Although A Canticle for Leibowitz was published as a book in 1959, one version of it was written earlier. The first section, also entitled “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (now “Fiat Homo” [“Let There Be Man”]) appeared in 1955, the second section appeared as “And the Light Is Risen” (“Fiat Lux” [“Let There be Light”]) the next year, and the conclusion appeared in 1957 as “The Last Canticle” (“Fiat Voluntas Tua” [“Thy Will Be Done”]), all in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. When he reworked the material for the novel, Miller made substantial changes and additions. Although he published a few stories before and after, and wrote most of a sequel to Canticle, at his death this remained his only successful work. The sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was almost finished when he committed suicide, and was completed by Terry Bisson and published in 1997. Canticle is widely considered a classic, has never been out of print, and is widely taught in science fiction courses.
Written during the height of 50s concern over the danger of nuclear war, Canticle was the most literarily successful science fiction novel written on the subject until Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). Part of the novel’s success derives from its richly realized setting, a post-holocaust America where scraps of pre-war knowledge are gathered and preserved by a Catholic Church which no longer understands that knowledge. The novel takes for granted familiarity with the idea that after the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge was preserved in Western Europe almost exclusively in small, isolated communities of priests and monks during a centuries-long dark age, recopied by men who often understood little of the ancient manuscripts of which they were the custodians.
There have been scores of novels set after a nuclear war in a neo-Medieval setting, but none so lovingly developed on the basis of a detailed study of the original Middle Ages. Miller remained a Catholic through much his life, though in tension with the Church, (he turned bitterly against it toward the end, as is evident in Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horsewoman). Most SF is highly critical of religion when it touches on the subject at all; but Canticle is distinguished by its serious consideration of religious issues, even though it sometimes departs from orthodoxy. Miller obviously could not have anticipated Vatican II’s movement away from the use of Latin, and he imagines its revival in the new Dark Age, with the English of our age functioning only as an archaic ceremonial language.
The other most memorable feature of the books is the delightful portrait of the feckless brother Francis. Richly detailed characterization and real wit are both unusual in SF, and have helped to make this work a classic. “Fiat Homo” is clearly the strongest part of the work, which suffers to some degree as a novel from the very long time spans which separate each of its sections. Like The Martian Chronicles, it is well to remember that each section was composed separately and can still be read rewarding on its own.
Many of the following notes require looking up passages in the Bible. If you do not have a copy you can access searchable one at http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/ARTFL/public/bibles/index.html. It offers both the Vulgate Latin version which Miller draws upon and the Revised Standard Version in English.
“Saint Raul the Cyclopean”; in Greek mythology a cyclops has only one eye, in the center of his forehead. This saint was presumably a similarly deformed person genetically damaged by the lingering radiation of the nuclear war which provides the backdrop for the novel. In the discussion of the Church’s attitude toward such mutations, how can one tell that the Church (unlike its Medieval predecessor) does not dominate the culture of the time?
“Adonoi Elohim” (“Lord God”, more conventionally spelled “Adonai”): a specifically Jewish chant. Lurking in the background of this tale is the Medieval legend of the “Wandering Jew.”According to this legend (unsupported by anything in the Bible, but widely told), when Christ was carrying his cross to the place of crucifixion, he paused to rest at the threshold of a house. Its owner roughly told him to move on. Jesus sadly replied, “You move on too, until I return.” The householder was forced to wander about the earth, undying, regretting his cruelty to the Savior, until Christ should return at the last judgment. Although this mysterious figure shares certain features with the Wandering Jew, Miller is no antisemite. What qualities characterize this character?
“I’m not a sport” a mutant.
“Leibowitz Abbey.” “Leibowitz” is intended to be immediately recognizable as a Jewish name. When the pilgrim mocks Francis by commenting that his kind are “still writing things backward” he reveals that he is more comfortable with Hebrew, which is written from right to left. Francis, however, is too ignorant to figure all this out.
“vocational vigils” a period of testing to see whether a novice (would-be monk) has the vocation “calling”–determining whether he is suitable, and chosen by God) to be a full-fledged monk.
“Ash Wednesday.” Six weeks before Easter, the beginning of Lent, which was traditionally a period of repentance and penance, involving abstinence from meat and other pleasures.
“Apage Satanas!” “Begone, Satan!”
“The natural results seemed to appear ex opere operato:” “from the operation, not the operator (literally, “from the work having been worked”),: a theological phrase which maintains the the sacraments are rendered valid not by the holiness of the priest who performs them but solely through the performance of the appropriate action. Though Francis thinks himself unworthy to perform an exorcism, his effort apparently works.
“Beelzebub” devil (the name was originally an insulting Jewish pun on the name of the Canaanite god Baalzebul, whose name meant “Lord of Lords;” the pun means “Lord of the Flies,” and was commonly used later as a name for the Devil).
“Et ne nos inducas in . . .” “And lead us not into . . . ” The phrase from the Lord’s prayer which concludes with “temptation.”
What does the stranger mean by his reference to changing stones into bread? (Hint: see Matthew 4:1-4.)
“Libellus Leibowitz “ “Little Book of Leibowitz.” Note that some of the following Latin lines are immediately translated by Miller.
Beatus (“blessed”) is a term assigned to those who are regarded as especially saintly, but who are not yet officially designated as saints. In what way does Leibowitz’s status resemble that of Francis?
What is the pilgrim’s attitude toward Francis? What is Francis’ attitude toward the pilgrim? Which of them seems more intelligent? How can you tell? Explain the symbolism of the keystone.
“Repugnans tibi, ausus sum quaerere quidquid doctius mihi fide, certius spe, aut dulcius caritate visum esset. Quis itaque stultior me . . .” “Resisting you, I have dared to seek whatever seemed to me to be more learned than Faith, more certain than Hope, sweeter than Love (“charity”) Who is therefore more foolish than I?” “Faith, hope, and charity” are traditionally considered the three theological virtues (see 1 Corinthians 13:13) (SS).
“O inscrutabilis Scrutator animarum, cui patet omne cor, si me vocaveras, olim a te fugeram. Si autem nunc velis vocare me indignum . . .” “O inscrutable scrutinzer of souls, to whom every heart is open, if you had called me, once I would have fled from you. If however now you should wish to call me, though unworthy. . . .”
“Libera me . . .” “Free me,” translated below as “Set me free. . . .” Francis will repeat part of this same prayer in Chapter 2, just after asking Leibowitz to pray for him.
The two Hebrew characters on page 10 are explained later in Chapter 3.
“pagan cabals” “The Kabbalah consists of mystical Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Here the term stands for any mystical teachings disapproved of by the Church.
Why is it ironic to call the buzzards a “heavenly host?”
The Paraclete is a mysterious figure mentioned in the Gospel of John traditionally interpreted as the Savior. Note from Rev. Victor Peri Bogdanoff (email@example.com): The term “Paraclete” is used two ways in John’s Gospel: by the author in reference to “the whole scope of Jesus’ and ministry both before and after his resurrection” and by Jesus himself to refer to a mysterious figure that will be sent to the disciples after his death, to ‘be with them always.'” In the Catholic tradition in which Miller is working, the “Paraclete” is normally taken to be the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, especially as manifested at Pentacost when it descended among Christ’s disciples.
Explain the reference to the “Dove.” (Hint: see Matthew 3:16.)
The Flame Deluge here refers to the nuclear holocaust which destroyed civilization, but “Deluge” originally designates the Biblical flood which destroyed all creatures outside the ark.
Salamanders were supposed in the Middle Ages to be able to survive in fire, probably because they were often found in the ashes of fires where they had taken refuge in search of residual heat after the fires were out.
Radioactive isotopes of cobalt, strontium and cesium were all much in the news as a result of concern over fallout from atomic bomb testing.
“Domine, libera nos” “O Lord, deliver us.”
“A morte perpetua” “from everlasting death.”
“te rogamus, audi nos” “We beseech thee, hear us.”
To what does the term “Simplification” seem to refer in this story?
What does it tell you about this society that the term “servus puer” is familiar to Francis?
“ending the matter without benefit of clergy” dying suddenly, without any opportunity to confess sins to a priest and prepare for death and receiving the Last Rites: Confession, viaticum (communion for the dying), and anointing (“extreme unction”).
What was the probable explanation of the transformations undergone by the “launching pad site?”
In the 50s pastrami and bagels were eaten mostly by Jews.
Blueprints, now rare, used to be the dominant method of reproducing architectural and engineering drawings. They consist of white lines on a blue background and are prone to fade if exposed too much to light.
What was the evident occupation of Leibowitz?
Leibowitz seems to have scrambled together a collection of miscellaneous junk and papers and shoved them in the “first tool box he happened to grab,” sealed it and labelled it “Top Secret” and sent his wife to take it to this location. Why? Did he succeed in accomplishing what he wanted to do?
“Beate Leibowitz, ora pro me!” “Blessed Leibowitz, pray for me!”
Ut solius tuae voluntatis mihi cupidis sim, et vocationis tuae conscius, si digneris me vocare. . . . Repetition of the same prayer translated by Miller above, in Chapter 1.
Promotor Fidei The formal title of the so-called “Devil’s Advocate,” who challenges claims to sainthood. See below, Chapter 7.
“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae” “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary” (see Luke 1:26-35); the prayer recited at sunrise, noon, and sunset, but traditionally associated especially with sundown, called the “Angelus.” It commemorates the mysteries of the Annunciation (when Gabriel appeared to Mary and received her assent to bear the Son of God) and the Incarnation (when the Son of God took on flesh in the womb of Mary) (SS).
A “beatus” can only be recognized as a full-fledged saint if the Church confirms that he or she has performed a certain number of miracles after death. Even a beatus must have some documented miracles; a saint needs even more. In modern times the rules restricting the recognition of saints ( “canonization”) have become rather strict.
The passage about the debate over Mary’s “Preternatural Gifts” is a parody of the sort of tangled debate that led to the declaration of the Virgin’s “immaculate conception” (the doctrine that she was conceived without original sin, though the term is often confused with “virgin birth” the doctrine that she conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin) in 1854. The Dominicans are famous for their conservative theology (they were the order which ran the Renaissance Holy Inquisition).
What does the existence of “New Rome” suggest?
What does Father Cheroki’s name suggest about his ethnic origin, given that the novel is set in the southwest of the old United States?
Since the monks very much want to have Leibowitz recognized as a saint, why is Father Cheroki so exasperated with Brother Francis?
What is a succubus? (Look it up.)
What does it tell us about the social system of America that Father Cheroki “came of baronial stock?”
“Arkos” suggests “ark.” There are two arks in the Bible: Noah’s, which preserved human and animal life through the flood and the Ark of the Covenant, the box which contained the tablets of the Jewish law. It is thus an appropriate name for a preserver of knowledge in a post holocaust era (Olsen 140). But Ken Smith points out in a private communication that the word is Greek for “bear,” and that when Arkos is first introduced in the second paragraph of this chapter, “he reminded Cheroki of a were-bear only incompletely changed into a man.”
Why is Cheroki so hostile to the idea that the pilgrim was a miraculous appearance of Leibowitz?
“Benedicamus Domino” “Let us bless the Lord”: the standard greeting among monks. The standard response is “Deo gratias”–“Thanks be to God;” but Francis’ timidity is indicated by the hesitant question marks after each word in his reply.
“Magister meus,” “My Master.”
