Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The past few years as a full-time classicist have seen a boom for me in the reading of modern retellings of classical myths and tales. Of all the ones I have read so far, Lavinia has been the best. Perhaps this is because this novel is based on the last six books of my favorite ancient work and author, the Aeneid by Vergil.
I was first told about this novel by my graduate advisor, with whom I am working on research about Vergil’s pastoral poetry. While Lavinia references the Aeneid and not Vergil’s other works, there are elements of contact with nature, which I will elaborate on below.
For those who don’t know, or have only a vague idea, Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus, whom Aeneas married when he settled down in Latium, the area of Italy that would one day become Rome.
The first half of the book talks about Lavinia’s early life in the palace of her father. What I loved about this was that it illustrated the importance of her role in the palace as the virgin daughter of the king (religiously, etc.). It also touched on her connection to nature and certain higher powers such as oracles, and more importantly Vergil himself, the half-dead spirit of whom she communes with in sacred spaces of the woods. It is here where she learns the future of hers and Aeneas’ story. Le Guin gives us readers a look at how Vergil might have felt at not completing his story with Lavinia as a non-speaking character. I’d like to think he would have been as remorseful about this as Le Guin made him, how much he regretted not giving Lavinia a voice. Le Guin more than makes up for that in this novel. Lavinia speaks her mind to Vergil, to her father, to all those who would try to control her.
The latter half of the book looks at the war and then her marriage to Aeneas and life after. It illustrates what could have been, what Vergil could have written if he had the chance to continue. Le Guin makes Lavinia an immortal character, acknowledging the fact that because Vergil never gave her an ending, she cannot die in the same way as Aeneas or other heroes.
That is one other thing that Le Guin illustrates very well in this novel: the idea of living up to the standards of a legendary hero. We see Lavinia herself try to keep the house and rule of Aeneas alive through her resolve and the future of her son. Ascanius, Aeneas’ first son, does the same, but because Aeneas’ standards end up being so high, Ascanius is destined to fail as a ruler. Even if one doesn’t read this book, this is an obvious interpretation of Ascanius’ life.
To have one of my favorite stories be retold by a woman and through the eyes of a silenced woman is so refreshing and I could not ask for a better story. As a (still) young woman, I feel I can relate to Lavinia’s character, feeling uncertain about my own future among others whose futures are already set.
I recommend this novel to all classicists, lovers of myths and tales, and to those who are uncertain in life and want to run away into the woods to commune with spirits of dead poets.
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Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin