Le Guin (Powers, 2007, etc.) departs from her award-winning fantasy and science-fiction novels to amplify a story told only glancingly in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid.
The story is that of the eponymous princess of Latium (a royal city before Rome existed), promised by her parents, King Latinus and Queen Amata, to neighboring Rutilian king Turnus (who is Amata’s nephew). But omens decree otherwise, and Lavinia weds Trojan warrior-adventurer Aeneas, a bereaved and conflicted husband, son and father who will, over the years, earn the initially reluctant Lavinia’s undying respect and love. Though this unlikely heroine receives only token mention in Virgil’s original, Le Guin brings her to vibrant life as a dutiful virgin whose world is circumscribed by daily routines; who is the uncooperative cynosure of several suitors’ eyes; and who eventually distances herself from the misrule of her stepson Ascanius (Aeneas’s successor), biding her time until the new metropolis of Rome is made worthy of its intrepid founder. Lavinia’s inner strength emerges in dreamlike “conversations” with the poet who created her, and in her intuitive understanding of her father’s just rule, her husband’s justifiable ambitions and her own unending obligations. Le Guin has researched this ancient world assiduously, and her measured, understated prose captures with equal skill the permutations of established ritual and ceremony and the sensations of the battlefield (“The snarling trumpets rang out again. A group of horsemen far out in the fields moved forward in a solid mass like a shadow across the ripening crops…through the hot slanting light full of dust”).
Arguably her best novel, and an altogether worthy companion volume to one of the Western world’s greatest stories.