Without war there are no heroes./What harm would that be?/Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is.
What can I say about a book like this written by an author like that. Ursula K. LeGuin is a literary luminary for a very good reason–she writes books that stay with you, that haunt you, that change the way you look at the world.
Lavinia, as a both a book and a character, is complex. It is of the genre that takes a secondary character from another story, in this case Virgil’s Aeneid and crafts a new story centered around that character (see also: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and, of course, Virgil’s Aeneid). Here, LeGuin crafts a story around Lavinia, the proto-Roman woman who, in Virgil’s epic tale, married Aeneas and connected the heirs of Troy directly to what would eventually become the great Roman Empire.
Lavinia is important, without her Virgil’s great dream would have never been completed, but Lavinia merits mere lines in the text itself. She is an afterthought, a plot device, a vase.
She is a woman with a womb and nothing more.
But this is the genius of LeGuin’s tale–not only does she present a fully-formed Lavinia, a complex person with dreams and desires of her own, and, thereby commenting on her lack of personhood in the original text, but it reaches beyond that to comment on the creation of character and story itself. What is the truth of a person? Is it the life they led or the life that was created for them? Who is the creator and who is the created?
Only a BAMF like LeGuin could shape a deeply compelling story while also raising metatextual and philosophical questions. Only a creator like LeGuin could summon Virgil’s ghost and not have it seem like another parlor trick.
Lavinia is an exquisitely crafted tale spun by a master of the craft. I can’t recommend it enough. So many of its lines caught me, ensnared me, wrapped themselves around my heart and squeezed. In fact, I’ll let the words speak for themselves:
“But he cannot see what I see in the shield. He will not live to see it. He must die after only three years and widow me. Only I, who met the poet in the woods of Albunea, can keep looking through the bronze of my husband’s shield to see all the wars he will not fight.
The poet made him live, live greatly, so he must die. I, whom the poet gave so little life to, I can go on. I can live to see the cloud above the sea at the end of the world.”
“But then I think no, it has nothing to do with being dead, it’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.”