Antiphon for Maundy Thursday: “Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem . . .” I give you a new commandment: to love one another” (John 13:34). Maundy Thursday is the day before Good Friday. This antiphon is sung during the “Maundy Laving” (see below, Chapter 25).
What rationale does the legend say the creators of nuclear weapons used to justify their creation of atomic arsenals?
What is the motive for the “Great Simplification?” Such a movement is frequently described in older post-holocaust literature. Do you find it probable or credible? Why or why not?
How long ago did the nuclear war take place?
“Ecce Inquisitor Curiae. Ausculta et obsequere. Arkos, AOL, Abbas” “This is the inquisitor of the Curia. Hear and obey. Arkos. Albertian Order of Leibowitz. Abbot.”
“Inquisition” The Holy Inquisition was an often ruthless and bloody Church organization dedicated to rooting out heresy, run by the Dominicans. Its chief officers were called “inquisitors.”
“Catharism” technically a Medieval religion popular in Provence until it was crushed by the Pope and the king of France in the infamous Albigensian Crusade of the 13th Century. Like Manicheanism, its predecessor in antiquity, it argued that the world is the locus of a struggle between two divine powers, one good, the other evil. Christianity argued that God was both perfectly good and supreme, and rejected the notion that Satan, for instance, had any power independent of God’s. Why do you think Catharism might have revived in the time during which this story is set?
“advocatus diaboli” The officer of the Church whose job was to challenge the evidence presented to prove that someone was a saint. His title means literally “devil’s advocate,” but his role is by no means seen as evil. His concern is to be certain that Leibowitz did not become a monk before establishing with certainty that his wife was dead because the Church forbid married men to become monks or priests, although widowers could.
“Ecce quam bonum, et quam jucundum” Psalms 133:1: ” Behold how good and how delightful.”The psalm goes on “to live together as brothers in unity,” so it is particularly appropriate for this ritual in which the new monks receive the kiss of brotherhood (SS).
A “missal” is a book containing all the prayers necessary for celebrating the mass throughout the year, a breviary contains the prayers used to be recited at various hours of the day, and the Summa is probably St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (1267-73), the standard theological treatise of the Catholic faith.
“Glorificemus” Let us glorify [the Lord].”
“Miserere mei, deus” “Have pity upon me, God.”
“audi me” ” hear me”
“Extreme unction” the last rite of the Church, preparing the dying Christian for death and judgment, involving anointing the dying person with oil.
“postulator” the official responsible for advocating the canonization of a saint, the opposite of an advocatus diaboli.
“prothonotory” one of seven members of the College of Prothonotaries Apostolic, responsible for recording major events in the history of the Church.
Why does the Abbot veto the proposal to build a printing press?
“Sacerdos Magnus” “Chief Priest (pope).
“Dei imago” “image of God.”
Why are mutant offspring called the “Pope’s children?”
The reference to Jacob overcoming the angel refers to Genesis 32:23-33.
“Appropinquat agnis pastor et ovibus pascendis.” “The shepherd approaches to feed the lambs and the sheep.”
“Genua nunc flectantur omnia.” “Now let all knees be bent.”
“Jussit olim Jesus Petrum pascere gregem Domini.” “Jesus once ordered Peter to feed the flock of the Lord.” (John 21:16)
“Ecce Petrus Pontifex Maximus.” “Behold Peter, the Supreme Pontiff” (that is, the Pope).
“Gaudeat igitur populus Christi, et gratias agat Domino.” “Let, therefore, the Christ’s people rejoice, and give thanks to the Lord.”
“Nam docebimur a Spiritu sancto.” “For we shall be taught by the Holy Spirit.”
“plain chant” unharmonized monophonic song, such as the Gregorian Chant traditionally used in Catholic liturgy.
“Sancte pater, ab Saptientia summa petimus ut ille Beatus Leibowitz cujus miracula mirati sunt multi” “Holy Father, from the highest Wisdom we ask that the Blessed Leibowitz, at whose miracles many have marveled.”
“dulia” “Veneration (as opposed to worship, which is given to God alone)” (SS).
“Gratissima Nobis causa, fili” “Your cause is most pleasing to us, on account of her Son.”
“sub ducatu sancti Spiritus” “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
“miserere nobis” “Have mercy upon us.”
“Sancta Dei Genitrix, ora pro nobis,Sancta Virgo virginum, ora pro nobis” “Holy Mother of God, pray for us, Holy Virgin of Virgins, pray for us.” Invocations in a lengthy and repetitious chant called the Litany of the Saints, a traditional prayer that calls upon Mary and all the saints for their intercession on behalf of the faithful. (The following invocation, Omnes sancti martyres, is also part of this litany. SS)
“Omnes sancti Martyres, orate pro nobis” “All the holy martyrs, pray for us.”
“Veni, Creator Spiritus” “Come, Creator Spirit” One of the most famous chants of the liturgy, a hymn to the Holy Spirit, used for the feast of Pentecost or (as here) to in order to call down the guidance and insight of the Spirit (SS).
“Surgat ergo Petrus ipse” “Then let Peter himself arise.”
“Te Deum” “Thee, God” (a chant sung particularly in acts of solemn thanksgiving).
“sedarii” Bearers of the Papal chair on ceremonial occasions.
“licet adire” “He is allowed to approach.”
“sedarius” singular of sedarii.
Why is the clan chief described as “converted” in quotation marks?
“scala caelestis” heavenly stairs.
“His Supreme Unctuousness” a sarcastic description of this official’s behavior, not a real title.
“Behold Peter” Catholics believe that Jesus’ disciple Peter (formerly a fisherman) was the first Pope.
What evidence is there that despite all the impressive pageantry at New Rome, the Pope has little real power and knows little of the outside world?
“Noli molestare” “Do not molest” (warning on the pass).
“excommunicating” excommunication is the extreme penalty of the Church, forbidding the condemned to receive the sacraments, and therefore almost certainly condemning him or her to Hell.
