Book Review: Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

I recently read the book St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It is a sequel, of sorts, to A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Canticle came out in the 60’s; this book was published in 1997, posthumously – Miller committed suicide in 1996 – and finished by a ghost-writer.  Canticle is one of my favorite books, but I was hesitant to read the sequel. I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be as good as the original – and I was right. Still, it was interesting.

The basic premise of Canticle was that, sometime in the 20th century, there was a nuclear war. Civilization self-destructed. What was not destroyed by the nukes was destroyed by the survivors of the war, who decided that the intelligentsia was to blame for the war and thus all books must be destroyed. A certain Isaac Leibowitz, however, founded an order of Catholic monks to preserve the Memorabilia, as it was called, and eventually civilization restarted itself (and fell again, and will eventually restart and fall once more – Miller’s view of history is cyclic). The work is divided into three parts, one taking place in the 26th century (Fiat Homo), one in the 32nd (Fiat Lux), and one in the 38th (Fiat Voluntas Tua). I would say more, but this isn’t a review of Canticle, but of its sequel.

Wild Horse Woman is a much different kind of book. It is set around a hundred years after the events of Fiat Lux. Instead of presenting a grand view of History through a series of vignettes, it focuses on one man (Brother Blacktooth St. George) and how he influences the conflict between Church and State. The ‘State’ here is the Empire of Texarkana, and the ‘Church’ is, of course, the Catholic Church, transplanted to New Rome (i.e. St. Louis, Missouri) after Rome was destroyed and now in exile in Valana (somewhere in Wyoming, I think).

The political situation is interesting, but more interesting, I think, is the relationship of the title – Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. The Wild Horse Woman is the Nomad goddess, and the book is really in many ways about the relationship between the pagan and the Christian. Specifically, Miller seems to be drawing an identity – not just a similarity – between the Wild Horse Woman and the Virgin Mary.

He also speculates about the divinity of the Virgin, and invents a “Northwest Heresy” that claims “her womb is the primordial void into which the eternal Word was spoken”. Clearly this is, well, a heresy – but in the book, it is endorsed by Blacktooth St. George, who becomes a sort of mystic. The book, then, is also about mysticism versus religion. Miller was a convert to Catholicism, but fell  away from the Church after Vatican II and embraced a sort of Buddhist spirituality probably similar to that of the character Wooshin. In the book, a pope (who turns out to be an anti-pope) is elected by the name of Amen Specklebird who endorses a Zen-like paradoxical spirituality founded in mysticism. I personally can’t understand the mindset of a mystic. With relation to mysticism, this book mainly convinced me that it very easily leads to heresy and ought to be avoided. Perhaps that was Miller’s view as well – perhaps he regretted being led away from Catholicism.

Overall, I think, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is not as good as A Canticle for Leibowitz primarily because much of the power of Canticle came from its power as a piece of speculative fiction. It gave us 1700 years of speculative history and in doing so made a persuasive case for a cyclical philosophy of history. The sequel deals only with one small time period in that history, and in doing so becomes less a piece of speculative fiction than a religious and political drama that just happens to be taking place in a post-nuclear-war world.

Still, it wasn’t a bad book. It was worth reading, I think. It didn’t ruin Canticle for me. So I would recommend it – with the caveat that it’s theology is very confused and you’ll need to put in some effort to figure out what exactly is going on.

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