“In our loss and fear we craved the acts of religion, the ceremonies that allow us to admit our helplessness, our dependence on the great forces we do not understand.”
– Lavinia, p. 177
This piece is dedicated to Russell Collier, fellow Le Guin fan, dear colleague, guide, friend. In memoriam.
Lavinia, a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, is many things: Historical fiction set in the Italian Bronze Age; a mythic fantasy derived from the last six books of Vergil’s Aeneid; an experiment in which the narrator is aware of her own fictionality; a postmodern tale where creation and creator come to learn and love one another. But above all, Lavinia is a haunting story crafted by a great storyteller. It is not my favourite of Le Guin’s works, but it is perhaps the most beautifully written. Her laconic prose brings to life a little known pre-Roman world, captures the lived essences of a semi-mythical people, and offers voice to one neglected, to tell the tale of her life and beyond.
Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins, recalls her life’s story. Growing up free in a peaceful time, she feels the pressure of marriage upon reaching womanhood. Amata, her mother, favours Turnus, a local king and blood kin as the ideal son-in-law, but Lavinia is uncertain. During a pilgrimage to the sacred forests of Albunea, Lavinia encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Vergil, whose physical body lies dying on the deck of a ship centuries in the future. Vergil speaks with his creation for the first time, and realizes that he was wrong to have relegated Lavinia to a minor and voiceless role in his epic poem. Growing too weak to revise his story, Vergil reveals to Lavinia some of what is to come, that she is fated to marry a foreigner, that this marriage will cause a great war, yet out of their joining a great civilization, his beloved Rome, will rise. That foreigner is Aeneas, a famed warrior of the Trojan War who will soon land on Italian shores with his exiled people to found a new realm. Vergil also tells Lavinia that their marriage will be a brief one: Aeneas will only live for three more years. Vergil dies.
Lavinia accepts Vergil’s words and her fate. Guided by similar visions, King Latinus welcomes the Trojans and offers Lavinia’s hand to Aeneas, but peace is shattered when Turnus, spurned and power-hungry, leverages misunderstandings between the Latins and the Trojans into inciting a full-out war. Lavinia describes the ensuing conflict, as foretold by Vergil, between the armies of Turnus and Aeneas in which men slaughter each other in cruel and treacherous ways. The war ends when Aeneas slays a helpless Turnus in a fit of rage, an act that haunts him until the end of his days. This marks the end of Vergil’s poem.
But that is not the end of Lavinia’s story. She recounts her life after great conflict, describing her happy but brief marriage with Aeneas, the birth of their son Silvius, and the founding of the city of Lavinium. After Aeneas’ death, she tells of her conflict with Ascanius, Aeneas’ son from a previous marriage, that forced her to raise Silvius in the forests of Albunea until her son is of age to become the new king of the Latins.
Lavinia lives on. She learns to love solitude, mourns the passing of her friends and family, grows old. Given life by Vergil but not death, she lingers on, becoming an owl spirit in the forests of Albunea, only occasionally waking in consciousness as a woman to speak her story.
Banishment of the Gods
A View of the Roman Countryside, by Jean-Achille Benouville.
Le Guin’s Bronze Age Italy possesses a pastoral, fable-like quality, a realm in which humans and nature seemingly exist in a harmonious relationship. Lavinia’s reminiscences of her childhood and of ages gone by evokes intense nostalgia and wonder:
“Sometimes in summer as the long day drew toward evening and we knew we should be starting home to the farm, we’d both lie facedown on the hillside and push our faces right into the harsh dry grass and hard clouded dirt, breathing in the infinitely complex smell, hay-sweet and soil-bitter, of the warm summer earth, our earth. Then we were both Saturn’s children. We leapt up and ran down the hill, ran home – race you to the cattle ford!”
– Lavinia, p.16
Instead of allowing Vergil’s Greco-Roman gods to dominate her world, Le Guin banishes them entirely from her story, believing that “the Homeric use of quarrelsome deities to motivate, illuminate, and interfere with human choices and emotions doesn’t work well in a novel.” (p. 275) In one amusing exchange, Lavinia is outright puzzled by Vergil’s anthropomorphic goddess:
“A sacred power jealous of another? I could not understand it. Is a river jealous of another, is earth jealous of the sky?”
To which Vergil concedes to the authority to his creation:
“Great Homer of Greece says the god lights the fire. Young Lavinia of Italy says the fire is the god. This is Italian ground, Latin ground. You and Lucretius have it right. Offer praise, ask for blessing, and pay no attention to the foreign myths. They’re only literature.”
-Lavinia p. 66
The decision to discard the gods augments one of the most successful elements of the book: The infusion of the natural with the divine. By returning magic back to the earth, the setting comes alive with a pervasive and luminous vitality. This supernatural enchantment of place also makes it easy to accept why the Latins live in perpetual worship of their world.
