Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was inspired by a myriad of different world cultures. In her twentieth novel, Lavinia, she took as inspiration Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid.

Matthew Lloyd

On Monday, 22 January 2018, American author Ursula K. Le Guin died aged 88. I began to read Le Guin’s novels in 2009, aged 23, which might seem old to start reading an author whose work is primarily seen as “for children”. Nevertheless, Le Guin has argued that fantastic literature is really the only work that spans all ages. And her influence on me has been profound.

Her science fiction and fantasy novels endeavour to include all of humanity and particularly those who are left in the margins of history. Short stories like “The Matter of Seggri” (1994) take a longue dureé approach to the history of worlds that has been a major influence on my perspective as a historian. She writes in that story: “I learned that the story has no beginning, and no story has an end. That the story is all muddle, all middle.”

As Jo Walton put it in her obituary for Le Guin on “She was so good. I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was.”

Classical influences

Le Guin’s influences were far ranging, but they include both direct and indirect classical references. She named her consortium of worlds the Ekumen: “I had met the Greek word meaning household, oikumene, as in ecumenical, in one of my father’s anthropology books, and remembered it when I needed a word that might imply a still wider humanity spread out from one original hearth” (“Foreword” to The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, (Gollancz, 2002), p. viii).

The Ekumen is analogous to the Federation in Star Trek, although the union is more loose, space travel more difficult, the differences between the worlds and cultures more developed, more significant. And yet, beneath it all is the common humanity, a common being.

Primarily her classical influences can be seen in her Locus Award-winning 2008 novel Lavinia. The novel tells the story of the character from the Aeneid, Lavinia, whom King Latinus promises to Aeneas in marriage, leading to the war with the Latins led by Turnus, her previous suitor.

Virgil did not give Lavinia voice – she says nothing in the poem – but Le Guin makes the poet a character in the novel who comes to regret his failure on this count. Le Guin retells the latter six books of the Aeneid and the events after the war mentioned only in the epic as prophecy: Lavinia’s marriage to Aeneas, their child, his death.

In one respect, Lavinia is to the Aeneid what the Aeneid is to the Iliad – it takes a bit-part character and extends the story into an epic all of its own. According to the Wikipedia article on the novel, however, Le Guin considers Lavinia to be a translation of the last six books of the Aeneid (but a citation is needed).

In his review of Lavinia for The Guardian, Tobias Hill describes the novel as “an epic in which the true hero is not the warrior, Aeneas, but the woman for whom wars are fought, without permission.” It is, in this respect, in keeping with much of Le Guin’s later work, which focuses on the lives of women and the dynamics of gender in fantastical societies.

Its closest parallel is perhaps Tehanu (1990), the fourth book of the Earthsea series, in which the dramatic events of the life of the wizard Sparrowhawk are replaced by the domestic life of his companion Tenar. It is part of the revolutionary quality of Le Guin’s work; to take something that is not usually the subject of science fiction or fantasy and to make it central, essential.

Personal reflections

I read Lavinia in 2010, at a time when I was much more familiar with the Aeneid and the rest of Virgil’s poetry than I now am. I found Le Guin’s retelling/translation effective because she chose to give character and voice to someone to whom Virgil gave no such attention without losing respect or reverence for the original poet. She goes beyond the poem in many ways, but it all works for the story.

Le Guin does not pretend that she is writing history and the novel wears its intertextual awareness on its sleeve. I love that Lavinia is set in a mythological, dark-age setting that has no pretentions to historical accuracy. As Hill points out, “Lavinia is set in the alternative historical world of Virgil’s Aeneid, a fantastical work in its own right, though not one often shelf-marked as such. So Lavinia is a fantasy built on a fantasy, yet it rings true.”

Le Guin was fond of pointing out the difference between truth and factual – that fantastical stories can be true if they are about human beings and societies.

It is this truth that is most effective about all her stories, whether set in her oikumene, Earthsea, or a fantastical Earth. She was a fantastic writer of the fantastical, and will be missed.