Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LeGuin on Lavinia

Recently I read Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia which she says is inspired by the last six books of Virgil's Aeneid. I wanted to get a feel for how a master writer deals with an ancient era (more on that shall be revealed in the coming months).

In the Aeneid, Virgil allows Lavinia not a single word of her own. I imagine that it was with
some sense of vengeance, despite her admiration for his poetry, that LeGuin writes Lavinia entirely in her voice and from her point of view. It is mostly the voice of a late teen, when Lavinia is doted upon by her father, king of the Latins, and treated almost as a stepchild by her mother since the death of her sons, Lavinia's adored brothers. So much of the story is Lavinia's that both the father and the mother are reduced, flattened to noble, sensible king and the scheming, slightly unhinged queen.

Aeneas himself, when he appears does not fare so well either. He too is noble and full of piety, unlike his son by a previous marriage and most certainly unlike the suitor her mother has picked for Lavinia. "He has no piety," is her dismissal. It is not what we think of these days when piety is almost an embarrassment. It meant the reverence for life, for the gods, for the bonds between gods and men, and for those among men. It is different from the ossification that the Chinese made of filial piety.

The sense of place in Lavinia is wonderful. The main character herself is drawn with shrewdness and sympathy as are one or two of the servants. But the places, the cave in which she encounters the vision or ghost of the poet (who would not be born for another eleven or twelve hundred years), the sulphurous springs nearby, and the salt beds at the mouth of the "father river" (the Tiber) are vivid to the reader.

The last portion of the book tells of life after Lavinia marries Aeneas, the modified rapture of nursing her son at her beasts "bursting with milk," and then alas, as already revealed by the poet, the sudden death of Aeneas, life cut short by a careless moment. Lavinia's life thereafter is a pale shadow of her youth and adult struggles. (It is a problem, what does one do with an old queen?)

There are notes of a pedantic nature I must record. Perhaps the anachronisms are from Virgil, but perhaps the modern author must be more careful. It is doubtful that archery was common in the post Trojan War period, and it is certain that the arrows would not have been tipped with steel. Homer himself makes no distinction between the Trojans and the Danaoi, as if the former were members of a distantly related tribe. But, Greeks versus Italians aside, it is now a lively controversy over how Latin or even Italian were the Etruscans.

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