Sunday, January 13, 2013


Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid, Virgil's epic poem, although you might argue that a war was fought for her.  The great Ursula K Le Guin wrote an inspired feminist retelling of the story in her 2008 Lavinia.  Le Guin imagines the Virgil's story of the Trojan  Aeneas, who travels to Italy and is prophesied to marry Lavinia after a war.

In Le Guin's story, Lavinia is a dutiful princess, pious, and faithful to the Gods of her family.  It's time for her to get married, and her greatest desire is to make her father happy.  I was most interested in how Le Guin focused on the familial aspect of the tale - what their home life was like, the relationship of the royal family to the rest of the town.  In an engaging afterward, Le Guin writes about how people at this time (I think it takes place between 12-8 BCE) lived quite primitively, and that she was drawn to "... early Rome; the  dark, plain Republic, a forum not of marble but of wood and brick, and austerer people with a strong sense of duty, order and justice... extended families who worship was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits of the place and earth."  So, Lavinia's life is very much about her role in society - keeping the Vesta fire going in the hearth (her job as the unmarried young woman in the house), visiting her families oracle and performing rites for her family and community.

So, when she  visits the oracle and is told that she must marry a stranger and that a war will be fought, neither she nor her father question it.  That's probably the hardest part for any contemporary reader to swallow, because without laying eyes on this guy, when a ship rolls up the Tiber river, they already know it's got Lavinia's future husband on it.  But, what's interesting is that Le Guin tips the idea of what it is to win or conquer in war - there aren't really any "bad guys", and there aren't especially "good guys" either, although one naturally has an affinity for the narrator.

Le Guin faces the brutality of this hand-combat war straight on.  In an agonizing page-and-a-half, she outlines the series of deaths like ingredients in a dish, "Ilioneus kill Lucetius, Liger kills Emathion, Asilas kills Corynaeus, Caeneus kills Ortygius. Turnus kill Caeneus..." and so on.  A wise, older Lavinia looks back and says,
I had not learned how peace galls men, how they gather impatient rage against it as it continues, how even while they pray the powers for peace, they work against it and make certain it will be broken and give way to battle, slaughter, rape and waste.
Another amazing twist of story-telling Le Guin includes (here gently I'll remind you that she wrote this book at 79 years of age!) is the character of Virgil - he visits Lavinia and tells her the poem, so not only is her life predetermined, but she herself admits her own creationism in the story.  "It has not been difficult for me the believe in my fictionality, because it is, after all, so slight."  So slight!  I'm still mulling that one over.

We went to Rome recently, and two of my favorite things were the wonderful she-wolf sculpture and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.  I like lady-stuff, and in that male-dominated period, those are two powerful examples of female empowerment.  There were quite a few references to the she-wolf as mother and protector, and, although the Temple of the Vestal Virgins wasn't specifically mentioned, the practice of worshipping Vespa became much more clear to me as related to the hearth fire (and all that that entails).  

You know how sometimes, when you're really into something, it all starts falling into your lap?  I also chanced across a bit of scholarship by a hairdresser/archeologist. She created this video on the hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins (which Le Guin also mentions when Lavinia gets married).

I highly recommend the personal afterward that was, at least, in my edition (First Mariner Books ed. 2009).  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in feminist reclamation of history, Early Roman or Italian history or Ursula Le Guin in general - it's not a casual read but continually challenging, and, at least for me, involved a fair amount of research!

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