A Canticle for Leibowtiz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

leibowitz Continuing on my reading of fantasy fiction with religious themes I decided to finally read A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is a classic of science fiction and I had heard intriguing bits and pices of it on the radio one night, so I thought it might make for an interesting read in these troubled times.

I will be frank with you, I didn get it. I mean it was an interesting read and the author obvioulsy has a creative imagination and the talent to describe what the future might be in a post-apocalyptic world, but what exactly he was trying to say was beyond me. Unless of course it is simply the sixties No Nukes movement in fiction form. In that case it was a bit of a bore.

Perhpas, my lack of knowledge of Catholicism or latin prevented a deeper understanding. Maybe, the fact that huclear holocaust was avoided in my lifetime lessened the power of the story. Or perhaps I simply wasn’t able to concentrate enough on the symbolism and meaning beneath the story as I read chuncks of it in the evening before bed. Whatever the reason, I found the book interesting in parts but largely obscure and surreal. The plot, such as it was, left me scratching my head. A couple of the characters were interesting but they were not developed long enough to really hold my interest. I felt like I need some sort of guidebook or translation that would illuminate the parts I was missing.

So here is my request: If you have read it please tell me what you thought it meant or what you thought the author was trying to say. What is the significance of all the latin and Catholic references? Is it pro-Catholic, anti-Catholic, or ambivalent? Is this book really considered a classic of science fiction? If so why? Or perhaps it is really just an example of the literary genere that grew out of the fear of nuclear war. Any input or references to more information would be appreciated. I promise to report back on anything I find.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Delighted to.

    Let me explain it this way – A Canticle for Liebowitz is the best Science Fiction book ever written.

    It has it all. It has memorable prose, solid characters, a captivating historical panorama, humour and a theme worthy of contemplation. Miller, of course, recapitulates the history of the Middle Ages into a post-apocolyptic future by having knowledge once again preserved in monasteries where it is cherished, banked and eventually superceded by the secularists. Miller in no way was anti-Catholic – he was quite Catholic in Canticle and in virtually all of his novellas and short stories. The book is dated, however, because it was written pre-Vatican II. The possibility of Latin becoming the linua franca of a future restoration is presently nill. For example, unlike my father, I have no Latin competence and don’t even remember Latin masses, and I was born in 1959.

    There are excerpts of Canticle that have always stayed with me, such as Brother Francis’ reflection that his desire to be a monk might be mere hubris like that of the cat who thought himself called to become an ornithologist when he was merely called to become an orniphage. Actually, it may also neatly encapsulate the Catholic doctrine of vocations, which is not limited to the priesthood. [Also, I like the scene that ends with “Bless me father, I ate a lizard.”] I also like the fact that figures in one part of the novel become legendary in subsequent portions.

    I don’t know about your point about the end of nuclear anxiety. A staple of Science Fiction was always the post-apocolyptic story. Perhaps that genre is vitiated by history. A Canticle, though, is really about the Dark Ages and the repetition of history.

    Hope that helps somewhat.

  2. I’ve got to agree with PSB, Canticle is one of the finest science fiction books ever written. But what’s so cool about it is the fact that this cat Leibowitz was simply an everyman. He got elevated to a stature of almost a demigod. The satirical aspect of the story was the drive for me. Less was it about post apocolyptic world than it is about the world today and the craziness of organized religion. It’s a reflection on how sometimes humans can turn simple humans like Leibowitz into demigods, saints or some kind of deity. It’s been many years since I read it, so I can’t comment iin detail. It’s quite comical actually.

  3. Back again.

    I absolutely agree about the observation that Liebowitz was the everyman. He, frankly, isn’t even a character in the book, but look at the relics of St. Liebowitz – a note reading “bread, one can kraut, Love Emma.” Then there’s the fact that Brother Francis becomes beatified as the Blessed Francis of Utah and we knew the real, hopelessly confused, Francis from the first part of the book.

    I don’t think you can put too much emphasis on Canticle as playing up the craziness of religion, though. Canticle isn’t a book by a secularist in any sense. There’s always a core of true saintliness in Francis or Liebowitz or whatever. They are humans. If you cut through the conventional popular misunderstanding of the Catholic view of Saints, you learn that saints are human – they have their faults and flaws like everyone else. Miller presents that Catholic understanding quite well.

    By the way, another really excellent SF book dealing with religious themes is John Boyd’s The Last Starship from Earth. Check the used bookstores for it.

  4. When I’ve discussed this book with my friends over the years I have been continually amazed at the number of people that don’t understand the scene at the end where the monk (now a priest and bishop) removes his sandals and beats the dust of earth from them before boarding the ship. It is such a strong symbol of both despair for this world and hope for their destination that in some ways it is almost the point of the story.
    Throughout the centuries covered by the book faith persisted – through the original nuclear holocaust that occurred before the story started through the one that ended the book.

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