Lavinia

20Feb10

I just finished reading Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin, and I love it. It’s the tale of the daughter of Latinus and Amata, king and queen of Latium. She is introduced to the world in book six of Virgil’s (Vergil’s) Aeneid, when the spirit of Anchises, Aeneus’ father, shows Aeneus the shades of those spirits waiting to be born:

“See you fair youth, now leaning–mark his face–/upon a pointless spear, by lot decreed /To stand the nearest to the light in place,/ He first shall rise, of mixt Italian breed,/ Silvius, an Alban name,/ The youngest of thy seed.

“Him, latest offspring of thy day’s decline,/ Thy spouse Lavinia in the woods shall rear. . .”

We hear of Lavinia only through the words of others in the Aeneid: she is “a single daughter, now ripe for a man, now of full marriageable age . . . Many from broad Latium and all Ausonia came wooing her.” She is fated not to marry Turnus, not to marry any man of Latium, but to marry a foreigner. She, to her mother, Amata, is to be ripped from her betrothed. She is promised to Aeneus as part of a treaty.

image from the website of Ursula LeGuin

Lavinia is Ursula Le Guin giving a voice to a character that had no voice in Virgil’s poem, and her voice is brilliant and complex. Lavinia the character meets the shade of her dying poet-creator in the sacred grove at Albunia, and he apologizes for what he got wrong about her. She tells us, in her own words, of the life she led, her experience of the hero, Aeneus, and of the death of Turnus . . . and then goes beyond to tell us of her life.

This is not an attempt to retell the Aeneid for a new generation, nor is it an attempt to finish the poem that Virgil thought was unfinished at his death; it is an imagined life. Lavinia, a bronze-age princess and queen, breathes.

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