OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the English teachers at my Secondary School told me about Walter M Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz. That would have been in the mid nineteen sixties. I read it, and lost my paperback copy sometime later. The novel cropped up recently in a discussion at LitCaff in Carlisle, which got me to recalling.

Throughout the decades between one thing had stuck in my mind – and this I’m afraid, will be a spoiler to begin with – that was the way Mrs Grales’ extra head comes to life as Rachel, while her original head withers away and dies. I read it again this week, in a new hardback by SF Masterworks (2012).

The novel is constructed in three major sections, set in a single place over eighteen centuries of time. The place is a monastery in a post-apocalyptic desert in what was once Utah. In the first section the Abbot struggles with a novice who has found remains from the time of the nuclear holocaust, remains that will eventually validate the claim of the eponymous Leibowitz to sainthood.

In the second another Abbot contends with a visiting academic, and a practically minded Brother, who together represent the re-birth of Science and Technology, based on the Leibowitzian remains – known as ‘the memorabilia’. The third Abbot lives to see his technologically advanced world destroy itself once more, and to experience that miraculous transformation that stuck in my mind.

The reborn Rachel not only comes to life, but also she comes as free of ‘original sin’; as one who is innocent of the knowledge which that act of disobedience ‘cursed’ mankind with. As such, it is she who administers the last rites to the dying Abbot, who is unable, both physically, and implicitly, morally to so do for her. This scene which stuck in my mind, is not the last of the book however, for in a short following chapter, the Abbot’s protégée, brother Joshua leaves earth with a group of other monks (plus women and children) to set up a new evangelical colony.

I recalled this last scene a few chapters before I reached it, for it too has a striking image, that of a monk knocking the dust of earth from his sandals as he enters the ship.

Neither of these two scenes though, dominated my second reading of the book. What had not struck me so forcibly before was the uncompromising religious fundamentalism that stands behind the story, a fundamentalism that seems to go hand in hand with a type of misogyny. For the fact is, that for the first two thirds of this book there is barely a reference to the female of the species, and there are no female characters driving, or even responding to the action.

Late in the story there is a ‘lady reporter’ who stands as a token rather than a symbol, and whose role might as well have been taken by another male character. There are references, though very few, to Eve. It is not until Mrs Grales sudden appearance in the third part of the story that we get a female character: ‘the bicephalous old tomato woman’.

It is not simply that Miller is blaming the ills of the world on ‘men’. Rather, he seems to me at least, to be saying that ‘women’ simply aren’t part of the equation. The reference to ‘sisters’ at the monastery in the final section does not develop into any of them having even a single statement to make about any of the religious ideas that the book not so much examines, as promotes.

The two headed Mrs Grales is perhaps the most important character in the book, in that she becomes the born again Rachel, ‘preternatural,’ without sin, guilt, or knowledge. Her presentation is odd, to say the least, with a music-hall accent somewhere between Hollywood Negro, and West Country Rustic. I’m always sceptical of sins of the flesh that are referred to as ‘naughties’. More interestingly, she is never approached and scrutinized by the figure of the ‘pilgrim’, the Wandering Jew, Benjamin, who has haunted the book right from the very start, seeking ‘the one’, whom I take to be the second coming. The Abbot, in his three manifestations is also important, for he develops and articulates the religious ideas upon which the book is founded, ideas which are, I believe, its agenda.

These ideas culminate in the third Abbot commanding an irradiated woman (and her child) to suffer the painful fate God has given them, rather than take the euthanasia offered by the state. It is not his disapproval of the possible cynicism of the state that prompts his command, but his belief that the pain of the world is intentional, and that we avoid it at the cost of our immortal souls. (This idea was briefly touched upon in a Radio 4 discussion earlier this week).

‘As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not

to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient


Here is an as uncompromising fundamentalism as you will find anywhere, in any monotheistic religion. I don’t think Miller was being ironic. Neither do I think his suppression of a female voice throughout the book is accidental. In the world he has created (or observed?) it is the male voice that has been heard, that has uttered and brought forth the world in its repetitive, unavoidable disasters.

But what Miller’s third Abbot also gives us is a recognition that the hope offered by the religion he represents has died, at least so far as this earth is concerned.

‘…the least hopeful note of all comes…..from the Vatican……Pope Gregory

ceased to pray for peace in the world.’

The Catholic church, on behalf of its God, has ceased its ministry.

The birth of Rachel, the female mutant head of Mrs Grales, is only vaguely redemptive.

‘He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence

from the shoulder of Mrs Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts

of Eden -‘

‘He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection.’

I doubt we can disentangle the fictional and imaginative from the remembered experiences of this World War Two bomber, who is said to have felt guilt at his involvement in the bombing of Monte Cassino. I’m not sure we would benefit anyway from such knot-picking. The book raises questions about belief, and as much about our belief today, and tomorrow (if there is one) as about any past, fictional or factual, or that blend of the two which Henry Ford called ‘mostly bunk’, and which Churchill reminded us, is written by the ‘winners’, that we call History.

On reflection, after having read, I felt that the biggest hole in Miller’s grim universe was that left by the absence of any reference to human love. None of the characters seem driven by their feelings about other human beings, except where those feelings are of hatred. They are male characters driven by anger, fear, and hatred of the ideas and consequent actions of other male characters. Told, as it is, through the eyes and minds, predominantly, of the three Abbots, the only love referred to is the love of God.

‘Hear then, the last Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz ……

V: Lucifer is fallen.’

Miller’s text copyright dates from 1959. There are other books of that period which take a similar tack. Post-apocalyptic stories were common throughout the post-war period of nuclear stand-off, known in its own time as ‘The Cold War’. Frank Herbert’s The Dune Trilogy (dated to 1965), though it spun off into other themes as it developed beyond the first three novels, was in part a discussion of the relationship between political philosophy and religion. The less well known, Hiero’s Journey (Sterling E Lanier, Panther,1975) tells of a monk’s quest from a post-apocalyptic abbey in Canada, but his story ends with the finding of a book entitled ‘Principles of a Basic Analog Computer’, which is offered as the panacea to those post-apocalyptic conditions. A conclusion further from Miller’s would be hard to imagine.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives a surprisingly simple definition of ‘canticle’. It is, we are told, ‘a (little) song’.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA