Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

laviniaOut beyond that, on the dim sea I saw ships — a line of great, black ships, coming up from the south and wheeling and heading in to the river mouth. On each side of the ship a long rank of oars lifted and beat like the beat of wings in the twilight.

I crouched by the waterside in the salty mud. The first ship entered the river and came past me, dark above me, moving steadily to the heavy soft beat of the oars. The faces of the oarsmen were shadowed but a man stood up against the sky on the high stern of the ship, gazing ahead.

His face is stern yet unguarded; he is looking ahead into the darkness, praying. I know who he is.
I went to the king and said, “A great fleet of warships went up the river at dawn, father. He looked at me; his face was sad. “So soon,” was all he said.

The story of Aeneas is a mythology of Rome. It was written (and largely made up) by the poet Virgil, to honour the Emperor Augustus. In it, a Trojan prince escapes the war of his homeland and eventually finds his way to Italy, where he founds a city, destined to become the greatest of the classical age. However, the poet barely mentions Aeneas’s Italian wife, Lavinia. She isn’t very well described, and she doesn’t speak once. In Lavinia, she is given back her voice, in order to tell her own story.

Le Guin is better known for her fantasy and science fiction books, and those are wonderful, but I loved this sparsely written tale of a daughter trying to do her duty, even though she brings war to her people. Lavinia narrates the story of her life from old age, occasionally throwing in a wry feminist aside (“I made my statement a question, as women so often do”).

The only child of an aging Latin king, Lavinia assumes she will be given in marriage to her cousin Turnus, a hotheaded prince from a neighboring kingdom. But while she is praying in a sacred grove, she is visited by the spirit of the poet Virgil from centuries later. He is dying, having just finished the poem that would make his name, and is coming to the realisation that he should have paid more attention to Lavinia’s story (“And what I thought I knew of you — what little I thought of at all — was stupid, conventional, unimagined. I thought you were a blonde!”). Gradually Virgil tells the story of Aeneas, that he is coming to her father’s kingdom, and that Lavinia is destined to be his wife, but only after a bloody conflict. These discussions across the centuries, debating the meaning of her fate, were my favourite part of the book. And everything Virgil has foretold comes true, and that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when it does.

Le Guin translated the Aeneid from Latin herself in order to write this book, and the prose is richer for it — there are some lovely touches which come directly from the original Latin poem. But the story is also shot through with details that have come to us through the archaeology of the Bronze Age — how those people lived, what they ate, how they spun and wove cloth, their ancient (even to them) religions. The result is a story that has at once a hazy glow of myth, and an immediate sense of realism.

Lavinia is available from Amazon.

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