And yet my part of them, the life he gave me in his poem, is so full, except for the one moment when my hair catches fire—so colorless, except when my maiden cheeks blush like ivory stained with crimson dye—so conventional, I can’t bear it any longer. If I must go on existing century after century, then once at least I must break out and speak. He didn’t let me say a word. I have to take the word from him. He gave me along life but a small one. I need room, I need air.Lavinia is a minor character in Virgil’s The Aeneid. She is the daughter of Latinus, king of the Latins, and she becomes Aeneas’ second wife. In Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin gives her a voice of her own. The book tells the story of her childhood and youth before the arrival of the Trojan warriors, of the war that follows their arrival, of the early years of what was to become the Roman empire, and of Lavinia’s life after Aenea’s death.
What I liked the most about Lavinia was how Le Guin took an epic and used its silences and omissions to create a deeply personal story. And when I say deeply personal, I don’t mean it erases the political implications of a war and of the birth of a new nation, nor that the social organization of Bronze Age Italy isn’t explored in detail. It doesn’t, and it is—but unlike what sometimes happens with epics, I never felt distant from the characters or the story. Quite the contrary.
Kailana and I read this book at around the same time, and so we decided to ask each other questions about it. One of Kailana's was, "What did you think of Lavinia as a character? Did you have any problems with her?
I really loved Lavinia, most of all because Ursula Le Guin was able to give her a voice that felt completely authentic. As a young woman of marriageable age, Lavinia is aware of her powerlessness, of the fact that most see her as nothing but a prize. Le Guin doesn’t strain credibility by giving the characters too modern a sensibility, but she does give her narrator the ability to make injustice visible, and the insight to think about its causes.
As for my favourite scene in the novel (which is another one of the question), it was probably a conversation Aeneas has with his eldest son Ascanius about what it means to be a man. Ascanius believes that it is only in war and violence that a man can truly show his glory. His restrictive definition of both masculinity and of “glory” makes him, unsurprisingly, an unwise ruler, and also someone who is deeply suspicious of women and has trouble dealing with his own sexuality. What Aeneas tells him—which I won’t give away, because you really need to read it in context—is both subtle and incisive.
One of the questions I asked Kailana was about Ascanius, because he really intrigued me. She said that in the end she mostly felt sorry for him, and despite everything I agree. The way he was portrayed was very human, and so I felt for him. And not making him unsympathetic in the end worked very well because it called attention to the fact that his sexism and the fact that he idealized violence were part of a system, of a culture, rather than being individual traits. This doesn't excuse him, of course, but it humanizes him and it puts things in context.
Kailana also asked, "What did you think about the use of the spiritual world in this novel? Was it believable or do you think it was just a dream? (ex: The Poet)" I didn't necessarily interpret Virgil's appearance as a manifestation of the spiritual world, though of course that also makes sense. But I really loved all the religious rites that were included in the story. They were - I guess we could call them pagan, though we tend to associate different things with that word these days. I don't always identify with religious worldviews, but I really felt close to Lavinia's, mostly because she sees humankind as being a part of nature and not as being its master. All her rites involved awe and wonder and a deep respect for her land, and I loved that.
"On the same topic as the poet, what did you think about the fact that this was a story within a story to Lavinia? Did it take anything away from the novel knowing what was going to happen?" We find out very early in the novel that Lavinia is aware of her mythical status, and, as Kailana mentioned above, there's even an appearance by Virgil himself. I think making a character aware of her own fictionality without making the story crumble takes tremendous skill, but Ursula Le Guin manages it perfectly. I loved that.
Knowing things in advance really didn't lessen their impact for me. I think this might have to do with how I feel about Le Guin's writing: it's very subtle and contained, and yet the emotions are all there. She often merely suggests them, but to me that only adds to their power. For example, we know all along when Aeneas is going to die, and yet when it happened it still broke my heart. Lavinia doesn’t dwell on her grief, but I was still able to feel it.
Kailana's last question was, "You mentioned on your blog that reading Lavinia inspired you to buy more female-narrated novels (uh, right?). What are some others that you have read and recommend?" Yes, I mentioned it inspired me to pick up The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which retells the Trojan War from Cassandra's perspective. I love myths retold, especially when they're told from the perspective of those who remain voiceless in the originals, which is often the case with women. Everyone knows The Mists of Avalon, but it's really one of my favourites. The Penelopiad is another good one, though now that I've read more Atwood I think it sort of pales in comparison to her others. And this question reminded me of a book I read in my early days of blogging: Inside the Walls of Troy by Clemence McLaren. It uses Helen and Cassandra's perspectives, and although it's short, it's a very good book.
What about you? Are there any retellings of myths or other well-known stories from the perspective of women that you recommend?
Some of my favourite passages from Lavinia:
He was a city man, a politician. To him, my mother and I were unimportant persons in tactically important positions. We had to be managed. He saw women as he saw dogs or cattle, members of another species, to be taken into account only as they were useful or dangerous. He considered my mother dangerous, me negligible, except insofar as I might be made use of.Other Opinions:
But what am I to do now? I have lost my guide, my Vergil. I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world.
What is left after a death? Everything else. The sun a man saw rise goes down though he does not see it set. A woman sits down to the weaving another woman left in the room.
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. I know that he said I raved and tore my golden tresses at my mother’s death. He simply was not paying attention: I was silent then, tearless, and only intent on making her poor soiled body decent. And my hair has always been dark. In truth he gave me nothing by a name, and I have filled it with myself. Yet without him would I even have a name? I had never blamed him. Even a poet cannot get everything right.
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