Lavinia — Ursula K. Le Guin

Okay, so Lavinia is retelling of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem describing Aeneas’ arrival and conquest of what’s now known as Italy.  Le Guin’s counter-read ends up revamping Lavinia, Aeneas’ BRIDE OF DESTINY, making her a real, vital character. While she’s still swept by the winds of fate, she emerges as a deeply religious girl aware of the prophecies surrounding her marriage. She chooses to follow these prophecies, in part because her other options involve bloody political turmoil. She learns, however, that women’s bodies become the rationale for political violence, regardless of the decisions these bodies make. Le Guin also uses Lavinia to meditate on the nature of the worlds one creates. Virgil drew a sketchy portrait of Lavinia. While this sketchiness meant the Aeneid Lavinia lacked a certain vitality, it also meant that the “real” Lavinia has the power to emerge as a full, vibrant character in another author’s hand.  When le Guin’s Lavinia begans seeing visions of Virgil, he begins seeing her as well, though it’s a few hundred years too late for him to revise the original manuscript. Still, he exclaims,

“No, I know very little. And what I thought I knew of you — what little I of at all — was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde!…” (58)

Anyways, after Lavinia realizes it’s her destiny to marry the foreigner she hasn’t yet met, she continues spurning her many suitors. This doesn’t displease her; they’re all unworthy of her, and really only interested in her because of her father. Plus, leaving her home means that she’ll lose access to some of the social status she holds in her own right, as a Vestal Virgin and caretaker of her family’s shrines. However, her choices are limited. As the only child of an old king, she HAS to marry — really, all she gets to “pick” is to who. Even that choice has its bounds and limits, since it’s curtailed by political concerns and implied violence. However, the narrative surrounding that choice is one of girlish frivolity. Like Helen, who was blamed for starting a war when she was stolen away from a husband she didn’t choose, Lavinia is blamed for starting a war for remaining faithful to the husband the gods choose for her.

One of our royal herdsmen, Urso, came with a sword wound in his thigh. I asked him about Tyrrhus and his sons, Silvia’s two remaining brothers. He said they had all been in the fighting, both days, that “the old man was like a wild boar, mad with rage. But he wore out,” he said. Urso was not a man I had known well, and he did not even recognize me until one of the other women called me by name. Then he stared at me, and his face flushed and broke out in sweat. “It’s all about you, woman.” he said. “Why wouldn’t you marry our Almo? or that King Turnus? All this killing for a girl’s whim!” (137)

What’s especially awesome is that you get the sense that Lavinia and Aeneas’ eventual marriage is a union of equals. She’s not a girl — she’s a queen. By the end of the book, she’s organized the defense of her father’s homestead, managed the triage section of that homestead during the battle over her hand, successfully defended her son’s political interests, and has handily run a homestead of her own. None of these are easy, since they all involved her working within a political paradigm that ignored women.

Le Guin’s afterword is equally stirring, as she meditates on the process of writing in a character often absent in Vergil’s work. Her discussion of the writing process, which includes descriptions of her research methods and a lush discussion of Virgil’s original prose, is as fascinating as Lavinia’s story.

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