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Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

September 19, 2009

LaviniaLavinia is a thought-provoking re-imagining of the second half of Virgil’s Aeneid. It tells the story from the point of view of one of the epic’s most minor characters. Despite the fact that she is the subject of a war and one of the ancestors of the Roman kings, Lavinia gets precious little mention by Virgil. In the poem, she is described only partially, and speaks literally nothing. Le Guin takes Virgil’s setting and characters and breathes a new life into them, by showing the arrival of the Trojans from Lavinia’s point of view.

I bonded instantly with the Lavinia that Le Guin creates. She is thoughtful, pious, and direct. Lavinia explains the true definition of piety:

“By that word I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe. My father had taught me the meaning of the word and the value of it.” (p. 22)

It is no wonder that she has such a successful marriage with “pious Aeneas”–the two seem cut from the same cloth. Lavinia doesn’t just describe events; she has opinions about them. She doesn’t just realize that her mother is growing insane, she also thinks that her father, the king, is making a poor decision by ignoring it. Lavinia recognizes that the war-mongering Turnes is acting selfishly, and not for the good of the Latins, despite the fact that everyone else is insisting otherwise. Her opinions give a set of a fresh eyes to the events from the Aeneid that are so familiar.

In addition to the fully rounded characterization of Lavinia, Le Guin’s portrayal of the daily religious rites of the Latins and her depiction of a ghostly Virgil both helped transport me to Bronze Age Italy. There are so many ancient texts that talk about sacrifices and altars and discussions with gods, but it wasn’t until I went with Lavinia as she made the sacrifices, scattered the herbs, and tended to the household gods that I fully understood how the ancient religious practices affected daily life. In the books that I’ve read from the time period, religion appears only as huge events–a god swooping in to lift a warrior away from an opponent, or a god appearing to confuse a queen with love. Le Guin focuses here on the everyday aspect of the Latins’ religion, and that made it seem much more immediate.

Virgil does speak in this book, as a ghostly vision who appears to Lavinia. He describes his poem to her, causing a fair amount of “meta” discussion to take place. Lavinia knows that she’s just a character in a poem, which is odd because now here she is, also a character in a novel. (And, of course, people thought that she was real history for hundreds of years, and the kings of the Roman Empire claimed her as an actual ancestor.)  Not to mention the fact that the poem eventually propelled her to myth-dom. While some of these ideas are intriguing, I occasionally found them distracting from the substance of Lavinia and her story. In any case, I loved hearing Virgil as he ruminates on the choices he made while writing the Aeneid. At one point, he wonders why he didn’t focus more on Lavinia than Camilla, the female warrior:

“‘O Lavinia,’ he said, ‘you are worth ten Camillas. And I never saw it.'” (p. 44)

In Lavinia, Virgil actually plays the role of an oracle–helping Lavinia make choices just as the ancient oracles helped the epic heros make decisions about their future. This idea is not too original, of course, as Dante chose Virgil as his guide through the afterlifle, much like Lavinia uses Virgil as her guide. And, in fact, as Le Guin also uses Virgil’s story to guide her. Le Guin hints at this in her afterward, explaining,

“But Vergil, as Dante knew, is a trustworthy man to follow. I followed him into his legendary Bronze Age. He never led me astray.” (p. 274)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lavinia. On some level, it made me appreciate the Aeneid more than I had previously. It reminded me that the characters, the plot, and the lessons in the poem truly stand the test of time. Lavinia examines these parts of the poem from a unique angle, thus illuminating them in fascinating new ways.

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