Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin’s last novel, written in 2008 when she was 79 is a gift in many ways. Here I list 5. There are many more but hey, you gotta stop somewhere!
Gift #1: If one is a writer, as they read this novel, they can consider themselves to be sitting at the feet of this literary giant, listening to her musings on writing as an art and practice, the creation of character and stories, and how, in some cases, the characters writers create come alive and begin to have minds and even lives, of their own.
Lavinia is but an inconsequential character in Italian poet Vergil’s*, the Aeneid. However in Le Guin’s novel, Lavinia is the main character who meets the poet (Vergil) who created her. She meets him in Albunea, her family’s personal place of the oracle complete with sulfur springs whose scented vapor many attribute to the powers of oracles in ancient times.
Lavinia’s father Latinus is king of Latium, the region of Italy that eventually became Rome. The novel is set in the time period before Rome, when it was only beginning to have its first settlements.
“I was twelve when I first went with my father to Albunea, the sacred forest under the hill, where sulfur springs running out from a high cave fill the shadowy air with an endless, troubled noise and a mist that smells of rotten eggs. There the spirits of the dead are within hearing if you call. In the old days people came to Albunea from all the western lands to consult with the spirits and powers of the place; now many go to the oracle near Tibur, which bears the same name. This lesser Albunea was sacred to my family. When my father was disturbed in his mind, he went there”(26).
Vergil appears there to Lavinia as a “wraith” (that is what he calls himself) or shadow, or what we may call a spirit or phantom. This part of him comes to her as his body lay dying on a boat trip between Greece and Italy. He tells Lavinia she is but a character he has created and reveals to Lavinia her fate, future and her story.
Lavinia is witty and smart. After he tells her about her future, the poet comments, “you should not be concerned about it. I made it up. I imagined it. A dream within a dream. . . within a dream that has been my life . . . “
Lavinia replies, “I am not a dream, and I don’t think I’m dreaming”(39).
“Perhaps I did not do you justice, Lavinia,”(40) he later remarks.
At the end of the novel she laments:
“I was fated, it seems, to live among people who suffered beyond measure from grief, who were driven mad by it. Though I suffered grief, I was doomed to sanity. This was no doing of the poet’s. I know that he gave me nothing but modest blushes, and no character at all…In truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. Yet without him would I even have a name? I have never blamed him. Even a poet cannot get everything right.
It is strange though, that he gave me no voice. I never spoke to him till we met that night by the altar under the oaks. Where is my voice from, I wonder?”(262).
Where indeed? And what a sly and sneaky little trick Le Guin plays as she plants this line near the end of the novel.
Gift #2: Lavinia is also a lesson in the classics of western literature and the legacy of writing through historic epochs. It is a commentary on the continuous nature of writing through consecutive generations, how one generation builds on another: the nested relationship of texts in time. If one knows their literary history they recognize the handing over of the gauntlet when a previous writer has not finished their task and a later one takes it up. In this case Le Guin is taking up the task of finishing the Aeneid for Vergil, out of love and respect.
Vergil, in writing the Aeneid had taken up the task of expanding on the character of Aeneas in the previous epic poem by Greek Homer, the Illiad. In Lavinia Le Guin uses the novel form to expand on Vergil’s epic poem.
Vergil was an Italian/Latin writer who died in 19 BC who Le Guin greatly admired. Adding her voice to the Illiad and the Aeneid is perhaps something a writer would only dare take up at the age of 79 after a long and successful career.
The character of Lavinia completes the unfinished Aeneid in the novel that Le Guin writes based on her. It is a testament of Le Guin’s love for Vergil, for the classics and to her own brand of feminism that she came into in her later years in wanting to give this voiceless female character a voice.
Gift #3: In many ways, Lavinia is a book about war. Le Guin continues the conversation she has had in so many of her novels on this subject. What is war? Why war? Will war ever end? Is there a world without war? Can there be a world without war? What drives people (men) to war? Perhaps this novel reveals her final thoughts on this.
In Lavinia, she seems to say war is something that will always be but that there are better ways to fight wars than others. She leaves us this question to ponder: If humans are always going to engage in war, what is the best and most effective way to fight a war? And what qualities would a leader need to have to actually understand and achieve this?
In a piece, titled, “A War Without End,” published in Versa’s edition of Utopia in 2018 (the year Le Guin died), she writes of how, most of all, with her writing, she aims to keep herself and the reader thinking:
“In the sense that it offers a glimpse of some imagined alternative to ‘the way we live now’, much of my fiction can be called utopian, but I continue to resist the word. Many of my invented societies strike me as an improvement in one way or another on our own, but I find utopia far too grand and too rigid a name for them. Utopia, and dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warnings nor blueprints for what we ought to do. Most of them, I think, are comedies of human manners, reminders of the infinite variety of ways in which we always come back to pretty much the same place, and celebrations of that infinite variety by the invention of still more alternatives and possibilities. . . .
To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned. . .
Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truth-teller. . .
We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable” (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3585-a-war-without-end-by-ursula-k-le-guin).
Gift #4: In Lavinia, Le Guin creates the world of women at this time period of pre Rome in Latium, which is rarely seen and she infuses it with what came to be her brand of feminism: assigning importance to what is often seen as the unimportant, the “domestic life,” the unseen work of what has traditionally been the work of women. This Le Guin elevates in her form of feminism. And in so doing, elevates all women through time.
Of choosing to write about this certain time period of Pre Rome, she says:
“Ever since I first read about it I’ve been drawn to Rome, not the sick, luxurious Empire of the TV sagas, but early Rome: the dark, plain Republic, a forum not of marble but of wood and brick, an austere people with a strong sense of duty, order and justice: farmers who spent half the year in the army, women who ran the farm meanwhile, extended families whose workshop was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits of place and earth”(loc 3617).
In elevating the lives most women were living at that time, Le Guin gives voice to, shines a light on and again elevates lives that are generally ignored, erased or deemed inconsequential. This is a very big gift Le Guin gives to us in her later novels, focusing on what has always been called “women’s work” and showing the truth of this reality in its fullness and magnitude. This does not mean all women currently have to be like this or identify with this way of being a woman or expressing themselves as female in this particular way.
In Lavinia, Le Guin is writing a piece located in time. She can only let her character go out of the bounds of what is expected of her so much before we begin to not believe the story at all.
In her later books, Le Guin’s female characters openly discuss their position and place in the cultures they live in. It’s a very subtle but extremely important statement Le Guin is making to deliberately give voice to half of human history that has been woefully overlooked and disappeared.
Gift #5: Writer as Oracle. Throughout the novel Lavinia, Le Guin pulls on the oracular tradition that is woven through the Greek and European classics as well as history. Oracles (seers, foretellers, prophetesses) were consulted and their predictions often changed the course of history. In epic poems, oracles and oracular predictions drive the plot and trajectory of the poem. In Lavinia, Le Guin focuses on the decisions made by local and tribal kings based on oracular consultation as a plot device as well.
In Lavinia, no one questions a king if they say that the decision they are making and therefore decreeing for their people came from the oracle because to go against the oracle puts your people in danger. Wrath and bad things happen when one disobeys the oracle. Lavinia is told by the poet that she will not have to marry the man she is dreading to marry because her father will receive oracle from his ancestors in Albunea that she must marry the foreigner (Aeneas). Indeed in the novel, Lavinia, such an event occurs and Lavinia is released from marrying the man she detests. When the father, who is king, tells the people his decision about who his daughter shall marry, a war breaks out because Turnus, the man who wanted to marry Lavinia will not accept it. Of course, Lavinia marries Aeneas after Turnus dies in battle because it is written.
In Lavinia, Le Guin plays a clever trick in that she has the poet serve as the oracle and in this twist, tosses out this question to the reader: inside whose story are we living? Who is writing our story? Is the creator of the universe a writer, a poet, and if so, when we hear from the oracle, is it the voice of that poet we are hearing and following—the one who has written our story?
I feel that this is a light musing and playful twist that Le Guin throws in for the literary types to catch and muse on as well. And for a woman who created so many worlds and characters a sly and sweet nod to herself.
When Lavinia meets the man who is writing her story in the place of the oracle and asks him who or what he is, he replies:
“I am a poet, Lavinia,”
I liked the sound of the word, but he saw I did not know it.
“A vates,” he said.
I knew that word of course: foreteller, soothsayer. It went with his being part Etruscan, and with the knowledge he seemed to have of what had not happened yet”(43).
At the end of the novel, which is the rewritten end of Vergil’s epic poem, after Aeneas dies, Lavinia retreats to the forest, to Albunea, to save her son from a fate she does not wish for him. While there she asks for help from the oracle and receives an answer. She is told to bring her son up in the forest, or that she did. She returns to her village to alert them that she will be retreating to the forest with her son because she has heard oracle that told her to. She tells her people it is the father of Aeneas (whom they loved), Anchises, who gave her this oracle, but later admits to us, the readers it was really the poet.
“But as I said it I knew that it was not true. Aeneas had not been there with me as a man in the flesh, nor, had Anchises spoken. It was the poet who spoke. It was all the words of the poet, the words of the maker, the foreteller, the truth teller: nothing more, nothing less. But was I myself any more, or less, that that?
And this was nothing I could say to any living soul, or ever did, till now”(256).
None of us really know the origins of this universe and the stories we are playing out but we all do know that often it feels as though it was and is pre-written. Two things we can be sure of: according to Le Guin, the creator of the universe loves stories and is intensely interested in the webbed and connected tapestry of all of them through time.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a #NastyWomanWriter and gift to us all.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
*Le Guin uses this form of spelling for Vergil so I follow suit. Alternative spelling is Virgil.
Featured photo by Benjamin Reed.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , Boston 2008.