'Lavinia': Ursula Le Guin champions Vergil's neglected heroine

The book creates a rich backstory for the mostly forgotten wife of Trojan hero Aeneas.

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    Lavinia By Ursula K. Le Guin Harcourt 280 pp., $24
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    A life in books: Le Guin attained fame with 'The Left Hand of Darkness' in 1969.
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Classical pop quiz: Name the bride in "The Aeneid." Oh, I'm sorry. Dido is incorrect. (For those of you who checked the book information: no fair!) If the name escapes you, it's not surprising.

As epic maidens go, Vergil's Lavinia seems pretty forgettable to modern eyes. She shows up, blushes prettily when the gods decree she has to marry the Trojan hero Aeneas, and says nary a word. The only thing memorable was her hair, which caught fire in a mystical portent of war. (I'd like to see the Rachel pull that off.)

There's no clever trickery, à la Penelope; ill-fated prophesying, à la Cassandra; or heartbroken suicide, à la, well, Dido. And in Ursula K. Le Guin's new novel Lavinia, the princess is frankly fed up with the demure and silent thing. "He slighted my life in his poem," she says of Vergil (yes, Le Guin has chosen the more obscure spelling) her creator. "He scanted me...."

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In one of the more impressive displays of feminist reconstruction since Margaret Atwood wrested Penelope out of the hands of Homer, National Book Award-winner Le Guin has rewritten the last six books of Vergil's epic poem to create a rich life of the mind for the Latin princess. Unlike Atwood's "Penelopiad," the novel, as Le Guin writes in an afterword, is a "love offering," and she writes with great affection for both the poet and his hero.

When the novel opens, Lavinia is a teenager with a doting father and a mentally unstable mother (unhinged after the deaths of her sons). Lavinia has a level of independence that would have staggered one of Homer's Greek princesses.

Like her father, Latinus, she sees visions, and she is tasked with the daily religious rituals of the palace. (Latium isn't terribly grand – more like a stockade with a big house inside.) The land has been at peace for so long that Lavinia is free to travel, even journeying to sacred Albunea with just a maid for an escort. Suitors have begun to court her, but Lavinia is distinctly unimpressed with her options, including the handsome but selfish Turnus.

Le Guin, a five-time Hugo and Nebula Awards winner who's a practiced hand at creating entire worlds in her science fiction and fantasy novels, combines that ability with a prodigious amount of research.

She recreates the people of Latium with an anthropologist's eye, carefully detailing daily rituals (even supplying translations of original prayers). Vergil's meddling gods have been thrust firmly off-stage as anachronisms. "Offer praise, ask for blessing, and pay no attention to the foreign myths," Vergil tells Lavinia. "They're only literature."

Instead, Vergil himself is the font of prophecy. Dying in his own present, he visits with Lavinia at the springs of Albunea. Provided a reader can get past the initially jarring sensation of a poet traveling back hundreds of years before his birth to talk to one of his characters (and a few painfully twisted sentences pointing out this metafictional fact), Lavinia's and Vergil's conversations are a high point of the novel. Vergil is horrified by how he short-changed the princess, calling her "an unkept promise." "But you can't have two love stories in an epic," the poet says, trying to figure out how he would fix it if he had lived to finish his work. "Where would the battles fit?"

Vergil also helpfully warns Lavinia of the war to come and fills her in on her intended's past, describing Aeneas's escape from the sack of Troy by the Greeks, his journey to the Underworld, and his encounter with poor Dido. (Lavinia serves as the voice of common sense, such as her take on Helen: "What did they want her back for?" she asks.)

Lavinia brings a similarly pragmatic outlook to her betrothal to Aeneas, which leads to the war between the Trojans and the Latins, led by the slighted Turnus. "To hear myself promised as part of a treaty, exchanged like a cup or a piece of clothing, might seem as deep an insult as could be offered to a human soul," Lavinia says. "But slaves and unmarried girls expect such insult." It also helps that Aeneas is a decent man as well as a hero (a classical rarity. See: Achilles, Agamemmnon, etc.), and Lavinia comes to love him deeply during their brief marriage. After his death, Lavinia must raise their boy under the shaky rule of Aeneas's Trojan son.

Despite unrest and his half-brother's meddling, her son, the future king, grows up with all the grace and intelligence one would expect from a boy whose mother, when told "without war there would be no heroes," responds, "What harm would that be?"

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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