September 20, 2008 by Reader's Connection
Ursula K. Le Guin has been publishing novels, short stories, poems and essays for forty years. She has won Hugo and Nebula and Newbery awards, among others; and the variety of awards reflects her ability to write almost anything she wants–science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction (or whatever we’re supposed to call non-genre stuff) and children’s lit.
Her most recent novel is entitled Lavinia, and it retells the story of Virgil’s Aeneid. (Yes, we ran a booklist about Aeneas and Rome a couple months ago. I’m hung up on the guy. There’s a picture of his flight from Troy on my desktop.)
Remember how The Aeneid ends? If you don’t, we’re going to tell you: Aeneas stabs the bad guy. One big whomp on the bass drum, and the story’s over. If you consider everything that has happened, it’s sort of abrupt.
Aeneas and his crew and what’s left of his family have fled the burning city of Troy and wandered for years, facing all sorts of dangers. Aeneas has been romantically invoved with Queen Dido of Carthage*, and has visited the underworld.
The wandering Trojans land in Italy, and Aeneas is welcomed by King Latinus and is promised the hand of Latinus’s daughter Lavinia in marriage. But the bad guy, Turnus, wants to marry said daughter. Then war breaks out. After five or six more chapters (or “books”) of epic poetry, Aeneas stabs Turnus.
So what was coming Aeneas’s way, after the story ended? Virgil is giving Aeneas credit for the beginning of the Roman people, but what about the man’s personal life? What were his prospects? “Hardly more than a narrow beachhead and a political marriage in a weary middle age” was T. S. Eliot’s guess.
Ursula Le Guin, an empress of imagination, has come up with something more interesting. Lavinia is narrated by King Latinus’s daughter. Virgil doesn’t give her anything to say in The Aeneid, but according to Le Guin, Virgil meets Lavinia while he’s dying, hundreds of years after her lifetime (hard to explain), and he thinks the world of her.
Lavinia retells the story of Aeneas’s Italian wars, and then continues the story, illuminating her married life, and allowing characters to develop. Aeneas’s son Ascanius, for example, is a youth in Virgil’s story; and in Le Guin’s novel we see him grow to be a troubled and troubling king.
Le Guin has described herself as an atheist. But she has admitted that for an atheist she has put a lot of religion into her books–a good example is the science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness. And that tradition is carried on with Lavinia. Near the end of the novel, our narrator is spending the night near Albunea, a sacred grove that she loves.
I slept long and well. At Albunea, even outside the grove as we were here, I was always spared from fear. Or rather I felt fear but it was entirely different from the sharp dread of losing [her son] Silvius, and from the endless alarms and anxieties of living; it was the fear we call religion, an accepting awe. It was the terror we feel when we look up at the sky on a clear night and see the white fires of all the stars of the eternal universe. That fear goes deep. But worship and sleep and silence are part of it.
Long may Le Guin’s stories continue.
*Rome and Carthage fought the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 B.C. If we believe everything Virgil says–and we don’t–these wars were inspired by Dido’s wrathful words when Aeneas ditched her:
No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising up from my bones, you avenger still unknown,
to stalk those Trojan settlers, hunt with fire and iron,
now or in time to come, whenever the power is yours.
Shore clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword–this is my curse–war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!
–trans. Robert Fagles
Angry woman. Okay, I’m not being fair when I say Aeneas “ditched” her. He had to obey the will of the gods.