Julie’s Cimmerian Tales Book Club: Lavinia

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia

When I visited the library at the college where I work, I didn’t expect to find Ursula Le Guin in the slim young adult section. Nevertheless, I picked up Lavinia, which claimed from the jacket to tell the story of the woman who would become Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid.

Described in only one or two lines of Virgil’s epic poem, Lavinia is fully drawn by Le Guin as a king’s daughter who understands that her fate is greater than her personal desires. The story is told by Lavinia, who reads as both an insightful teenager and an all-knowing wise woman. (The story is told more or less in medias res, so the Lavinia who addresses the reader in some scenes knows her future and the fate that will befall her husband, and in others counts the days that remain to them.)

The first half of the book was the most captivating to me, and also the half before Aeneas really appears. Lavinia recounts her strained relationship with her mother, her freedom that gives her full reign of the copses of ancient Italy, and her visits to an oracle by a sulphur spring. It is at this oracle that she learns she must marry a foreigner despite her mother’s insistence that she wed the suitor Turnus. Lavinia also meets a projection of Virgil himself, and learns through their conversations that she will live on in men’s memory through his writings.

Lavinia is self-aware, but subtle. I’ve always loved Le Guin’s prose, and the lush descriptions of the Latin countryside (and the tamed deer that was a pet of Lavinia’s friend) made me want to be able to roam the woods as freely as Lavinia did. I find in Le Guin’s style a perfect blend of spareness and evocation. She’s a master of putting just enough words on the page to fill in a story without telling too much.