The Latin Way of Life
Roman herdsman and oxen relief. Image from the Walter Arts Museum.
It is through their active engagement with the grand forces of their world that the Latins come to life on the page. From daily duties to grand sacrifices, Lavinia’s meticulous descriptions of her people’s rituals and ceremonies offer a glimpse of ordinary life, that enduring existence for which wars were fought and men died for. Le Guin is experienced at highlighting the extraordinary in the mundane, describing the actions of these semi-mythical people with a clarity and brevity of language that awes me. Her Latins are a serious, committed, and mindful lot, worthy of being progenitors of the Romans. In the afterword of Lavinia, she writes about her fascination with pre-Roman culture:
“Ever since I first read about it I’ve been drawn to Rome, not the sick, luxurious Empire of the TV sagas, but early Rome: the dark, plain Republic, a forum not of marble but of wood and brick, an austere people with a strong sense of duty, order and justice: farmers who spent half the year in the army, women who ran the farm meanwhile, extended families whose worship was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits of place and earth.”
-Lavinia, p. 278
Shying away from the majestic grandeur typically associated with ancient civilizations, Le Guin centers her story on a more modest society comprising a plain folk who were pagans in the original sense, farmers who lived on the pagus or the Roman farm, people who worshipped the seasons and lived close to the earth. I found the depiction of these people real, grounded, and very Le Guinian.
Aeneas: A Man of Balance
Aeneas and his son Ascanius. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
In an age filled with individualistically minded and action-oriented heroes and heroines, Lavinia’s chief characters remind me that there are other ways to practice courage and prove strength.
“If a man came who was heroic and also responsible, and just, and faithful, a man who had lost much and suffered much, and made a good many mistakes and paid for them all – a man who saw his city betrayed and burned, and saved his father and his son from the burning, a man who wet down alive into the underworld and returned, a man who learned piety the hard way…”
– Lavinia, p.42
I have not read The Aeneid, and so do not know how Aeneas was portrayed in Vergil’s epic, but to me, his characterization in Lavinia seems to be one rooted in balance. Here was a hero who was wrathful in battle but content in peace, decisive in action but tortured by conscience, proud of his heritage but open to new ways of life. His tender conversations with Lavinia and his attempts to teach his son Ascanius notions of virtue beyond the battlefield stay with me, revealing a reserved and reflective man who has gained wisdom after much hardship and suffering. Despite the fact that his time on the page is brief and his story is told entirely from Lavinia’s perspective, I found Le Guin captured in his portrayal those values of “loyalty, modesty, and responsibility implicit in Vergil’s idea of a hero.” (p. 279)
Lavinia: A Woman of Strength
“I am not the feminine voice you may have expected. Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.”
– Lavinia, p. 68
Ultimately, this is Lavinia’s tale. While her world does not allow her to engage in feminism as we understand it today, Lavinia is a strong and fascinating character. As a proto-Roman matron, she derives much of her identity and strength from fulfilling her responsibilities to her family, her people, and to her world. Like Aeneas, she is committed to the path of the fas, the right, to do what one knows one must do:
“I had grown up with those [religion and duty to her people], they were part of me, not external, not enslaving; rather, in enlarging the scope of my soul and mind, they liberated me from the narrowness of the single self.”
– Lavinia, p.185
Yet Lavinia demonstrates other forms of strength. When she learns that Vergil had relegated her to a plot device to provoke war between Aeneas and Turnus, Lavinia asserts her voice in the face of her creator, rejecting Vergil’s blonde and blank portrayal of her, forcing him to realize that he had gotten her wrong, had done her injustice, that she was “worth ten Camillas.”
Perhaps what I find most admirable about Lavinia’s character is her ability to endure change and accept life’s contingencies. Knowing her future as told by Vergil, she possesses the courage to hold fast to a path that brings not only fulfilling partnership and bright glory, but also senseless death and bitter parting. Self-aware and reflective, Lavinia is able to see life in its entirety and find ways of living on beyond the small life and fate Vergil granted her. This resilience and durability of character is not something modern culture celebrates often as strength. But it should be.
More than any piece, writing about Lavinia has taught me that a story cannot adequately be described by anything less than its entirety. Even as I attempted to describe some of the elements that resonated with me, I felt the story’s essence slip through my grasp. I think I have a vague notion of what it must have been like for the Vergil of the novel, to write and realize afterwards that one has failed to capture some crucial reality. For that, I apologize, and encourage you to read this beautiful novel, to discover for yourself Lavinia’s story, whole.
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Le Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. Orlando: Harcourt Inc. 2008.