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Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuin

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:34

‘Just then Aeneas, still far out from the land, saw a mighty forest, through which the Tiber flowed pleasantly, with rapid eddies and yellow from the quantities of sand, to burst forth into the sea.’
Virgil, Aeneid Book 7

‘Out 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 each ship a long rank of oars lifted and beat like the beat of wings in the twilight.’
Ursula K LeGuin, Lavinia

This remarkable novel opens evocatively with a mirror image of the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 7 – Lavinia observes Aeneas as he observes his promised land for the first time.

For those who do not know, the final six books of the Aeneid describe the war between the Trojan refugees and some of the native Italian peoples as the Trojans attempt to establish a new home in Italy. Lavinia is a key pawn in that war. The only child of the Italian king Latinus, she had been promised to the prince Turnus of Ardea, but the arrival of Aeneas changes matters.

This is the story of that war from the point of view of Lavinia, in the Aeneid a beautiful young princess, yes, but one to whom Virgil does not give a single line of dialogue and whose only action is to blush in the presence of Turnus.

It might be thought that LeGuin’s novel would be a feminist reimagining of an out-of-date tale and there is no doubt that Lavinia is given her say and her own thoughts throughout the novel. But the author repeatedly subverts our expectations: Lavinia’s scope for participation is still circumscribed by her society and her times; Leguin takes the tale beyond the ambiguous end of the Aeneid, beyond the death of Aeneas and introduces the character of the Poet, a ghostly figure with whom Lavinia communes in dreams and who is clearly a representation of Virgil himself.

What is it about Virgil which attracts the literary greats in the twilight years of their lives? Is it because this great poet writes so movingly and convincingly about death? Is it because he so successfully laments the loss of youth? Just as Seamus Heaney’s final work was a masterful translation of Aeneid Book 6, so LeGuin has written an inspirational novel in homage to Virgil. Themes of exile, loss of innocence, untimely deaths, brutal violence, new beginnings, reconciliation, self-discovery all abound both in Virgil and in LeGuin’s version.

To some extent, like Virgil, the novels of Ursula LeGuin have been a constant in my life. I began reading both authors while at school and have been reading them ever since, for pleasure, as a teacher, as a parent. Of all LeGuin’s books I have read this has been the most remarkable, evocative and personally satisfying.

Post script: Lavinia’s blush: For over thirty years I have believed when (in Aeneid Book 12) she blushes in the presence of Turnus it shows her secret love for him and not for Aeneas. This novel has persuaded me that I was wrong!

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