There are two things I should fess up before we begin. First, I love Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. The Tombs of Atuan in particular formed a far larger part of my childhood’s imaginative backdrop than it perhaps should have done. Second, I have a really uneasy relationship with classical reception books set in actual classical periods. It’s one of the reasons I’ve yet to pick up Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, despite the critical acclaim it has received, and it’s one of the reasons that it took the SFF conference to shame me into picking up Lavinia at long last, despite the warm welcome it received among classicists. This is, I hasten to add, an extremely personal thing, and I don’t mean for one minute to suggest that texts which try to rewrite or write alongside classical texts are a bad thing – that the Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and Lavinia won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2009 sort of undermines that line of argument anyway. But from my personal vantage point as a reader, I find these sorts of works vaguely unsatisfactory. I can’t quite explain why. I suspect I’m not the only person to have this sort of reaction – when I said that I was reading Lavinia on Twitter, somebody responded to say that it was their favourite piece of classical reception, especially those parts which didn’t retell the Aeneid. But I digress.
Lavinia is a conscious decision to take one of Virgil’s most underplayed yet most important characters and put flesh on her literary bones. Lavinia, as I am sure you will all remember, is the princess of Latium, daughter of King Latinus, who will eventually marry Aeneas, give him a son, and thus begin the whole dynasty that will toddle on down to Augustus and Virgil’s Rome. When Aeneas turns up, she is being courted by a variety of suitors, the chief of whom is Turnus; his outrage at Aeneas’ interest in Lavinia is what causes war to erupt between the Trojans and the native Italians. So far, so standard patriarchy – woman as symbolic of rule of the realm, politics played out on the female body, and so on. Yet for a woman who is basically symbolic of whether we get to have Augustan Rome or not, Lavinia is weirdly absent from the poem – she does not speak, and her biggest moment is when her hair catches fire next to an altar during a sacrifice. Both her father and mother speak a lot for her, but there’s not really any substance to her – she remains unrealised, a blank parchment upon which to impose the future empire.
Le Guin, however, is not having this. She creates a world in which Virgil would have loved to have given Lavinia a bit more bite (like he does with Camilla, his warrior maiden), but falls sick before he can do so. But we don’t meet Virgil in his world – we meet him through the eyes of Lavinia, our narrator, who is living back in a sort of Bronze age Italy and encounters the poet as an apparition when she goes to sacrifice at the grove at Albunea. This leads to quite an interesting interplay between what Lavinia knows will happen, what actually happens and what Virgil tells us happened – part of the fun is in seeing what Le Guin has tweaked in order to highlight Virgil’s mythologizing of the heroic past. However, having Lavinia as the narrator also gives us a sense into her as a character: her wills, her wishes, her past. Le Guin builds up the framework around her family life and experiences, basing Amata’s furor on a deep-seated manic depression (although obviously Le Guin doesn’t call it that) which took root when her two sons died – not mentioned in Virgil, of course, but it provides a strong motive for the character which Virgil gets around by introducing the fury Allecto.
Although it’s a fantasy novel, in that Lavinia and her father receive prophecies, make sacrifices and in Lavinia’s case see the shade of the critically ill Virgil, Le Guin dispenses with the divine machinery of the poem. There are allusions to things that are strange or inexplicable, like Turnus’ disappearance from the battle field, but she does not bring in divine intervention as an explanation. The categorisation of this book as fantasy, actually, also makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. Alright, so we have visions and divine ritual as important, but other than that, the fantasy element seems to be based on Le Guin’s meta-poetic engagement with her material. Lavinia demonstrates an awareness that she is a poetic construct, that she exists through the retelling of others, that she has found a way to speak her own voice, that her story exists only because her poet wrote her – in fact, she reveals her own confusion about whether she ever did exist or whether her poet wrote her into being. The novel ends with Lavinia, with apologies to Tolkein, diminishing and remaining Lavinia, hovering around Albunea and watching the rise of Rome into our day. A literary spirit rather than a ghostly one, still intertwined with her native land. However, if that’s enough to mark out a book as ‘fantasy’, then I worry about our narrow definitions of genre. Just because Le Guin is known as a fantasy author doesn’t mean she should be pigeonholed there. But, again, I digress.
I’m not quite sure how I want to conclude these brief observations, because I don’t really know what my take-away from Lavinia would be. It’s an admirable feminist project, to reclaim a female character from the oblivion of one of the best-known classical epics, and it’s a well executed piece of writing and characterisation. It is definitely worth reading, and were I teaching a ‘women in the ancient world’ course vel sim, I would think about assigning it and using it to wonder a bit about how it helps us think around the lives of ancient women (and conversely how it does not – Lavinia is, of course, a princess; even though Le Guin brings in women of other classes, particularly slaves, the interest in the elite reflects a bias of the ancient sources themselves). But I still have to wrestle with my own underlying discomfort with works that choose to position themselves so closely to ancient literature.