquired or developed during the time of the Roman Empire. The university (an institution invented by medieval Christian churchmen and scholars). and the new Aristotelian sciences that would provide the basis for the empirical-mathematical discoveries of the clerics and laymen of Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe – that is. music and astronomy) for about 600 years.Were the real Benedictine Monks interested in science in the Middle Ages? Yes. geometry. but one of the most important achievements of the Benedictine Order was the careful preservation of all the learning.

not the same as “worship” (=latreia) “Fiat Lux” = Let there be light p. 276) p. See Rule of Benedict. Notice the word holocaust ( = “burnt sacrifice of a whole [animal]”) is actually used. 332 – the preternatural gifts of Eden – i. and that they will never return …” This is the official Papal document authorizing the sending out of a Catholic space mission.A Canticle for Leibowitz .veneration (for a Saint -. 281 – Grex peregrinus erit… “The flock will travel …I’ve talked it over with them.44. The quotation on 167 means.A glossary of Latin phrases and obscure references Many Latin sentences occur throughout the book – most of them are translated or paraphrased by the author.) “Fiat Homo” = Let there be man (human being) p. Chapter 57. 6 – “sport” is a biological term for a mutant. It says. 38 – Brother “Fingo” (whose name means. 106 – dulia -. 134 – the end of Marcus Apollo’s letter was written in Latin so Hannegan wouldn’t understand it. 96 on the “Pope’s Children” p. after which the fictional “Leibowitzian” Order has been modeled. This helps to evoke the deep monastic culture of the Benedictine Order. 166-67 – The Hebrew on p. in some cases official documents of communication with the Papacy in New Rome. “Hear. “I create” in Latin) was re-assigned to the kitchen because he showed some vanity about his art. and they will be put on the first plane to Rome …” p. 253 – “Ab hac planeta … etc.” This means: “We understand that some members of the Church have already departed from this planet of their birth to travel to planets of other suns. The words in Latin are for the most part prayers or quotations from the Bible. 166 is translated in the book. 182-84 – this is a fictional take-off of the Book of Job. p. Here are the translations of some of these. not having original sin. (see p. the Lord is One”. applied to the twentieth century nuclear holocaust.e. (Note: it is not necessary to know the meaning of all the Latin to understand and enjoy the book. which I am afraid will not go away. This can stand for Leibowitz or Lazarus. 13 – the Hebrew letters (=L Z) are explained on pp. 54 – ornithophagy -. not needing to be baptized . O Israel. pp. 43 . p. in summary: “I must drink a chalice [of suffering].” We will later learn what becomes of Marcus Apollo… p. but some are not.“eating of birds” p. See also p. “Fiat Voluntas Tua” = Let your will be done (God’s will) p.

with the two-sided description of humanity as “courageous and noble” but also as “guilty and outcast”. 3. 124-128 we are introduced to the character and personal interests of Thon Taddeo. The heart of the conversation. and on page 227 declares the Pope an outlaw with no power over his clergy. page 65) of an “Integrator” that the monks were waiting for. . the Emperor Hannegan makes Christianity a legal requirement in his domains. In fact. Abbot Arkos also prohibits the making of a printing press (p. there is conversation between Abbot Paulo and the scientist-monk Brother Kornhoer. From the very beginning to the end of this part. the phrase “Lucifer is fallen” is employed as a code phrase to signify the detonation of a nuclear weapon. 220-222 is important. in the Bible. 23-4)? The book will make that clear later …and why is the skeleton not inside the shelter? 2. Miller Jr. Does this show the Abbot’s wisdom? Why does Brother Francis faint several times after talking with the Abbot? (pp. It is important to understand this. 217. 94) 4. Isaiah 14. walking around the earth. Is it vanity to put to good use what has been learned? What do you think? 7. The ending of the first story. The Abbot Arkos seems rather negative toward Brother Francis. Connect this with the description (in the first part. because it provides the background concerning Leibowitz and the Order he founded. The argument between the Abbot and the Thon on pp. The visit of the Abbot Paulo to the hermit Benjamin Eleazar (Chapter 16) is full of mysterious conversation.a few questions to assist in your understanding and class discussion Part One: “Fiat Homo” (Chapters 1 – 11) 1. How can those two actions be reconciled? Part Three: “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Chapters 24 – 30) 10. What is the pun implicit in the term “Bookleggers” p. The monks of Leibowitz do not understand “ancient” science. On pp. What is Thon Thaddeo’s attitude to the knowledge and documents possessed by the monks? Is he their friend or their enemy? 6. Look for the connection between this and the “scientific” description of the Abbot’s frown (from Brother Francis’ point of view) on p. Connect this with the author Walter M. and explained in more detail in Chapter Six. in chapter eleven. 8. as that event (the Fall of Satan) is supposed to be one of rejoicing for Christians. 9. What was the “Age of Simplification”? It is mentioned on pp. is rather surprising – even shocking.A Canticle for Leibowitz . 80. (see. 93). 66 and the discussion of the “electron” on pages 76-77. On page 145. 21 and 22. On p. This is ironic. 22? To whom did the skull with the gold tooth belong (pp. can be found on page 170. 18). bottom of page. they treat it as a religious artifact. Do you think that Brother Francis “dies a happy death”? Part Two: “Fiat Lux” (Chapters 12 – 23) 5.’s experience in World War II (see the last page of the book for a sketch of his life). and perhaps of the chapter’s meaning. and even disciplines him (a form of ‘spanking’) for talking about the mysterious figure some monks believed to be the long-dead Saint Leibowitz himself. but they have faith that it makes sense. The suspicious activity of the Thon Taddeo’s officers in studying the exact layout of the monastery is explained on page 191-2 and page 204. 12 and Luke 10.

In the story he makes an anti-euthanasia argument that draws an analogy between animals and human beings. They are on the brink of war. On pp. the world is divided between two superpowers and their allies: the Asian Coalition vs. the Abbot tells a little story about the death of his cat. the Atlantic Confederacy. In this section of the book.11. What is the essential idea of the argument? What does it really mean to “die with dignity”? . What are Abbot Zerchi and some of the other monks concerned with during this time period? 12. and on the island of Guam there is a ten-day delay for last-minute diplomatic attempts to forestall “Armageddon”. 314-15.