Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover of Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover of Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In her novel Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the Earthsea series and many other science fiction and fantasy novels, gives life to a forgotten character from Virgil's Aeneid.  Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus of Latium, and in Virgil's epic she is destined to marry the Trojan hero Aeneas.  Their descendants will be the founders of Rome.  In the Aeneid, Lavinia is a very minor character who doesn't even have any spoken lines.  Many people who have read the Aeneid a long time ago, including myself, I admit, do not even remember her, at least by name.  Le Guin breathes life into Lavinia's character and makes her very memorable.

Le Guin's Lavinia is the adored daughter of Latinus, who is already an aging king when she is born.  Her domineering mother, Amata, has gone mad after the deaths of her sons as small children, but Latinus will not admit that his wife is mad.  As soon as Lavinia becomes old enough to marry, many suitors come from the surrounding kingdoms, but she rejects all of them.  Amata is determined that Lavinia will marry her nephew Turnus, king of neighboring Rutulia.  In fact, there is a strong suggestion that Amata herself is in love with Turnus.  Lavinia refuses to marry the arrogant, boastful Turnus, and she escapes when Amata and her slaves carry her off into the forest for a ritual which is supposed to culminate in her marriage to him.  She asks Latinus to consult an oracle about her marriage.  He agrees, and the oracle says she is destined to marry a foreigner, but also that her husband will only live for three years after their marriage.  Soon she sees Aeneas and his fellow Trojans sailing up the river, and she realizes that he is the man she is meant to marry.

Early in the novel there are some wonderful scenes in the sacred grove between Lavinia and the ghost of Virgil, who is called "the poet".  Throughout the novel, Lavinia has the ability to see into the future, and she is also aware that she is a fictional character created by Virgil.  It is an unusual narrative technique that I enjoyed very much.  In their conversations, Virgil tells Lavinia about Aeneas and his adventures following the fall of Troy, including his two previous loves, for his first wife Creusa, daughter of King Priam of Troy, and for Dido, Queen of Carthage, who killed herself after Aeneas left her to seek his destiny in Italy.  So Lavinia knows all about Aeneas even before she meets him.

King Latinus agrees to Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas, but Turnus still sees Lavinia as his betrothed.  He breaks Latinus' treaty with the Trojans, and declares war on them.  Lavinia observes the war from a tower in the palace, and helps to treat the wounded men.  She feels terrible guilt over being the cause of a war she never wanted, and she's conflicted because she knows she should support her fellow Latins, but she is also destined for Aeneas.  As readers of the Aeneid will know, Aeneas kills Turnus to end the war.

Le Guin goes past the events of the Aeneid, and writes of Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas and their founding of a city called Lavinium, where they live for the three years before Aeneas' death, and where she gives birth to a son, Silvius.  This part of the book is incredibly sad, because Lavinia , who truly loves Aeneas, knows he will die, but she cannot do anything to prevent it.  Aeneas feels terrible guilt about killing Turnus and, not to give too much away, but this guilt is what eventually leads to his death.  Meanwhile, Lavinia does not get along with Ascanius, Aeneas' son by his first marriage with Creusa of Troy.  Ascanius is an arrogant young man, who is disdainful of women and who believes victory in battle is the only way for a man to prove his worth.  After Aeneas' death, Ascanius becomes King of Latium and Lavinia is forced to raise her son, Silvius, in the forest because she is afraid Ascanius means to harm him.  But Lavinia knows of a prophecy that says Silvius will be triumphant in the end.

Le Guin is a master at building worlds, as anyone who has read the Earthsea series will know, and her ancient Italy comes as brilliantly to life as any of her invented worlds.  Very little is known about pre-Roman Italy, so Le Guin is free to imagine what life was like in that society.  She writes beautifully about the forests, fields, rivers, and hills of Latium, and her descriptions of the religious rites and customs of the Latins are especially strong.  Le Guin's ancient Latium is a world where humans and spirits are deeply connected, as can be seen in the conversations between Lavinia and the ghost of Virgil.  This novel paints a vivid portrait of ancient Italy, and it made me want to re-read the Aeneid.

Lavinia is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.

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