Walter M. Miller was an American airman during World War II who participated in the battle of Cassino in Italy. The fighting took place at a site where the Germans had set up defenses in and around a famous abbey. The abbey itself, founded by St. Benedict in the 500s A.D., was finally bombarded by the Allies in 1944. Such destruction impressed—and traumatized—Miller, and the eventual result was “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. Published in 1959, it is a science-fiction classic.
The story opens around the year 2600, some six hundred years after a twentieth-century nuclear holocaust. During a Lenten penance, a monk named Brother Francis accidentally discovers a number of items in the rubble of a fallout shelter. The items include handwritten notes, a grocery list, and a blueprint of some sort. These ancient artifacts are especially treasured by the monks because they may have belonged to a twentieth-century martyr named Isaac Edward Leibowitz. Although the monks faithfully preserve the memorabilia, centuries will pass before their more cryptic portions are unraveled.
This first part of a three-part novel takes place in terrain that used to be the western United States; but the society and culture that’s portrayed—Catholic monks copying out and preserving ancient manuscripts, and so forth—evokes Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Part 2 is set during a Renaissance-like period and Part 3 resembles our own technologically advanced age. The novel’s central theme concerns the patterns of history: the rise and fall of civilizations and rebirth from the ashes. But equally important is a theme concerning the perpetual conflict between the values and beliefs of religion and those of secularism. Miller’s work is a modern, fictional variation of Augustine’s “City of God”.
The novel’s historical perspective conveys a sense of the transitory nature of human society, plus the virtual inevitability of war. One is reminded of the famous scene at the end of the 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes”, when Charlton Heston encounters the Statue of Liberty and damns humankind for its wanton self-destructiveness. But Miller’s novel is, for me, less heavy-handed and far more plausible than “Planet of the Apes”.
Author Walker Percy was an admirer of “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. And while I like most of his insights, I do not agree with his statement that the given reader will either “get it altogether or he altogether won’t”. I for one do not “get” everything in Miller’s novel; some of it is downright baffling; and yet, after several readings, I still thoroughly enjoy it. The opening sequence is vivid and memorable, as is the harrowing climax. The story as a whole is consistently compelling; it is witty, thoughtful, and in the end quite moving.