41 pages 1 hour read

Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


A Canticle for Leibowitz is a 1959 science fiction novel by author Walter M. Miller, Jr. Its post-apocalyptic narrative spans thousands of years, focused on a Catholic abbey in the southwest region of the United States of America. The abbey serves as headquarters for the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a saint Miller invented for the narrative. The monks in the abbey are dedicated to preserving books and scientific knowledge to be used again whenever the current Dark Age ends.

Plot Summary

The novel unfolds in three parts. In the first part, a Utah monk named Francis Gerard finds a fallout shelter in the desert. The fallout shelter was meant to protect its inhabitants from what the characters refer to as the Flame Deluge—the most recent nuclear holocaust. Many people blamed scientific knowledge for the Flame Deluge, so they outlawed reading and learning during an anti-Renaissance period known as the Simplification. Mobs persecuted and slaughtered academics and other educated people.

The monks revere Leibowitz, a weapons engineer who was one of the monastery’s founders. When the 17-year-old novice, Francis, finds the fallout shelter—after a wandering hermit gives him directions—he also finds a cache of Leibowitz’s documents. Rumors arise that the hermit was Leibowitz himself. Francis continues his vigil in the desert. His abbot eventually sends him to New Rome for the canonization of Leibowitz. En route, he is killed by bandits and unable to deliver the illumination to the Pope. The wandering hermit buries him.

Part 2 takes place in A.D. 3174 in a period of renewed enlightenment. Thon Taddeo Pfarentrott visits the abbey to study the Memorabilia of Leibowitz Abbey. While there, he witnesses the successful demonstration of an arc lamp, confirming a theory of electricity that he has been studying. He is frustrated that the monks have been hoarding knowledge that other scientists could have used to further their work. Most of Part 2 involves Taddeo’s theological and scientific deliberations with the other characters.

During Part 3, in the year 3781, the world has seen unprecedented technological advances such as space flight. After another nuclear war, Abbot Zerchi sends the monks from Leibowitz Abbey into space, where they will continue spreading the gospel and preserving knowledge.

A Canticle for Leibowitz received critical acclaim. It is highly recommended for fans of science fiction, students of post-apocalyptic literature, and readers interested in the tensions between science and theology.