By Ursula K. Le Guin
Published in 2008 by Harcourt, Inc.
I can’t imagine writing a book like Lavinia but I am so grateful Ursula K. Le Guin did. It is a wonderful story, deeply felt and poetically told that not only recreates an alternate world but one that was once our world, literally and culturally. She queries the intersections of myth, legend and literature and uses the inquiry as part of the structure of the novel itself. Perhaps best known for her imaginative and challenging novels of future times and far-away places, she transports us to a past that we can rightly claim as our own, tenuous as the characters may have been, and transforms them into flesh and blood. Lavinia lives. Lavinia, the king of Latium‘s daughter, in pre-Roman Italy, narrates her life story with its key events foretold by the oracle and by the classical Roman poet, Publicus Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as we know him, centuries later (70-19 BCE).
Until this book by Le Guin, again centuries later, Virgil’s is the only mention of Lavinia in literature or in his epic of the survivors of the Trojan Wars, The Aeneid. which chronicles the tragic and redemptive life of the hero Aeneas. One of the legends of Rome was that Aeneas and Lavinia’s descendants were the founders of the City of the Seven Hills and hence, the Roman Republic. There has been scholarly speculation ever since Virgil scribed his epic poem that the epic was not complete. As he lay dying he ordered the manuscript burned. Thank the first Augustus that his work was not lost.
Le Guin comes to this work well prepared; beyond her considerable body of creative work, she is a translator and poet herself with a basic grounding in linguistics. Her awareness of the vivid function of culture as the mediator of ritual and cycles of life in a particular time and place stand her well. Her early tribal western Italy feels also like western Oregon with its mild winters, cool wet springs and long hot summers. The forests are alive with creatures that play significant roles, including the wolves and the owl.
Her Lavinia is a priestess born who assists her father the local king in the rites necessary to keep the world balanced and orderly. Le Guin understands the connection between ancient kingship and the keepers of the sacred, the mundane and extraordinary. Evoking the voice of Lavinia, Le Guin takes us through her well-imagined, rich and lyrically fleshed-out life and into Lavinia’s immortality, as spirit still with us. This is LeGuin’s masterpiece and will be remembered as the best coming late in this writer’s body of work; she is a hard act to follow, even if the preceding flowerings are her own.
This book circulated through the Spencer Creek Book Club which meets monthly and simply shares and talks books. More books, reader-tested, and shared by neighbors will be featured in WxNW.org.
Visit Erika Milo’s interview with Ursula Le Guin at WxNW.org:
Life in the Wider Household of Being: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin