Ursula K. LeGuin seems to be getting better as the years go by. Her newest novel, Lavinia, is a historical fantasy that is in some ways even more ambitious than her previous work. First, some background: in book VII of the Aeneid, we learn that Lavinia, daughter of the King of Latium, became Aeneas’ wife, but her role in the poem is almost an afterthought. LeGuin’s novel lets us know what was on Lavinia’s mind.
Lavinia’s family expects her to marry Turnus, a young warrior who is also her cousin. Her mother, a cruel woman scarred by the death of her beloved sons, constantly berates Lavinia for her unenthusiastic response to Turnus. Lavinia is a dutiful daughter, but not convinced the arrogant young man is worthy of marriage, so she consults her family’s oracle to help decide her fate.
The scenes with Lavinia and the oracle are filled with the magic that makes LeGuin’s writing so memorable. As Lavinia prays to the oracle, a poet appears–Virgil. They talk of many things—including Lavinia’s destiny, death and the afterlife, and of the coming war. As always, LeGuin’s writing has an epic and lyrical quality. Her work is so sharp, her attention to detail and character so precise that you are swept into the story and it seems effortless.
Virgil tells Lavinia that her choice of husband will have monumental consequences for the fate of her people. War breaks out when she decides on Aeneas, who she knows is a just, kind, and honorable man (unlike Turnus); her parents are nearly driven apart by the choice. The love between Lavinia and Aeneas is rendered beautifully, and their brief moments of happiness are all the more poignant because Lavinia knows her husband will not live long.
One of the more dominant motifs in Lavinia is the overwhelming sense of loss. Lavinia loses her childhood, her brothers, and ultimately her husband and home. The separation of the living from the dead, and Lavinia’s terrible foreknowledge of her husband’s death hangs over the work like a shroud. As Lavinia says:
“I had lived with Aeneas’ death for a long time, from the time I first saw his face high on the ship’s prow, dark in the twilight of morning, gazing up the river in prayer and eager hope. Three years, the poet had said. Three years to the day it was” (226).
Lavinia’s story is powerful and universal, since we all live knowing that we’ll eventually lose our loved ones. The dread Lavinia feels at knowing Aeneas will be gone in a matter of a few months is palpable. This is a tragic love story, but Aeneas’ death is not the end: he founded Rome. Lavinia continues her life as an example to her people, to keep the memory of her beloved husband alive.
In the afterword, LeGuin tells readers a bit about the sources she used for the novel. At one point she says that “with the true death of his language, Virgil’s voice will be silenced at last. This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world” (273).
I have to humbly disagree. Virgil will still be read–she is helping to make sure of it. LeGuin’s work will be too. We should be thankful we have her.