I didn’t take Latin in school and nobody ever made me read THE ILIAD, THE ODYSSEY or THE AENID, even in translation. So although I am an enormous admirer of Ursula K. Le Guin’s extraordinary fantasy novels --- her imagined cultures often subvert our assumptions about politics, gender and reality itself (I particularly recommend THE DISPOSSESSED, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and The Earthsea Cycle, whose wizardry way outstrips Harry Potter’s) --- I know zilch about Classical history and literature.
Admittedly, a few larger-than-life figures (Hercules, Odysseus, Aeneas) are iconic --- their statues are all over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman galleries. But those are the heroes. What about heroines? The only ones who come to mind are troublemakers like Helen of Troy, prophetesses like Cassandra, or noble suicides like Dido of Carthage.
Which brings us to Lavinia, who is none of the above. To make a long story ridiculously short, after the Greek victory in the Trojan War the legendary warrior Aeneas escapes to Latium, a then-obscure region of pre-Roman Italy. Lavinia, the local princess, is to be married off to a puffed-up, self-important suitor, but prophecy insists that she will wed a foreigner --- and Aeneas is the obvious candidate. Fighting ensues. There is only the briefest mention of Lavinia in Virgil’s original (unfinished) poem; it is Le Guin’s notion to re-create and complete this chapter of THE AENEID with her as the protagonist, not a mere pawn in men’s games of war and power.
In this I think Le Guin is motivated in part by feminist impulses; as she writes in an Afterword, women in Latium (and later, Rome) were freer and more respected than in Greek society, where they were little better than slaves. She also wants to go against the grain of the conventional epic’s emphasis on battle and male heroics, expressing a woman’s jaundiced view of war (sadly, all too relevant today). Under her father’s benign rule, Lavinia knew only tranquility and is shocked by the bellicose rage that seizes her country with the coming of the Trojans: “I had not learned how peace galls men, how they gather impatient rage against it as it continues, how even while they pray the powers for peace, they work against it and make certain it will be broken and give way to battle, slaughter, rape, and waste.”
Le Guin diverges from her source in spiritual matters as well. Instead of the Olympian interventions so characteristic of Classical literature (Aeneas is supposed to be the son of Aphrodite, who often steps in on his behalf), Lavinia’s world is stamped by a sort of pantheism; nature itself is sacred. As she puts it: “We who are called royal are those who speak for our people to the powers of the earth and sky, as those powers transmit their will through us to the people. We are go-betweens.” Some of the gods she tends and/or pays tribute to (vegetarian and animal-lover alert: there are a lot of sacrifices) are humble household deities or somewhat nebulous oracles; others are grand divinities like Mars. In either case, the mystery and ritual permeating Latinian culture seem very close to the magic of Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Maybe LAVINIA is not such a departure for her after all. She is reconstructing a whole culture, if not actually inventing one.
Yet this isn’t a traditional historical novel --- it’s too twisty and many-layered for that. Often Lavinia speaks both as literary creation and real woman (how postmodern!), and Le Guin tinkers slyly with time, particularly in the first few chapters, when Virgil appears as a shade at the sacred spring. He shows Lavinia Aeneas’s past (a neat way of summarizing the action in earlier portions of THE AENEID), her own destiny as wife and widow, and how hers and Aeneas’s descendants would build the great city of Rome, in whose “golden” imperial age the poet lived and wrote. This temporal elasticity, though occasionally confusing, seems consistent with the weight given to omens and portents in Lavinia’s society. For her people, the future is embedded in the present, and a profound sense of fate informs daily life.
I don’t want to make LAVINIA sound like a heavyweight fable. Although Le Guin’s language is sometimes more stately and self-consciously “poetic” than in her fantasy novels, she tells a wonderful story with engaging characters. Lavinia is a strong and persuasive protagonist who seizes her destiny rather than simply bowing to it. By refusing to marry Turnus, the local suitor, she is not only obeying a prophecy but also speaking from her own heart. She does not trust her mother, half-crazed by the early loss of Lavinia’s twin brothers, and she is bound to her father by affection and respect as well as duty. Further, Lavinia and Aeneas’s passionate love is poignantly evoked (for Lavinia has been told by her ghostly poet that they will have but three years together, and she counts off the seasons with a sense of dread), and Aeneas’s character is a serious portrait of a true hero: modest, thoughtful, not bloodthirsty. “If you are to rule Latium after me,” he tells his son Ascanius, “…I want to know that you’ll learn how to govern, not merely make war…that you’ll learn to seek your manhood on a greater field than the battlefield.”
I must confess, though, that I prefer Le Guin’s fantasies. I think she is liberated by the creation of her own worlds; here, she sometimes seems constrained by her literary model --- she calls the book a “love offering” to Virgil, and her introduction of the poet as a ghostly character actually bogs the story down just when it should be taking off. Still, LAVINIA made me want to read THE AENEID --- finally. There’s supposed to be a very good recent translation by Robert Fagles, who also did THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY. Maybe it isn’t too late for me to get a proper Classical education after all….
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 30, 2010