Lavinia is the only daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata. The latter, made unstable by the grief of losing two sons, strongly wishes for her to marry her own sister’s boy, King Turnus. But the oracle has prophesised that Lavinia is to marry a foreigner (who ends up being Aeneas, the Trojan prince) soon making his way to their shores, and that their descendants would found a great empire. Thanks to Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia, barely mentioned in Vergil’s Aeneid, can finally tell her story.
“I am not the feminine voice you may have expected. Resentment is not what drives me to write my story. Anger, perhaps…but not an easy anger.”
Lavinia, seeking guidance about her future and her path, visits the sacred caves of Albunea. Instead of guidance from the deities, she encounters the spectre of Vergil, from hundreds of years into the future, who in that distant time is slowly dying. Through multiple meetings, Lavinia not only learns that her father will soon receive the prophecy that his only daughter shouldn’t marry a man of Latium, that an unavoidable, bloody war is coming, that it will be won by Aeneas, her destined husband, who will die three years after they are wed, but also that they are all but mere figments of the poet’s imagination. They are his creations. This heightened self-awareness is where the novel is at its most postmodern, but, for me, it didn’t imbalance the real-ness of the world Le Guin has created.
And it did feel incredibly real. Despite my love of mythology, my knowledge of Roman history and myths is average at best (I know whatever I do thanks to Camp Jupiter and Rick Riordan). So, I cannot speak of historical or classical accuracy. But, as a reader, I was completely immersed in the vivid recreation of the rustic, homespun people of the Italian Bronze Age. The common people, who never preoccupied themselves with war and conquest; instead, their lives honoured the spirits of the hearth and the land that bore them, the one that sustains them. This is very much a society of simple folk ruled by the rhythms of the seasons. Which is why, war, when it comes, sends even more shockwaves through their foundation.
Le Guin clearly loves and respects the source material and there is a careful sensory attention to detail through deceptively simple prose, but she is also not shy about moving away from it, albeit organically, to tell the story she set out to. One thing I really appreciated was her decision to scrap the active involvement and interference of the gods in the lives of the characters. In the epic style, the complicated, passionate, jealous gods always have their own agendas and bend the wills of the humans in order to see it all play out. Here, by going more by the supernatural, mystical route, Le Guin ensures that there is a spiritual magic that is accepted and respected by the people (one of the things that allows Lavinia to so easily accept what the poet shares with her), but that the events when they occur, are a result of the choices made by each individual, who bear the responsibility of their actions.
This allows her to also explore interesting discussions of hero vs killer, of both sometimes being part of the same and whether they can ever be reconciled (Aeneas’s character in particular is given so much complexity and depth than he has ever had, either in the Iliad or the Aeneid), of war and piety, of choice. What I appreciated was that there is no judgment. Le Guin understands, better than most, that for many situations, there is no right answer or right course of action; that suffering and sorrow are inevitable and we must choose so as to minimise them, while knowing we can’t eliminate them.
I will warn you now that this is a slow-burner. There is little that isn’t known or foreshadowed, and the “plot” is pretty thin. But, there is much to love, and Lavinia, our narrator is one of them.
I love that through her, we learn the day-to-day life of the daughter of a king back then. How involved they had to be in rituals, in the running of the household. But it never feels suffocating for us or for Lavinia, who, though she is strong, kind, and intelligent, is very much a woman of her time and her people, and isn’t an anachronistic modern-day woman dropped into an ancient world.
Lavinia is deeply devoted to her responsibilities but, for me, this never made me weak. The fact that she knew her destiny and was yet not cowed down by it; despite knowing that the trajectory of her life was already etched out, at least until Aeneas’s untimely death, she remains who she is, a pragmatic but gentle princess who uses the power that she has for good. Whatever is in her control, she does conscientiously. And where any other person might have gone slowly insane with the weight of that knowledge, she accepted it and carried on. There is sorrow there, but also a quiet celebration of life’s small moments.
When I started to read it, I felt like it would be the kind of read that would emotionally overwhelm me. I was wrong. But it wasn’t to its detriment. There is a certain emotional distance in the narration and maybe that is a deliberate choice given Lavinia’s situation (I don’t say any more and spoil anything). There were two or three places where I welled up, but mostly the feeling here was subtle and I didn’t mind. These aren’t characters I will forget in a hurry and an owl is always going to make me think of Lavinia. I feel like I have left a part of me back in Bronze Age Italy.
When I picked this up, I didn’t know that it was Ursula Le Guin’s last-ever novel. How fitting then that it talks about the role of the creator, about memory, and stories and songs lingering on long after the seasons have changed and its people have gone. This is not a story about epic deeds and memorable battles. This is an understated, elegant narrative about a woman very much a hero in her own right, about a long life lived, about the passage of time, and the lasting power of narrative. I have now read her first and her last, both of which I loved, yet in very different ways for they are vastly different books. I’m very excited for what I will find in between.
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