A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary
How It All Goes Down
While on a Lenten vigil, Brother Francis encounters an old wanderer in the desert. There is a minor misunderstanding involving some cheese and a cudgel, but they straighten it out, and the wanderer agrees to help Francis.
Francis needs to build a sound shelter, or else the monsters roaming this post-apocalyptic wasteland might try to eat him while he’s sleeping. So the wanderer does Francis a solid by finding a rock that’ll make his shelter more secure.
But when Francis goes to retrieve the rock, he discovers a fallout shelter from before the Age of Simplification. Snazzy.
Now, don’t worry if you don’t quite understand everything what we’re talking about here, Shmoopers—that’s precisely Miller’s style. He wants to set you down right in the middle of the action, and have you strap on your Discoverer Hats along with Brother Francis. Like, what do you think was “simplified” in the Age of Simplification?
Okay, so, imagine you’re right there with Brother Francis in this fallout shelter, which is essentially a time capsule. And you’re sifting through trinkets and mementos from the long-vanished era. Then, hark: Brother Francis discovers a treasure trove of Memorabilia with the name Leibowitz on it.
This is all very curious, because this Leibowitz character is currently up for sainthood in Brother Francis’s very own abbey—he was the founding member, you know. So discovering any more information about the guy’s past, and what he did before the Age of Simplification, is both dangerous and thrilling; it’s like finding out your parents actually had lives before you were born. (Whoa.)
Francis presents the news to his abbot, but Abbot Arkos is less than impressed. Sounds like he’s choosing “fear of danger” over “thrill of discovery” here. Arkos thinks that sharing Francis’s story with others will only make Leibowitz’s bid for sainthood more difficult.
Instead, Arkos suppresses the story by locking up the fallout shelter and keeping Francis a novice for upward of seven years. Which is basically like being a freshman for seven years straight despite passing grades. It’s a very personal hell that we’d never wish upon you, dear readers.
Eventually, New Rome does reopen the investigation, however. And Francis is given a job as a copyist, where he begins working on an illuminated copy of Leibowitz’s electronic blueprint. Finally, some new light can be shed on this long-buried—er, locked—mystery.
Years later, Leibowitz is finally beatified. Brother Francis is invited to the ceremony, and en route to New Rome to attend, he is robbed by a highwayman. The dude takes his illuminated manuscript. Eek.
At New Rome, Brother Francis is thanked for his contribution to the Memorabilia church and given the money to buy back his precious illuminated copy. Upon returning to the site of the robbery though, Francis is killed by two mutants who decide Francis foie gras will make a tasty afternoon treat.
This post-Simpflication world is pretty nasty.
But just as everything’s about to fade to black, as they say, the old wanderer discovers the body being feasted on by the buzzards. He cares for it and gives it a proper burial. Hm. Kind of makes you wonder who this “old wanderer” is after all, huh?
600 years later, Thon Taddeo, a famous scholar, hears word of the abbey’s Memorabilia. Like most famous scholars, he wants to figure out if he can criticize the Memorabilia. Just kidding. Kind of.
What he really wants is to study its authenticity—is any of the stuff real anyway? Dom Paulo, the new abbot, accepts Taddeo’s request to visit. But he worries about what Taddeo will discover, or have to say about his discoveries, since Taddeo is not a man of God. He’s just a regular old secular scholar.
Before Taddeo comes to call, Dom Paulo visits his old friend Benjamin. He wants to return a goat the hermit lost to the Poet in a game of chance. Benjamin and Paulo discuss Taddeo, and wonder whether he’ll be able to change the world for the better.
Or, will Taddeo simply continue a cycle of death and destruction? Sounds like a pretty big logical leap, we realize. But not for Benjamin. He claims to be immortal, or near enough, and so he’s seen this same cycle time and time again. So he’s thinking on a much bigger time scale than us puny human types.
When Taddeo arrives and studies the Memorabilia, he’s totally amazed by the wealth of knowledge it contains. He’s even more impressed by Brother Kornhoer, whose arc lamp has returned electric light to the world. But not everything is peaches-and-creamy awesome.
Taddeo has little patience for religion, and it’s soon learned that Hannegan, the mayor-royal of Texarkana, has declared the Pope a heretic. Hannegan clearly wants more power than the church, and so he’s out to take it away from the Pope.
After brawlin’ a bit with the monks of the abbey over the validity of religious knowledge versus scientific knowledge, Taddeo leaves. Dom Paulo offers to let Taddeo, or any scholar who wishes to return to the abbey, stay. Paulo believes communication between religion and science is necessary to keep the peace and prevent people like Hannegan from assuming too much power.
But not long afterward, Dom Paulo dies. And his vision of power-based war comes to life: conflict breaks out across the land.
Fiat Voluntas Tua
Another 600 years passes—shazam. And now that the world has rediscovered its lost technology, nuclear weapons maintain a tenuous peace. Very tenuous. Yikes.
Abbot Zerchi and New Rome prepare a mission to the colonies so that the Catholic Church and Memorabilia might survive the all-but-inevitable destruction of Earth. Zerchi tasks Brother Joshua with leading the mission. Joshua is hesitant, at first, but eventually agrees (probably because slim odds are better than no odds, are we right?).
Then a nuclear weapon strikes near the Leibowitz Abbey. Zerchi opens his doors to aid those in need and grants Doctor Cors permission to run a Green Star relief camp within the abbey—but only with the understanding that euthanasia may not be administered or even suggested.
Remember that whole bit of religious doctrine where suicide is a sin? And so is murder? Yeah, that stuff is pretty relevant here.
Anyway, Doctor Cors agrees to the terms, but shortly thereafter encounters a hopeless mother and child. So the doctor breaks his promise and sets up a euthanasia-administration-stand down the road. Father Zerchi tries to talk the mother and daughter out of assisted suicide, but is unsuccessful.
Heartbroken and discouraged, Zerchi hears the confession of a mutant named Mrs. Grales, a two-headed woman who wishes to have her “sister,” Rachel, baptized. During the confession, a nuclear explosion destroys the abbey.
Zerchi manages to survive but is trapped beneath the rubble. As he awaits his ultimate fate, Mrs. Grales comes to him; only it is the head of Rachel that lives while Mrs. Grales slumps dead on their shoulders.
Seemingly free of sin and pain, and possessing miraculous powers, Rachel gives Zerchi the sacrament of communion before he dies. Elsewhere, the church’s mission to the space colonies launches, leaving a devastated Earth behind for an unknown future.
Dun, dun, dun. Unknown future, ahoy.