Ursula K. Le Guin has a true gift for evoking the mysterious echoes of a far distant mythic past. I first noticed this in her Earthsea cycle: the darkness of both temple and tomb, a world trembling with unrealized mysteries, attempts to harness powers that can never be fully mastered. While Lavinia departs from the traditional fantasy genre in that it is a retelling of The Aeneid, it has lost none of the atmospheric richness that make Ms. Le Guin’s books so magical.
The tale is told from the perspective of Lavinia herself, the young princess of Latium whose refusal to accept a suitor plunges her country into war until the arrival Aenaes and his Trojans. While in The Aeneid, her character is given a mere passing mention, she is given breath and voice in this narrative. In a curious twist of fate, Lavinia has oracular visions in which she can communicate with the poet who created her character. I found this unusual perspective –- this sense of fiction within fiction –- to be very effective.
It’s a beautiful story: bittersweet and poignant. The backdrop of pre-Roman Italy is rich in its details. There are only hints and foreshadowings of the grandeur of the Rome-to-come: conquering legions, architectural wonders, an expansive pantheon of deities. Lavinia’s world is an older one: one of morning sacrifices to household gods, of spinning and carding, of interpretation of omens, of fragile peace held between many small kingdoms.
I could sense throughout this novel the author’s love and respect for the original classic poem. In her afterward, Ms. Le Guin comments, “This story is in no way an attempt to change or complete the story of Aeneas. It is a meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in his story –- the unfolding of a hint.” In light of the intricate and complex full tapestry of The Aeneid, I found it refreshing to center in and enjoy the unfolding of this particular fragment of the whole.