“Lavinia” by Ursula Le Guin

“Lavinia” by Ursula Le Guin –  (2008)    279 pages

The woman Lavinia is taken from “The Aenied” by Virgil.  In that epic poem Lavinia is a minor character only appearing a small number of times and never speaks a word.  The novel “Lavinia” by Ursula Le Guin allows Lavinia to tell her own story.

The story in this book is mostly about what happens to Lavinia and her family in Italy both before and after the Trojans Aeneas and his people arrive.  It tells about Lavinia’s sylvan childhood, the war between Aeneas and her other suitors after he arrives, and the events thereafter.  I wanted very much to like this book a lot better than I did, but I had several problems with it.

First, we’ll set up the story from the Aenied.  I haven’t read the Aenied yet, but can summarize the story.  The Greeks at the end of the Trojan War have overrun Troy and are destroying the city.  A portent tells Trojan Aeneas to gather up his family and his neighbors and leave the city of Troy by ship before they are destroyed.  Aeneas does this and after seven years and after his wife dies and a memorable stay with Queen Dido of Carthage, Aeneas and his group arrive on the east coast of Italy.  By that time Lavinia a young princess of Latium has received a portent that she will marry a foreigner who will arrive by ship.  Aeneas conveniently arrives at that time.   There is no historical basis that anyone from Troy ever traveled to Italy in ancient times, so this story can be considered a Roman myth although there are no gods, only humans, in this myth.

As I’ve mentioned, I did have some problems with this book.   First the language seemed quite stilted to me.  It may as well have been etched in stone.  I would have preferred more variety and a livelier approach to the language.

Another problem I had with this book is that there is very little mention about the huge differences there would be between these Trojan strangers that sailed from thousands of miles away and the local Italians.  Lavinia gets the portent that she will marry Aeneas, and that’s it.  All of a sudden she’s Aeneas’ gal, her father becomes allies with Aeneas against his own neighbors, they have no problems speaking, and they might as well have been childhood friends.  Maybe portents can take the place of a believable plot.

My last problem with “Lavinia” is that she is fiercely loyal to the people closest to her and believes they can do no wrong.  Thus her father Latinius, her husband Aeneas, and her son Sylvius are perfect, and other people are always at fault.  A couple of times, Lavinia bemoans the fact that men are so quick to go to war.  I would say that Lavinia’s attitude toward her own family is one of the prime causes of war. Sorry ladies, you are not off the hook on this issue of war. If you bring your children up to think they can do no wrong, that their family, their nation can do no wrong, of course they are going to fight other people who think themselves, their families, their countries are perfect.   It is supreme ignorance to inculcate your children with the belief they are perfect, and other people are at fault somehow.  The beginning of wisdom is for all men and women to question themselves, to have some self doubt which allows them to see the value of other people different from themselves.  Child psychologists may disagree, but some self doubt is a good thing.  Also when a writer has perfect major characters in her novel like Latinius, Aeneas, and Sylvius are here with no human faults whatsoever, it gets to be rather a bore.  You might as well have populated your book with stick figures.

I have read a lot of Greek myth and find it endlessly fascinating.  In Greek myths, the gods have a lot of the same faults as do humans and those that are half gods/half humans.  Thus you get a strong sense of the richness and strangeness of life.  Everyone has their own lists of virtues; everyone is messed up in their own unique way.  My experience with ancient Roman literature is quite limited, but from my limited reading I’ve found it to lack this rich complexity.  In the Roman works, the good people are too good and the evil people are too evil without the ambiguity.  Although “Lavinius” is by no means a Roman work, it has this lack of ambiguity that causes the work to be narrow and stilted and less effective.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Oh well–you know my feelings about The Aeneid. It’s a great poem: you need to read it! Or at least read Books I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII, X, and X!. That’s the short version.

    I didn’t make it through Lavinia. I often love novels based on myth, but in this case it seemed both adolescent and foolish. It simply didn’t hold my attention. You might prefer Robert Graves’ Homer’s Daughter, a kind of minor classic about the “real” author of The Odyssey (Nausicca). It’s out of print, but worth tracking down through interlibrary loan, or the internet.

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    • Hi,
      Robert Graves is a writer I really like after ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Goodbye to all That’ which is more of a memoir than a novel, but excellent. I’m sure I can find a copy of ‘Homer’s Daughter’ either at the Minneapolis Public Library or the University of Minnesota Library.
      If I had known you hadn’t made it through Lavinia, i might have not started it. I’ll keep the Aeneid on my list.

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