The story ends with lavish descriptions of the continuation and proliferation of life. How can we tell they are ironically meant?
How does this story leave you feeling about humanity? Is it optimistic? Pessimistic? Purely nihilistic?
What does the first paragraph tell you about America in 3174? Is the Church dominant? Is civilization increasing or decreasing?
“nuncio” papal ambassador.
“Caesar” figuratively, any secular authority, following Christ’s usage in Matthew 22:21.
What is the nature of the disagreement between Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott and Marcus Apollo? Note how the formal Spanish term of address”Don” has evolved into “Thon.“
“Sheba expects Solomon to come to her” reversing the Biblical story (1 Kings 10:1-13). What does this phrase mean in the context of the story?
“Sub immunitate apostolica hoc suppositium est. Quisquis nuntium molestare audeat, ipso facto excommunicetur” “This has been placed under apostolic immunity. Let whoever dares to molest the messenger be automatically excommunicated.”
What is the origin of the village name of “Sanly Bowitts?” What about the culture explains the evolution of this name?
“Cui salutem dicit” “To whom [Marcus Apollo] sends greetings.”
“Feast of the Assumption” August 15: the day celebrating the ascent of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.
“Quidam mihi calix nuper expletur, Paule. Precamini ergo Deum facere me fortiorem. Metuo ut hic pereat. Spero te et fratres saepius oraturos esse pro tremescente Marco Apollini. Valete in Christo, Amici.” “A certain chalice is filled up for me recently, O Paulo. Pray therefore to God to make me stronger. I fear that I am doomed to death. I hope that you and the brothers will pray more often for the trembling Marcus Apollo. Farewell in Christ, friends.” The image of the full cup, or chalice to symbolize bitter suffering is taken from Matthew 26:42, where Jesus prays that he may be spared his impending suffering.
“Texarkanae datum est Octava Ss Petri et Pauli, Anno Domini Termillesimo” “Given at Texarakana on the Octave of Saints Peter and Paul [July 6] in the year of our Lord, 3000.”
“vespero mundi expectando” “waiting for the evening of the world”
Why is old Benjamin said to have lived for 5,408 years?
After centuries of preserving human knowledge, why are some of those in the Church not entirely happy about its spread? In what ways does history seem to be repeating itself?
“Logos” as used in John 1:1. Logos is far more than simply the Greek for “word.” It means something like: “meaning” or “underlying pattern, structure, purpose.”
“Veronica’s veil” according to legend, a woman named Veronica helped Christ on his way to be crucified by wiping his sweaty face with her handkerchief. An image of his face came off on the cloth, which was preserved and exhibited for many centuries. Some scholars think the story was born out of a misinterpretation of the Greek phrase “vera ikon,” meaning “true image.”
“De Vestigiis Antecessarum Civitatum” “On the Vestiges of the Preceding Civilizations.”
“Machina analytica” “analytical machine” (computers).
“Cave canem” “Beware of the dog” a not uncommon inscription on ancient Roman houses.
“Vexilla regis” The rest of the line is quoted and translated on the next page. The 6th-century poet and bishop Venantius Fortunatus composed a Good Friday hymn which begins “Vexilla regis prodeunt” (“the banners of the King advance,” hailing the Crucifixion). Dante Alighieri parodied it in the first line of the final canto of his Inferno (part of the Commedia Divina—Divine Comedy) in which the hymn is altered so that the banners referred to become the vast wings of Satan.
“Sancta Maisie, interride pro me” instead of the more common request to a saint–“pray for me”–he asks her to laugh for him. “Interride” is a pun on the more usual “intercede” (SS). “Maisie” is probably a reference to a popular radio comedy series starring Ann Sothern: “The Adventures of Maisie.”
What evidence is there that Benjamin is the Wandering Jew, or some variation on that theme? What evidence is there later in the chapter that he doesn’t fit the Wandering Jew tradition precisely?
“prodigal” In this context, stray (though the word more specifically means “spendthrift.” This is an allusion to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:13-32, concerning a young man who wandered away but returned home at last.
Benjamin’s speech about the goat is a compound of several Biblical references. Goats traditionally symbolized the damned in Christianity, as sheep symbolized the saved (see Matthew 25:33), at least partly because of the ancient Jewish tradition of the “scapegoat”–a sacrificial animal on whose back all the sins of the community were laid when it was driven into the desert to be destroyed by the demon Azazel (see Leviticus 16:8-10). Benjamin also identifies the goat as the beast on which the “Whore of Babylon” (originally symbolizing ancient Rome) rides in Revelation 17:3 at the end of the world.
Saint Paul was by profession a tent-maker; so it is not inappropriate that Benjamin should be a tent-mender.
The Hebrew inscription in this chapter is the Shema, the central statement of faith in Judaism, from Deuteronomy 6:4, which Jews originally wore in a container on their forheads and posted beside their doors in a container called a mezzuzah. Modern Jews often wear it in a small mezzuzah on a chain around the neck. In the King James translation it is rendered as “Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is One God.”
“Torquemada” Tomás de Torquemada, infamously cruel Spanish Inquisitor General in the late 15th century, largely responsible for causing the expulsion of the Jews from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella.
How does Dom Paulo rationalize to himself Benjamin’s claims to have lived for thirty-two centuries? Miller is careful to provide plausible rationalist alternatives for the seeming miracles in this book.
In discussing Christian theology with Paulo Benjamin makes some typically Jewish criticisms: whereas Jews believe in only one, undivided God, Christians claim that God can be three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and one at the same time; Christ’s resurrection (“life in death”) is not a part of traditional Jewish beliefs about the Messiah, who once born is never supposed to die; and Paul explains away the necessity to have faith in apparent absurdities in 1 Corinthians 1:17-25 in a passage that became a powerful tool against rationalism in the Middle Ages, whereas for Jews wisdom is identified with knowledge of and obedience to the Law.
