In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin draws out an entire novel from a few lines of Virgil’s epic the Aeneid. Virgil had only hinted at the character of Lavinia, the hero Aeneas’ second wife, in his poem and Le Guin masterfully uses this opening to portray a beautiful and spiritual world before Rome was settled.
For the first half of Lavinia, the author describes the wild landscape of southern Italy. The gods are an everyday presence, but not in the classical forms we’ve grown to know as part of Ancient Rome. Households have their own gods, housed in trees or sacred springs or in urns on the hearth. Lavinia and her father, the local king, appreciate the importance of listening to oracles and signs and feel comfortable in sacred spaces.
When the signs decree that Lavinia will marry a foreigner, her mother is outraged. However by the time the Trojan Aeneas arrives, Lavinia is ready to marry her prophesized husband, though she knows that their time together will be short.
Once Lavinia becomes an adult, married and fully committed to living every day fully, she seems to become less attuned to spiritual signs. Aeneas dies a senseless death a few years into their marriage and Lavinia resolves to raise their son Silviuis as her husband would have wished. She attempts to exercise power over political events around her. With her stepson Ascanius determined to run their family to ruin, Lavinia flees with Silvius to live in exile in the wilderness.
Le Guin’s work with Virgil’s epic poem and its fleeting mention of a mysterious Latin woman is purposeful and sure at the start. Once Lavinia loses Aeneas the tone of the story changes, as Lavinia grapples with her destiny and a fate untold by Virgil. Le Guin guides this half-understood character through her remaining days, showing her dedication to her people and family and the mysterious fates who touch her life and change the course of civilization.