For this category, you must read 4 books: 1 folklore, 1 fairy tale, 1 fantasy, 1 mythology. On my list are Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler, for folklore; Messenger by Lois Lowry, for fairy tale; and Practical Magic or Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman, for fantasy. Today we’ll discuss Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, my mythology selection.
In Le Guin’s novel, Vergilius (aka Vergil) visits Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas, who is a character in his epic poem The Aeneid. Vergil appears in the guise of a ghost and acknowledges he dismissively depicted her as “ripe to wed” and described her wedding procession but not her reign as queen.
Le Guin then expands the story of The Aeneid, Book 7 from Lavinia’s viewpoint. Interesting construct: Lavinia narrates her life in the present as Vergil visits her as a ghost from the future, even though to us Vergil is a figure from antiquity. You just have to imagine it, I guess. It helps that we have that other ghost from the future, the one Dickens gave us.
Lavinia creates her own destiny and the future of her progeny in ancient Italy, a society stratified by birth and gender. The author juxtaposes symbols—an engraved shield that Lavinia interprets for Aeneas and his warriors paired with soft wool thread that wraps the women in their lives. Within this framework, Lavinia must shape her world. As she says, “my mind returns as the shuttle returns always to the starting place, finding the pattern…I was a spinner, not a weaver, but I have learned to weave” (141).
With great skill, Le Guin weaves details from Vergil’s epic into Lavinia’s life as princess, priestess, power wielder. I must confess I had never read The Aeneid (and Le Guin laments this very lapse in the education of recent generations), but when I perused Vergil’s Book 7 for glimpses of Lavinia, I found these details—the prophecy of oracles, the flame of her hair, the omen of the bees—and I admired the way Le Guin used these moments to the advantage of the novel and the protagonist.
Lavinia is politically astute. She functions as central priestess in religious rites and figures prominently (albeit behind the scenes) to influence history through diplomacy and, at times, subterfuge. In fact, she manages to arrange her own marriage, undermine antagonistic forces, and determine a future monarch. I love Le Guin’s feminist stance, how Vergil must apologize, for, as Lavinia explains, “He didn’t let me say a word. I had to take the word from him” (4). The power of women in times of patriarchy is a favorite theme of mine and one I endeavored to convey in my own novel.
Lavinia is a masterful and engaging work I never would have read were it not for the Once Upon a Time challenge. And, of course, I chose it in part because it included a ghost. That being said, this is not my favorite Le Guin book. Some years ago I listened to The Left Side of Darkness, and I was stunned by the beauty, pathos, and creativity in that novel. One day I intend to read it again, and I would suggest The Left Hand of Darkness as an addition to anyone seeking a book for that Once Upon a Time.