Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Having read quite a few books by Ursula K. LeGuin, I thought I knew what to expect from a new LeGuin novel, but I did not. No. It seems odd to speak of a breakthrough book for an author who has recently turned 80 and has a long and accomplished career. If there were such a thing as a canon of science fiction and fantasy literature LeGuin already would have three books on the list, possibly four. This book, Lavinia (Harcourt, 2008), is among her best, if not the best, and it achieves success in interesting ways.

LeGuin has embraced, like never before, a story entwined with important and prickly topics: leadership, family, war, marriage, religion, poetry and prophecy. Parts of story may be familiar to some readers, based as it is on a minor character in Vergil’s Aeneid.

“Why must there be war?”
(Vergil replies:) “Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is! Because men are men.”
(p. 87)

The war between the Latins and Aeneas’s Trojans is unnecessary, springing from hubris. Turnus undercuts King Latinus’s leadership by finding a narrative for war that has popular appeal. If this sounds like an Iraq War reading of the story, with Turnus as a combination of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Blair, so be it. (Witness the spectacle of Tony Blair, only a few days ago, saying with a straight face that he doesn’t regret the decision to go to war and that he would do it again. Turnus is alive among us.) All unnecessary wars have similarities, among them the disingenuousness of the leaders who promote such wars.

Turnus is motivated by his wounded pride, his suit for Lavinia’s hand having been rejected by Latinus and Lavinia, and by his selfishness and lust for power. By expelling the Trojan foreigners, Turnus seeks to win Lavinia and secure the title of King of the Latins. By making Aeneas his enemy, Turnus wages a war that he will lose. It has, after all, already been written, as Lavinia learns.

Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, is trained as a leader of the pagan religion of her people and more than this, both she and her father receive visions and are skilled in interpreting those visions.
“We who are called royal are those who speak for our people to the powers of the earth and sky, as those powers transmit their will through us to the people. We are go-betweens. The chief duty of a king is to perform the rites of praise and placation as they should be performed, to observe care and ceremony and so understand and make known the will of the powers that are greater than we are. It is the kings who tells the farmer when to plow, when to plant, when to harvest, when the cattle should go up to the hills and when they should return to the valleys, as he learns these things from his experience and his service at the altars of earth and sky. In the same way it is the mother of the family who tells her household when to rise, what work to do, what food to prepare and cook, and when to sit and eat it, having learned these things from her experience and her service at the altars of Lares and Penates. So peace is maintained and things go well, in the kingdom and in the house.” (pages 205-206)
When she is 12 years old, Latinus introduces Lavinia to the sacred forest and sulfur springs of Albunea and the visions to be had there. Her eyes are opened, metaphorically, on her first visit and on subsequent visits she meets the poet, Vergil, the creator of her world. The poet asks her if she has any suitors. She lists them and says that she favors none of them, which leads to this exchange (p. 42):

(Vergil, thinking of Aeneas:) “If a man came—if a man came to marry you who was a man in a thousand—a warrior, a hero, a handsome man—”
“Turnus is all that.”
“Has he piety?”

Lavinia has already defined piety: “responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe” (p. 22), an interweaving of family, community, and religion, all in one not-so-simple word. Turnus’s hubris is in opposition to piety.

Over several vision-meetings the poet tells Lavinia some of what her future holds and some of the centuries-distant future of Rome as well.

Some of Turnus’s sense of entitlement comes from Lavinia’s unstable mother, Amata, who has encouraged his ambitions and his pursuit of Lavinia. Amata would like to have her daughter under her thumb, which Lavinia resists as best as she is able. As the story develops it becomes clear that Amata is mentally ill and she becomes more demanding and erratic in her behavior, kidnapping Lavinia in an effort to prevent her marriage to the foreigner, Aeneas, and plotting instead to unite her with Turnus.

Vergil, himself near death, enumerates the names of those who will be slaughtered, some of whom Lavinia knows well. “How do you like my poem now, Lavinia?” (p. 89).

The situation accelerates toward war, as foretold by Latinus, and resolves with the deaths of some important characters (who will remain unnamed on the chance that readers would prefer to discover for themselves) and Aeneas victorious. Vergil’s Aeneid stops there, LeGuin’s Lavinia continues. Vergil’s intent, in part, is to codify a heroic legend of the founding of Rome. LeGuin has a tighter focus: the life of Lavinia, and a large topic: womanhood and its interplay with family, war, marriage, and religion.

Lavinia’s difficult family life, living in the women’s side of the royal family home with a mentally unbalanced mother, is later echoed in her uneasy relationship with a willful stepson, Ascanius, who becomes her king. In his insecure competitiveness, fighting skirmishes with neighboring kingdoms and needlessly antagonizing them, Ascanius recalls the selfish Turnus.

The marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia is central, as it brings lasting peace between the Latins and the Trojans. Together these people, or their descendents, will found the Roman Empire, according to Vergil. Leading to “the great age ... maybe ... or so I once thought,” muses the poet. Aeneas proves to be a model husband and a wise peacetime ruler. He honors and performs the religious rites. His one fault as a father, if it is a fault, is his lack of success in helping Ascanius find the way to the measured exercise of power.

The narrative, while told in uncomplicated language, skips around in time, especially in the first half. It ranges from Lavinia’s girlhood, to her married life with Aeneas, forward to Vergil’s subjective time, and back again. It flows smoothly, but I wonder how readers unfamiliar with writers who take similar liberties would react. Then, there are the meta-realities of the story. It is LeGuin’s story overlayed on Vergil’s story, which is overlayed on legend. LeGuin gives credit to Vergil as the creator of this reality, honoring the creative force of his poetry.

I will stop here, though I feel that I have only scratched the surface of the many things this novel brings to mind.

Related post: Lavinia Revisited

1 comment:

  1. You have to admire anyone who is willing to continue to learn and adapt/change their behaviors, views, etc. throughout the entirety of their lives. I think too many men and women, once they reach a certain age or a place in life/work become tradition oriented, ie. they allow their views to ossify. In one way it makes sense that they would prefer to "stick with what works;" however, I think they also miss out on a lot by refusing to continue to "take at least some risks" and "go out on a limb" on occasion.