by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Canticle=Song of praise
This is a book about responsibility.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is “fiat homo” or, Let there be man. It begins in the American southwestern desert, in a time like the European Dark Ages, but this Dark Age is in our future, after a nuclear holocaust has nearly wiped out civilization.
The monks at Leibowitz Abbey have accepted the responsibility of collecting, memorizing, copying, and preserving any written material from before the deluge that they can find.
Brother Francis, while on a fast in the desert, met an old Jewish wanderer. Francis was building a wall, and needed a peculiarly shaped stone to complete an arch. The old wanderer found and marked a stone for him and left. When Francis pried up the stone, he found a cache of pre-deluge material and evidence that, eventually, led to Leibowitz being canonized as a saint. There was some rumor that the old wanderer was an apparition of Leibowitz, himself, which is never really cleared up in the book.
The second section of the book is “fiat lux” or, Let there be light. It takes place some centuries after the first section, at the beginning of a Renaissance in learning.
The abbot visits an old hermit in the desert. He calls himself Benjamin, which is a symbolic name for Israel. Benjamen, by his description and by his own testimony, is the same pilgrim Brother Francis met. He claims to be many centuries old. He seems to believe himself to be The Wandering Jew, a legendary figure who refused to let Christ rest in his doorway when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary, and was cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. The hermit and the abbot discuss responsibility.
At this time, there is tension between the church and the secular powers. The earthly rulers don’t like being told what to do by the moral rulers, and the secular scholars believe that learning is too precious to be left in the hands of the church. The abbot of Leibowitz Abbey argues with the leading scholar of the time over where responsibility lies. The abbot believes that man destroys his civilization in rage because it isn’t perfect; that he tries to re-create Eden and, the closer he brings the world to perfection, the more clear it is that perfection is unattainable in the world, and he smashes his creation.
The final section is called “fiat voluntas tua” or, Let thy will be done.
More centuries have passed, and civilization has reached the point it had reached just before the Flame Deluge; that is, a point just a little beyond our civilization in 1959, when the book was published. A major difference is that there is still only one church, at least only one is presented in the book. There are wars and rumors of wars. There has been at least one illegal nuclear test.
The old hermit returns to wandering, and is identified as Lazarus: As the local children put it, “What the Lord Jesus raise up, it stay up!”
This time, the church believes mankind will destroy his presence on the earth, and the church is ready. She has a space ship ready to leave earth, and twenty-six brothers, at least two bishops, some sisters, and some orphan children. They will leave when the Holy Father decides a nuclear war is imminent, and will join an established colony in space. They will take the old knowledge with them–on microfilm–and continue to preserve what is left of human history.
A very weird character appears in this section: Mrs. Grales, a victim of the continued genetic deformities left over from the Flame Deluge. She has two heads, but some say she only had one when she was born. One head is that of an old woman, the other one, the one she supposedly grew, and that seems to be in perpetual sleep, is young and innocent-looking. Mrs. Grales calls her second head “Rachel” (another symbolic name for Israel). Mrs. Grales keeps trying to get a priest to baptize Rachel, but they won’t, because they don’t believe she’s a separate person.
As the outbreak of war comes nearer, Rachel begins to show signs of life. When the war breaks loose, and the current Abbot of Leibowitz Abbey is half-crushed in the ruins of the chapel, Mrs. Grales/Rachel finds him. The Mrs. Grales head is dead, and the Rachel head is awake, though functioning on instinct, being totally child-like and innocent. The abbot tries to baptize Rachel with rainwater, but she refuses the sacrament. She finds a consecrated host, and feeds it to the abbot, giving him final absolution. She is the Immaculate Conception.
The book ends with the last monk beating the dust of the earth from his sandals and the church star ship taking off.