Filling in one gap from the Aeneid
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
LAVINIA, fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt, 2008. Hardcover, $24.
In the forests of Albunea, in Latium, in Italy, a daughter of kings hears a voice. A poet, or the ghost of one, appears to her in the night from hundreds of years in the future, where he lies dying on a boat. He laughs to hear her name and tells her things that have not yet happened. “Perhaps I did not do you justice, Lavinia,” he says — a small sentence among the stories he tells, but one key to Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin’s vision of the life of Aeneas of Troy’s wife before, during and after that marriage.
Lavinia is not, as Le Guin explains in her afterword, an attempt “to improve or reprove” Virgil’s Aeneid, but “a meditative interpretation … the unfolding of a hint.” And what an unfolding it is. It is the sort of book from which I want to quote half the lines, and of those, half are the poet’s, half Lavinia’s. Hers is a story hidden between the pages, in the gutters and around the edges of an older story, one that Le Guin has lured into being with care and wisdom and wrapped in rich prose that asks to be read aloud, to be read as if it were an epic poem of its own.
Lavinia’s life is full of oracles and powers, signs and portents: One tells her father she will marry a stranger, and another sends that stranger across the sea to the land where he, following the fall of Troy and his journeys to Africa and the underworld, will find his kingdom. But Lavinia’s mother, Queen Amata, and her nephew Turnus (who sought Lavinia’s hand) will not have it. War begins with the shooting of a stag, but it has to do not with the boy who looses an arrow but with control, with power, with a woman who signifies so much.
Though the oracles foretell, human lives and feelings make the tellings matter. Lavinia is no mild, obedient bride but a woman who takes seriously her tasks, her meaning, her life, even as the words of the poet, who says he created it all, echo in her head. Her story loops around, told from the distant future, where scenes from a battle and from a household in peace seem to run together. The relevance of battleground to hearth is clear to us as it was not to those who lived it, moment by moment, their small but vital rituals binding people to one another, to their lands, to the powers in which they believe.
There is a ritual or a sacrifice for everything in Lavinia’s world — for the hearth, for the fields, for the making of a king or for his death — and she performs them all with gravity and care. Through the poet, who lists the casualties of wars before they happen but cannot lessen their effect when they come, Lavinia has the gift of context, which pairs with her deep, intuitive understanding of her world to make her formidable, admirable, a woman fit to found empires. Lavinia knows her story is set in broad strokes in history, but for her, it is left to be filled in with the everyday wonders of living and loving, of grief and strength. Lavinia does not end with Aeneas’ victory over Turnus, or even with his death, for the wives of heroes — who are undeniably heroes themselves in the hands and mind of a writer as brilliant as Le Guin — have lives that continue, houses to run, children to raise, power to wield and stories to tell.
Ursula K. Le Guin speaks at 7:30 pm Tuesday, April 22, at Powell’s on Burnside, Portland.