Ursula K. Le Guin, a prolific writer of fantasy, generally directs her great storytelling skills to worlds such as Earthsea, created entirely in her own imagination. In these fantasy worlds, Le Guin is able to examine issues of gender and spirituality from unique and unusual perspectives. Her protagonists, such as Luz Marina Falco Cooper in The Eye of the Heron (1983), are often strong females who must deal with difficult moral and intellectual issues amid societies in conflict.
As she did with Tenar in Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), and with the women in Searoad: The Chronicles of Klatsand (1991), Le Guin creates in Lavinia another strong, independent female protagonist who struggles to find her way in a world dominated by men. Like many of Le Guin’s protagonists, Lavinia responds with regret, determination, and hope as the familiar world of her childhood is transformed into a very different place by war and by time.
In Searoad Le Guin used the Greek myth of Persephone to tell the stories of several generations of women in the fictional town of Klatsand, Oregon. In Lavinia Le Guin turns for inspiration to Roman myth and tradition and especially to Vergil’s Aeneid, the great first century b.c.e. epic poem about the journey of the Trojan Aeneas to found a new kingdom in Italy after the Trojan War.
Vergil’s poem provides only a bare frame for Le Guin’s tale, which centers around a key but silent character from the Roman epic. While nearly half of the twelve books of the Aeneid deal with the war fought between Aeneas and the Italian prince Turnus for the hand of an Italian princess, Lavinia plays only a passive role in the Roman story. In the Aeneid she is at the mercy of her father, who, by custom, must choose her husband. She is also at the mercy of the Fates and of her gods, who prophesy that she is destined to marry not a native Italian but a foreigner. Lavinia’s parents both play important speaking roles in Vergil’s poem, but Lavinia says nothing. Her most dramatic appearance is a scene in which her hair catches fire at a religious sacrificean event understood by Vergil and his readers as an omen supporting Aeneas’s claim. Vergil ends his poem with Aeneas’s frenzied slaying of Turnus on the battlefield, not with the marriage that would inevitably follow this victory.
From these few details, Le Guin weaves Lavinia’s fascinating tale. Le Guin’s Lavinia gains her own voice as she tells her life story and puts the events described in Vergil’s Aeneid into the larger context of her autobiography. Le Guin’s Lavinia narrates her life from the perspective of old age and approaching death. In addition to her post-Aeneid life as wife, mother, and widow, Lavinia describes the joys and sorrows of her youth. Her childhood friendships, delightful romps in the Italian countryside, and, especially, her close relationship with a loving father are contrasted with the early deaths of her two younger brothers and the growing insanity of her mother Amata, who responds to the death of her sons with increasing resentment toward her daughter. Amata’s madness has some support from Vergil’s poem, but the other details of Lavinia’s childhood are, for the most part, drawn from Le Guin’s own imagination and powerful narrative skills. So, too, are substantial portions of the novel that deal with events following those described in the Aeneid, namely, Lavinia’s marriage to Aeneas, her difficult relationship with her stepson Ascanius, her worries about her fatherless son Silvius, and her decision to withdraw at the end of her life to a secluded spot in the country.
Unlike Vergil, Le Guin creates in Lavinia a strong-willed woman who is able to find personal freedom and self-identity even within the confines of a traditional society, in which daughters must obey their fathers and accept husbands chosen for them. Le Guin’s princess is no passive pawn. With the support of her father, she uses and even manipulates religious signs to avoid marriage with the unappealing Rutulian prince Turnus, despite strong maternal pressure to accept Turnus’s offer of marriage. Instead, Lavinia herself chooses marriage with the Trojan prince Aeneas, even though it will mean leaving the home of her beloved father and even though she knows from prophecy that her marriage with Aeneas will be cut short by his untimely...
(The entire section is 1840 words.)