Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia


I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin this year. In a crazy time, her work feels very calm and sane.

Lavinia is one of her most recent books, and one of her best. I read some reviews after I finished it, and more than one reached a point where the reviewers, in their enthusiasm, were reduced to waving their arms vaguely and saying “this is just a really good book.” As Adam Roberts wrote in his Strange Horizons review, “We might ask, in what ways is this book so very good? But the temptation would be to reply: in all the ways.”

I’m not smarter than Adam Roberts, and I don’t have the Critic Mojo to attempt a close reading of Lavinia or reveal the technical secrets of its success. I’m just saying if you have any interest in the premise at all, you should read this book, and then moving on to some random thoughts (which will be a bit spoilery).

The Premise

Sometime around the third decade BCE, the poet Virgil wrote some pretty good Iliad fanfic. In the Aeneid, a Trojan named Aeneas travels to Italy and founds Rome by marrying the daughter of King Latinus, Lavinia, who has no dialogue and almost isn’t even in the poem.

Lavinia is Lavinia’s life story, told in first person.

Random Thoughts

This is an alternate take on the Aeneid narrated by someone Virgil treats as a plot token instead of a character. In this situation, you might expect a subversion of the original work, with a total bastard Aeneas and Lavinia justly angry with Virgil for ignoring her. That would be a worthwhile approach, but Le Guin is doing something else which to me seems less obvious.

Lavinia works with instead of against the Aeneid, expands it without contradicting it much.1 Lavinia’s role is the same, but she’s not something to be traded. She has some power and chooses her path. She actively works with her father to arrange the marriage to Aeneas, partly because she’s decided she likes the guy, but also because she’s politically savvy. She knows the alliance will be a good thing for Latium’s future because the author has already given away the plot.

Early in the novel Lavinia makes cross-time telepathic contact with Virgil, who’s dying on board a ship to Italy. They hit it off. Virgil is chagrined that he didn’t give Lavinia a bigger role (too late for rewrites), and gives her a heads up on what’s coming. From that point onward, Lavinia isn’t sure whether she’s a real person or a character in a myth. Being a practical sort, she doesn’t worry very much–her life feels the same either way. It’s implied that this is part of why she accepts and eagerly pursues the plot laid out for her: she sees herself as part of a story, and this is her role.2

Aeneas is the upstanding hero Virgil wanted us to see him as. It would be easy to do a subversive take on the guy: Virgil didn’t actually finish the Aeneid before he died, so it ends very suddenly with Aeneas killing his enemy Turnus as Turnus begs for mercy. This is not the most flattering image to go out on. It’s been a few years since I read the Aeneid, but I recall not being very impressed with the hero.3 But he’s easily rehabilitated, for the same reason he looks bad. All Le Guin has to do is carry the story on past the end of the poem. Aeneas, as it turns out, is disgusted with himself, and is a thoughtful ruler for the three years he has left.

Aeneas dies offstage, anticlimactically. The novel carries on past that, too. Where Lavinia parts company with the Aeneid, and the conventions of myths and heroic tales, is in its deliberate lack of climax. Usually the kind of story starring an Aeneas–whether it’s a myth, an epic poem, or a modern fantasy adventure–climaxes in a big damn fight. Lavinia is the story of Lavinia’s life, and like life it doesn’t have a neat climax; it goes on for a while, then gently winds down. Lavinia’s great triumph isn’t victory in battle, but guiding events to ensure that Rome will not be ruled by Aeneas’s incompetent heir Ascanius.

Ascanius grew up with war and believes he can only prove his manhood in battle. This is the kind of thing we associate with “primitive” societies like ancient Greece and Rome, but a lot of people–mostly men–still think this way. Not in the sense that they’re itching to sack Troy, of course, but a lot of men are less interested in being seen as wise, or good, than tough. Watch any amount of television, and pay attention to the ads; there’s a lot of money to be made in convincing men your product will prove they’re not wimps.

More to the point, we sometimes seem to want our leaders to be tough more than we want them to be capable administrators. In the absence of a real war, we metaphorically militarize some mundane problem, declaring war on drugs, on crime, or on poverty, as though we might make people less poor by stabbing something.

One of the best passages in Lavinia is Aeneas and Lavinia’s patient, subtle, not entirely successful attempt to calm Ascanius down. Their point is that if Ascanius thinks he can only prove his virtue by fighting, he’ll be more interested in fighting than anything. And how can a ruler preoccupied with glory be trusted to attend to economics, agriculture, legislation–the dull everyday details that are the real work of governing?

Leadership isn’t about glory and isn’t about winning. It’s mostly about responsibility, and thinking about others before yourself, and the boring daily grind of administration. Lavinia, working in the background of Aeneas’s epic poem, invisibly stage-managing the founding of Rome, might be in a better position to appreciate that than anyone.

  1. Lavinia’s hair is a different color. That’s pretty much it. ↩

  2. It’s tempting to relate this to Le Guin’s interest in Taoism; the Wikipedia page for Tao quotes The Way and its Power by Arthur Waley: “[Dao] means a road, path, way; and hence, the way in which one does something; method, doctrine, principle.” Is her role in the Aeneid her way, her path? Honestly, though, I know so little about Taoism that I’m probably way off base here. ↩

  3. Although Aeneas is nowhere near as big a bastard as Odysseus. Or Achilles, although in his case we were supposed to think he was a prick. ↩