“anchorite” a hermit, often living in the desert.
Why does Dom Paulo call the Jewish Messiah the “One-Who-Isn’t-Coming?”
“Come forth” Benjamin is referring to the story of Lazarus in John 11:1-44. What does he mean by alluding to this passage?
“Manasses, Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Pharaoh, Caesar” worldly rulers, all except Cyrus depicted as wicked in the Bible.
“Samuel warned us against them.” In Samuel 8 the Hebrews reject rule by religious leaders and beg the prophet Samuel for a king. In Samuel 8:10-18 he lists the many disadvantages of having a secular ruler, but at their insistence he crowns Saul whose reign turns out–as predicted–disastrously.
What precisely is the danger that Benjamin sees emerging at the present time? Why is he skeptical of the value of reemerging science and technology?
“El Shaddai” an ancient Hebrew name for God.
“Memento, Domine, Omnium famulorum tuorum” “Remember, Lord, all your servants.”
What recent invention is threatening the survival of the abbey?
“How neighborly of the lion to lie down with the lamb?” Explain this speech on the basis of Isaiah 11:6.
“Tibi adsum” “I am here for you” (“at your service”).
Why does the statue in the last paragraph remind Paulo of Benjamin?
This chapter begins with a reading based loosely on passages from the books of Job and Revelation in the Bible, but actually retelling the story of the Flame Deluge (nuclear war). Also alluded to is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). In ancient Jewish tradition sheep (Genesis 22:1-13) or goats (Leviticus 16:15-22 are sacrificed as a substitute for human sacrifice, often to atone for sin. Although Christians reinstituted the concept of human sacrifice symbolically by considering the crucified Christ as the sacrificial “lamb of God,” (John 1:29) Jews and Christians both generally regard the reversion to literal human sacrifice as a great evil.
The word “holocaust” (Hebrew olah) has a complex history. Originally it designated a particular type of Hebrew sacrifice: one which was entirely consumed by fire instead of the usual practice in which most of the sacrifice was consumed by the priests. The term was ironically applied to the incineration of millions of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Later writers, anticipating a global nuclear war, extended its meaning to apply to such a catastrophe.
The word “Name” is used instead of the actual name of the ruler of the nation that begins the war. “Pik-a-don” is Japanese for “flash-boom” and was the name initially given to the Hiroshima bomb by its victims. Miller is building on the Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the sacred name of God (YHWH) when reading aloud, but substituting Adonai (“Lord”) instead. In some early editions the scientist-magi’s name is misprinted “Backeneth” the first time instead of “Blackeneth.”
What does this story convey about Miller’s thoughts on the threat of nuclear war? Give as many details as possible.
“lectio devina” “divine reading.” The term refers to the monastic practice of “spiritual reading,” i.e. using scriptural and patristic texts as a springboard for meditation and contemplation. In this quotation devina is a misprint for divina (SS).
During the test of the new arc lamp, the monks recite the opening of Genesis (verses 1-5, given below in the familiar King James Version because of its literary influence; consult a modern translation for a more precise rendering of the original Hebrew):
“In principio Deus” In the beginning God.”
“Caelum et terram creavit” created heaven and earth.”
“Vacuus autem erat mundus” “The earth however was a formless void.”
“Cum tenebris in superficie profundorum” “with darkness on the face of the deep.”
“Ortus est Dei Spiritus supra aquas” “and God’s spirit hovered over the water.”
“Gratias Creatori Spiritui” “Thanks be to the Creator Spirit” (not in the Biblical text).
“Dixitque Deus: ‘FIAT LUX”” “and God said, ‘Let there be light.”
“Lucem esse bonam Deus vidit” “And God saw that the light was good.”
“Et secrevit lucem a tenebris,” and he divided the light from the darkness.”
“Lucem appellavit ‘diem’ et tenebras ‘noctes:'” “and he called the light ‘day’ and the dark ‘night’.”
“Vespere occaso” “Evening having fallen.”
“Lucifer” the monk shouts a common name for the devil when he is shocked, but “Lucifer” is originally also a name for the planet Venus and means “light-bringer.” The first matches in the 19th century were called “lucifers.”
“ortus est et primo die” and morning, the first day.”
What is the effect of having the monks recite this passage as they inaugurate the lamp?
Before light bulbs were developed, the first electric lights were noisy, expensive, but extremely brilliant arc lights like this. Looking directly at one is much like looking directly at a welding tool.
“Flectamus genua” “Let us bend our knees” (a ritual genuflection, briefly kneeling on one knee) (SS).
“Oremus” Let us pray.
“et Spritus Sancti, Amen.”; “and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“Sedete” “Be seated.”
“ad absurdum” “to an absurd length.”
What is the poet implying when he suggests that Leibowitz will become the new scapegoat?
Why does the abbot pretend that he is not worried about the study Thon Thaddeo’s companions have made of the abbey’s fortifications?
“et tu, Brute” “you too, Brutus” supposedly the last words of Julius Caesar, shocked that among those who stabbed him was his former friend and ally Brutus.
What is indicated about the men at the abbey by their reaction to Thon Thaddeo’s description of Monsignor Apollo’s unscientific beliefs about the refraction of light?
What is ironic about the young monk’s use of Saint Augustine in this discussion?
What foreboding prediction does Thon Thaddeo make about the course of science in the future?
Explain the meaning of the two paragraphs toward the end of the chapter which begin “He also suffered them to know how it might be saved. . . .”
What is signified by Benjamin’s appearance and speech?p>
“Regnans in Excelsis” “Reigning in the highest.” The bull Regnans in Excelsis was the document published by Pope Pius V on February 25, 1570, excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I of England (SS).
The first line indicates that this chapter is set in November, since the feast of All Saints is November 1 (SS).
