Lavinia
Ursula K. Le Guin

Morality: B-
Writing: A+

As an amateur scholar who is passionate about classical literature, I approached this book with a combination of interest and trepidation. Since Lavinia is basically a non-entity in Vergil’s Aeneid, a retelling of the story from her perspective could go any number of directions, many of them not particularly appealing. But far from being disappointed, I discovered an astonishing book, a novel that is both a fitting tribute to the Aeneid itself and a beautiful work of craft and scholarship.

To read this book is to enter another world. The Italy of 1000 B.C. comes alive — and with an absolutely authentic feel. Le Guin captures the ancient Italian culture, the culture which preceded and underlay the recorded history of Rome itself. In other words, she understands the centrality of fas and nefas, of pietas, of the numen. And she presents us with a central character who is at one with her setting. Too often the characters in historical novels are uprooted from their proper place in the 21st century and sloppily transplanted into historical settings, where their stunted development speaks of their incongruent origins. Not here. Lavinia is neither a warrior princess nor a rebellious teenager. She does not defy her culture’s norms in order to marry for love. In fact, she is meek and submissive as her culture dictates she must be. Yet she is a woman both strong and thoughtful, fiercely loyal and determinedly pious.

Central to this retelling are several dream-visions during which the young Lavinia meets the poet Vergil and learns of her own destiny as the bride of the Trojan Aeneas. By creatively portraying Lavinia as constrained by the same sense of unalterable destiny under which Aeneas himself labors, Le Guin is able to explore what is to me a central question as I wrestle with the classical epics and the Aeneid in particular: Philosophically, where is the personal virtue in fulfilling one’s unalterable destiny? What is particularly pious about doing what one is fated to do? And literarily, how can such a character possibly be interesting to read about? Le Guin explores the concept of piety through both Lavinia and Aeneas, as the characters struggle to define this complex concept against the more ancient definition of virtue as strength in warfare. As for the characters, well, not only is Lavinia a fascinating protagonist, but I found Aeneas himself portrayed as much more interesting a character than he is in the source material. (If I may quote Rose here: “Not that that’s very hard.” I don’t think character development was Vergil’s point.)

Le Guin is also fully aware of the irony at the heart of the Aeneid, illustrated in the contrast between Aeneas’ pious mission and his passion-driven murder of the humbled Turnus. This is a contrast which Vergil does not even attempt to resolve, closing the story at the moment of the murder. Really, without a recognition of this central irony, it seems to me there’s not much of interest in the Aeneid (besides the amazing poetry if you read Latin), since most of the rest of the book’s content is borrowed from Homer — and Homer did it better. But Le Guin embraces this irony, exploring it more personally (rather than politically as Vergil does) through her portrayal of Aeneas himself, and the inner conflict which he suffers as he ponders how he could succumb to such inhuman rage in battle.

All this is not to say that a close reading of the Aeneid is a prerequisite for appreciation of this novel. Yes, the book explores the themes of that ancient epic; yes, there are pieces (mostly in the Vergil scenes) that echo other Latin poetry (there’s even a Dante reference). But those themes are fascinating in their own right, and the poetry of Le Guin’s writing is quite sufficient without a recognition of the classical references. More than a knowledge of classical literature, to appreciate this novel one must simply be willing to immerse oneself into a distant time and place, and to consider timeless literary and philosophical questions. Historical-speculative fiction doesn’t get any better than that.

Content warning: There are a few violent scenes (the worst one consisting of a quote by Vergil paraphrasing the source material) and some non-graphic references to sex.

Posted by Sasha | October 16, 2008

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