Lavinia expands the story of a minor character from The Aeneid, the epic poem by first century Roman poet Virgil. Well, she shouldn’t really be a minor character, as she’s the main character’s wife, she’s the reason for the central conflict of the last act, and she’s presented as the mother of the Roman nation, but Virgil only gives her a few lines. So, LeGuin comes to her rescue. The Aeneid aped Homeric style to tell a story that linked the founding of Rome to the fall of Troy, which allowed the new Roman Empire to link itself to the dominant Hellenic tradition of the Mediterranean while also claiming a moral superiority over the Greeks. It’s a foundational text of western literature – remember, it’s Virgil, not Homer, that guides Dante through Hell – but it doesn’t seem to be as widely read or referenced in the last couple of decades. I read it as a freshman in college. I can’t say I absorbed it all, but having a passing familiarity with the text probably helped my enjoyment of this novel.
The final sections of the epic recount the arrival of a group of Trojan refugees, led by Aeneas, to Italy. They immediately fall into conflict with the local Latin tribes, especially after Aeneas tries to wed a Latin princess named Lavinia, in accordance with various prophecies. LeGuin gives us Lavinia’s perspective with a first-person narration that begins in her youth. She has a loving father, and a crazy mother, and she’s not too keen on the local Latin suitors. She believes her destiny is to marry a foreigner, but her mother and finest suitor start a war with the Trojans to keep her. The novel continues beyond Virgil’s poem to describe Lavinia’s loving marriage to Aeneas and her efforts to raise their son to be a fine king of the Latins.
There’s not much of the fantastic here. Actually, the novel is more grounded in archaeology and actual history than The Aeneid, with its glittering kingdoms and divine interventions. LeGuin’s Thirteenth-century B.C. Italy is poor and pastoral, and she works to keep the religious practices and ethnographic details fairly accurate (though she does admit to some artistic license in the afterword). The main elements come through prophesy-infused narrative devices, including appearances by Virgil’s ghost (hey, if he can lead Dante through Hell, he can have a chat with one of his characters), and a lavishly described bas-relief shield that somehow depicts most of the major events of the Roman history to come. LeGuin manages to keep the story grounded, but give it these hints of magic.
The real attraction, as is usually the case with LeGuin, is not the speculative elements or the plot, but prose and character. If you’ve ever read Virgil or Homer, you know the heroes are larger-than-life, but LeGuin makes them feel real, and Lavinia is a wonderful heroine. The world-building is especially spectacular. LeGuin brings a very foreign place and time to life.
My one disappointment is that LeGuin seems to have lost interest in the complex analysis of gender that characterized her early work. Since Tehanu, she seems to spend more time focusing on essential differences of sex…though maybe it just feels that way because most of her recent works have been set in explicitly sexist fantasy worlds. In this novel, men are quite literally from Mars (the god); they stupidly fight and ignore women. Lavinia’s mother, meanwhile, is quite the shrew.
Still, this is the best LeGuin novel I’ve read since at least The Dispossessed…maybe since The Lathe of Heaven. Powers was nice, but I think the Nebulas would’ve been better served with this as their choice.