“Vaquero” Spanish for “cowboy.”
“interdict” In the Middle Ages an interdict was imposed when the ruler of a country was excommunicated. Essentially the Church would go on strike, halting all masses, confessions, burials, weddings, etc., in the hope of arousing popular sentiment to force the ruler to submit to the pope.
What does this chapter have to say about the relationship between science and government?
“simoniac” A term used to characterize corrupt Church officials, particularly those who buy and sell Church offices (derived originally from the story of Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24).
What is the significance of the fact that the names of the bishops who have signed Hannegan’s proclamation are unknown to the abbot?
“Diluvium Ignis” “Flame Deluge.”
Why might Thon Thaddeo be drawn to the theory that humanity is a recent invention developed by a pre-holocaust race? What effect would that fact have on the value of his scientific research?
Thaddeo has been misled into thinking that humans were created in the 20th century by reading a fragment from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), in which a scientist manages to breed artificial humans, called robotniki in the original Czech, translated as “robot” into English, becoming the word for “artificial human” in later writings. Click here for Ron Webb’s comments on this reference.
Over the whole course of the novel, who do you think turns out to be “right” about the importance of knowledge: Thaddeo or Paulo?
“ad Lumina Christi” “at the lights (‘lamps’) of Christ.”
“Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine. . . . Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare. . “ Excerpts from the gospel canticle that is sung during Compline, the night office, as a preparation for ending the day and going to bed, known as the Nunc dimittis (SS). The quoted portions means “Now let thy servant depart, O Lord [‘in peace” is omitted here]. . . . Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” The passage occurs originally in Luke 2:29-32 as the speech of Simeon, an elderly pious Jew who thinks he can now die in peace because he has seen the promised Messiah. What do you think is the speech’s significance in context of Canticle?
“For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof . . .” is from Genesis 3:4. What does this passage seem to mean in its original context? How does it relate to the subject of this chapter?
What does the last sentence of the chapter mean?
“Ego te absolvo” “I absolve you” what a priest would say upon granting absolution for sins during confession.
“Cathartes aura regnans” “the reigning, purifying wind”–the buzzards’ God (SS).
How optimistic or pessimistic is the end of this chapter?
Fiat Voluntas Tua
The title comes from Luke 22:42, in which Jesus, facing crucifixion, prays to God to be spared, but concludes, “Nevertheless, let Thy will be done.” What tone does this set for the final section, given the original context of the speech?
“manifest destiny” originally the 19th-century belief that the U.S. had the right to extend its power over all of America.
Adam and Christ, first paired by Paul (see 1 Corinthians 15), are traditionally taken to represent respectively humanity’s fall into sin and redemption from it. Here they represent the ambivalence of the new scientific age, full of both hope and fear.
“Wir marschieren weiter wenn alles in Scherben fällt” “We march further when everything falls to pieces” From a Nazi marching song glorifying war.
“Proteus vulgaris” This is a common amoeba named after the fact that it, like the ancient Greek God Proteus, has no fixed shape and can assume many forms. It would have in common with atrophy and entropy the quality of increasing disorder, as do the destructive forces of time which taunt would-be military conquerors in this passage. If you you have further suggestions about this reference, please write firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for Ron Webb’s comments on this reference.
Lucifer: as noted above, the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer, here alluded to as the tempter of Eve. In the Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz, the phrase proclaims the fall of Lucifer from Heaven, where he was an angel until he rebelled against God (see Luke 10:18). The words are used as a code phrase to communicate the success of a nuclear bomb test. Remember that “Lucifer” had also been used earlier in reference to the arc lamp invented at the abbey. Instead of good triumphing over evil, then, the phrase could suggest the extinction of light.
“Kyrie eleison” “Lord, have mercy,” the Greek phrase occurs early in the Mass text.
The slashed “V” and “R” in the Canticle label the versicle (Versiculus) to be sung by one voice and its response (Responsum) by the massed choir (SS).
“bureaucratic Dutch boys” refers to a once-famous incident in the novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, in which a young boy saves his town by plugging a leak in a dike with his finger.
What is the point of the “Lady Reporter” sarcastically asking the Defense Minister whether he is in favor of Motherhood?
Just as Arkos, whose name begins with A, is the first of the abbots we meet, Zerchi, whose name begins with Z, is the last (Olsen 138). St. George is usually portrayed slaying a dragon. More information about St. George.
The Abominable Autoscribe would seem to be an advanced sort of word processor. Remember that when this novel was written the only computers in the world weighed many tons and filled large rooms but had less power than a common pocket calculator today.
“lèse majest&eacte;” “a French legal term which describes acts which are crimes because of the noble social status of the people against whom they are committed.
Father Zerchi ironically comments that if a computer can emulate a human soul, it can also “fall” like Adam and Eve. What tone does this passage set concerning technology?
What does the existence of incompatible American dialects imply about social organization?
Vulgate Latin would be the late Classical Latin of the Vulgate Bible, used by the Church for all official purposes until the mid-60s, and still used for official papal documents today.
“Oh, ye of little faith” is a quotation from is a quotation from Matthew 6:30.
“Before the cock crows thrice” refers to Christ’s prophecy on the night before his crucifixion that Peter will betray him (Matthew 26:34; Mark 14:30; John 13:38).
“Hinc igitur effuge” “Flee therefore from here.”
“Motu proprio” “on his own initiative” (literally “by his own motion.” This is also the title of a certain category of papal documents (SS).
“Anno Domini” Year of our Lord: A.D.
“Ab hac planeta nativitatis aliquos filios Ecclesiae usque ad planetas solium alienorum iam abisse et numquam redituros esse intelligimus” ” We understand that from this planet of their birth some sons of the Church have already gone off to the planets of alien suns, and will never return.” Intelligimus should be intellegimus (SS).
