Ursula K. Le Guin
Lavinia Cover



This is a tale of a footnote. Much like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which looks up at the wide world of Hamlet from the POV of minor characters, Lavinia immerses us in the world of Vergil’s Aeneid from the POV of a woman even further removed from the central action. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is named, she plays a role, a war is fought over her marriage rites since she was being used as a political tool, but yet, she never speaks a word in the poem.

Vergil renders her mute.

Le Guin has now given her a voice.

In terms of presentation, Le Guin’s Lavinia occupies middle ground. It is not the epic ground of heroes and jealous gods that is the backbone of Vergil’s Aeneid. The gods in Lavinia have lost their mythic stature. They are now gods of woods, auguries, the hearth, the storehouse. Gods that are a backbone of life but not humanized master movers. Nor is this book a realist exploration of barbaric bronze age peoples, based in what little archaeology, anthropology and the stories, myths, and lies which is all the historians have of the age. Middle ground. Barbarous yes, but gentled. Epic heroes, not quite, but these are the root cultures which founded Rome. And the seeds of that coming glory are present.

As the novel opens and we are drawn into this culture, we quickly see the parallels between two well known Greek ladies: Helen and Cassandra. Like Helen, a war is found over her. Helen gave of herself, Lavinia withheld herself. Like Cassandra, Lavinia had foresight. But instead of speaking and not being believed, Lavinia keeps the knowledge to herself. Lavinia has to act this way since the poet gave her no lines in his poem. For in vision quests performed at a sacred sulfur spring, Lavinia meets the dying Vergil. He is a shade, a shadow, filled with grief over his poem which is unfinished and incomplete. He morns his lack of attention concerning Lavinia. It is from Vergil that Lavinia learns her future, the long litany of deaths which are committed in her name, and the knowledge of a son which is a sire to kings, which lead to the greatness of Rome.

To me, Lavinia’s relationship to the poet Vergil and her knowledge that she is a character in his poem is the most interesting aspect of the book. Lavinia is bound by the limitations Vergil gives her, but fills that space with life, her life; the life of a daughter of a king, wife to the exiled Trojan Aeneas, who has taken up kingship in what will become Italy, mother and grandmother to kings. She is a queen. Since Vergil gave her no lines, little life and no death, in the end Lavinia too does not die. Her body passes but Lavinia lingers in the quiet places of her country. Her immortality is forever linked to the written word of the poet. While Vergil’s words live, Lavinia lives. While Le Guin’s words live, Lavinia lives.

Highly recommended.