“Quo peregrinatur grex, pastor secum” “Where the flock wanders, the shepherd [goes] with it.”
“Casu belli nunc remoto” “The eventuality of war now having been removed.”
The essence of the message Dom Zerchi is trying to dictate has to do with a plan by the Church to promote emigration to other worlds in case of nuclear war; the vehicles referred to are rocket ships.
“Lazar” see note on Lazarus, Chapter 16
“Luciferum ruisse mihi dicis?” “Are you telling me that Lucifer has fallen?”
“Chris’tecum” An abbreviated “Christ be with you, used as a farewell like the old “God be with ye,” now abbreviated to “good-bye.”
“Cum spiri’tuo” “And with thy spirit.” A standard part of Catholic ritual, including the text of the Mass: “Dominus tecum; et cum spiritu tuo” “The Lord be with you; and with your spirit” (SS).
“Said the namesake of my namesake” Refers to a miracle performed by Joshua, the leader of the Hebrew invasion of Canaan, commanding the sun and moon to stand still so that there would be enough time to complete their victory in the valley of Gabaon. See Joshua 10:12-14. What does Joshua mean by saying that it would be useful to be able to perform this trick “in these times too?”
“et tu, Luna, recedite in orbitas reversas. . . .” “and you, Moon, move in reverse in your orbit” (literally, “go back into reversed orbits”–slightly different from the English version given in the just preceding sentence).
“dauntless Dutch boys” see note for the preceding chapter on “bureaucratic Dutch boys.”
The American War Department was changed to the more peaceful-sounding “Defense Department” after World War II.
What does this second press conference imply about the events the Defense Minister is so carefully denying?
Phoenix: a mythical bird that once every 500 years sets itself on fire and is reborn from an egg in the ashes.
Alpha Centauri is the nearest star (actually two stars) to Earth, about four light-years away. It is now believed to be incapable of having planets which could sustain life.
Why is “Joshua” an appropriate name for the leader of the Church’s project to emigrate to another planet?
Few of the names in this novel have obvious meanings, but “Grales” seems like an ironic reference to the Holy Grail of Medieval legend: the cup which Christ used at the Last Supper, which caught his blood on the cross, and for which King Arthur’s knights sought.
“Accedite ad eum” “Approach him.”
“lingua prima” first language.
Maundy laving: On Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), the clergy (including the Pope) ceremonially wash the feet of some of the poor in commemoration of Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:5).
Latzar shemi “My name is Lazarus” (Hebrew).
What has happened between the end of the last chapter and the beginning of this? Who started it?
Cain is famous being the first murderer in the Bible, having killed his brother (see Genesis 4:1-16).
What is the meaning of the quotation from Eleventh Pius?
“Non habemus regem nisi caesarem” “We have no king but Caesar.” See John 19:15. How does this relate to the preceding quotation?
“Grex peregrinus erit. Quam primum est factum suscipiendum vobis, jussu Sactae Sedis. Suscipite ergo operis partem ordini vestro propriam” “The flock will be a pilgrim [or “traveling, wandering”] one. As soon as possible the deed must be undertaken by you, by order of the Holy See. Undertake therefore the part of the work proper to your Order.” Sactae is a misprint forsanctae (SS).
Eminentissimo Domino Eric Cardinali Hoffstraff obsequitur Jethra Zerchius, A. O. L., Abbas. Ad has res disputandas iam coegi discessuros fratres ut hodie parati dimitti Roman prima aerisnave possint. “Jethrah Zerchi, A.O.L., Abbot, complies with the Most Reverend Lord Eric Cardinal Hoffstraff. I have already collected the brothers who will depart, so that, ready today, they can be sent off to Rome on the first airplane to discuss these matters.” Roman should be Romam (SS).
“the ass he rides into Jerusalem” see see Matthew 21:2-9.
“Excita, Domine . . .” Psalms 35:23.
“Retrahe me, Satanus, et discede” “Draw away from me, Satan, and depart.” Compare with Matthew 16:23. Satanus should be Satanas.
“burning bush” Exodus 3:1-6.
Is the Church escaping into space merely to preserve itself, or does it have other aims?
“Homo loquax nonnumquam sapiens” A humorous variation of “Homo Sapiens” (“Wise Man”) “Talkative–and sometimes wise–man” (SS).
“Discede, Seductor informis” “Depart, hideous [literally ‘shapeless’] Seducer.”
“Egrediamur tellure” “Let us leave Earth.”
“abbas” Literally “Father” in Hebrew, but used as the title of the head of an abbey: an abbot.
“Audi me, Domine” “Hear me, O Lord.”
“negotium perambulans in tenebris” “The pestilence that stalks in darkness.” (Psalms 91:6)
“Reminiscentur et convertentur ad Dominum universi fines terrae. Et adorabunt in conspectu universae familiae gentium. Quoniam. Domini est regnum; et ipse dominabitur.” “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before Thee. For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and he will rule among the nations” (Psalms 22:27). Why is it ironic that this is the Psalm which happens to be scheduled for this night?
“de essentia hominum” “Of the essence of human beings.”
“Hoc officium, Fili–tibine imponemus oneri?” “This office, my Son–shall we impose this burden upon you?”
“honorem accipiam” I shall accept the honor.
“Crucis autem onus si audisti ut honorem, nihilo errasti auribus” “If however you heard the burden of the cross as an Ôhonor,Õ by no means have you erred with your ears.” The abbot thinks that Joshua mistook oneri “burden” for honori “honor” when he posed his original question (SS).
“Accipiam” I shall accept.
“the principle of Epikeia” The moral-legal principle that one can act against the letter of the law in a certain situation when it is supposed that the lawmaker would have allowed it, given the extenuating circumstances (SS). In this case the doctrine by which part of the Church–if separated from communication with the Roman hierarchy (in particular, the Pope)–may institute its own parallel hierarchy to assure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession (note by Steven A. Schoenig and Richard Reed).
“Mori vult” “He wishes to die”
What is the essential disagreement between Father Zerchi and the Green Star representative?
“The serpent deceived me, and I did eat” Eve’s excuse for eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:13).
Note that Poet from the previous story has become popularized as Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball.
“Orbis Judicans Conscientias” “The globe (eye) which judges consciences.”
“Oculus Poetae Judicis” The eye of the Poet-Judge.”
“Non cogitamus, ergo nihil sumus” “We do not think, therefore we are nothing,” reversing René Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.”.
“Evenit diabolus” The Devil comes forth.”
“Domine, mundorum omnium Factor, parsurus esto imprimis eis filiis aviantibus ad sideria caeli quorum victus dificilior” translated “Lord, Maker of all worlds, spare especially these sons, travelling away to the stars of heaven, whose way of life [will be] more difficult.” Sideria should be sidera; dificilior should be difficilior.
Note the return of the buzzards which were circling overhead at the beginning of the novel.
“ABANDON EVERY HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE” According to Dante’s Inferno,this is the message inscribed over the entrance gate to Hell.
“Golgatha” [More properly, Golgotha.] The “Mount of Skulls” called “Calvary” in Latin where Christ was crucified.
In your opinion, who wins the argument between Dom Zerchi and the young girl over euthanasia? Defend your opinion.
“alter Christus” “Another Christ.”
“Te absolvat Dominus Jesus Christus; ego autem eius auctoritate te absolvo ab omni vinculo.”.”.”. Denique, si absolvi potes, ex peccatis tuis ego te absolvo in Nomine Patris”.”. .” translated “May the Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; I, moreover, by his authority absolve you from every bond.”.”.”. Finally, if you can be absolved, I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father.”
“Dealba me.” “Whiten me.” (See Psalm 51:7, Revelation 7:14.)
“Dies Irae” Hymn about the Last Judgment, written by Thomas of Celano in the 13th Century and incorporated into the liturgy for the Catholic requiem (funeral) mass, obviously appropriate here considering both the plight of Zerchi and humanity in general.
“Fas est” This is a Medieval Latin phrase meaning roughly “It is lawful”–that is, according to divine law.
“Nisi baptizata es et nisi baptizari nonquis, te baptizo. . . .”Zerchi is being cautious, not at all certain that it would be proper to baptize something he suspects does not have a soul, so he covers himself by saying, roughly, “Unless you have been baptized, and unless you cannot be baptized, I baptize you. . . .”
“Domine, non sum dignus, sed tantum dic verbo” “Lord, I am not worthy, but only speak the word” Spoken by a Roman centurion to Jesus in Capernaum (Matthew 8:8), when Jesus offered to come and heal his servant: “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus.” In the traditional Latin rite, the priest recites a modifed version of the centurion’s saying just before he receives the sacred host, substituting “anima” (“soul”) for “puer” (“servant”).
The first sacrament is baptism.
The Magnificat is the hymn of the Virgin Mary celebrating the fact that she is to bear the Christ (Luke 1:46-55). Dom Zerchi imagines that the newly-awakened Rachel is purely innocent, like Mary (born of an “immaculate conception,” free of all sin), and therefore does not need baptism, whose function is to wash away sins.
“Sic transit mundus” “Thus passes the world.” This is a play on the phrase used in a medieval ritual at the coronation of a pope. In the sight of the new pope, a cleric would burn some hemp and cry out, Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!, “Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world!” He would then quench it and repeat the ritual twice more. It was meant to remind the pope of the transitory nature of earthly fame, so that he would keep humble and fix his priorities on eternal life (SS).
Tom Foster points out that the action of the last monk to enter the spaceship, slapping his sandals together, echoes such Biblical passages as Mark 6:11: “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.”
The novel began with hungry vultures; it ends with hungry sharks. But whereas the vultures at least had a certain crude vitality, the sharks are presumably doomed like the rest of life on earth.
Is the ending of the novel optimistic, pessimistic, or something in between?
Recommended studies on A Canticle for Leibowitz:
Olsen, Alexandra H. “Re-Vision: A Comparison of A Canticle for Leibowitz and the Novellas Originally Published.” Extrapolation 38 (Summer 1997): 235-149.
Percy, Walker. “Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.” In Rediscoveries: Informal Essays in Which Well-Known Novelists Rediscover Neglected Eowrks of Fiction by One of Their Favorite Authors. Ed. David Madden. New York: Crown, 1971.
Samuelson, David N. Visions of Tomorrow: Six Journeys from Outer to Inner Space. New York: Arno, 1975.
Senior, W. A. “From the Begetting of Monsters: Distortion as a Unifier in A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Extrapoltion 34 (Winter 1993): 329-42.
Spector, Judith A. “Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz: A Parable for our Time?” Midwest Quarterly 22 (Winter 1981): 337-45.
Spencer, Susan. “The Post-Apocalyptic Library: Oral and Literate Culture in Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Extrapolation 32 (Winter 1991): 331-42.
Stoler, John A. “Christian Lore and Characters’ Names in A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Literary Onomastics Studies 11 (1984): 77-91.
Walker, Jeanne Murray. “Reciprocity and Exchange in A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Renascence 33 (1981): 67-85.
The Spring 2000 issue of Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture (vol. 35, no. 2) is devoted to “A Canticle for Leibowitz at Forty.”
More Science Fiction Study Guides
- H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds
- Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Dystopian Tradition
- Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
- Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed
- Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- William Gibson: Neuromancer
- Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Latin translations by Michael Hanly and Hack C. Kim, Washington State University, nitpicked by various Latinists online to whom I am very grateful, including especially Steven A. Schoenig, S.J., whose most extensive other contributions are noted above (SS).
First published on the Web, April, 1995.
Version dated May 29, 2007.