Executive Pagan

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Lavinia

Posted by Erik on June 11, 2008

Finally getting around to at least a quick review of this latest book by Ursula Le Guin; it won’t be as in-depth as I had hoped, due to time constraints, but I do want to encourage as many people as possible to read it, because it’s wonderful.

Lavinia is the Latin princess that Aeneas marries in Vergil’s Aeneid – the ancestress of Rome, who nevertheless for Vergil was clearly just window dressing (she has one line in the entire poem). Le Guin set about to rectify this situation, and has done so masterfully. Lavinia is historical fiction at its best – obviously informed (in the afterword we learn that not only did she research the period, she reread the poem in the original), but not dry or pedantic. Le Guin’s primary motivation was obviously to rescue the character of Lavinia from unfair obscurity, and this she does – in my opinion – in full measure.

Aside from giving us a thoughtful, self-aware (on a number of levels – more on that in a moment) and engaging heroine, and, along the way, at least partially rescuing Aeneas himself from the cloud of moral ambiguity that he is left in at the end of the Aeneid, Le Guin presents a wonderfully sympathetic vision of the ancient, pre-Roman religious and moral worldview. Her Latins are pious and morally conscious; modern readers might not always agree with either the moral basis for some of their actions, or the actions themselves, but it is clear that they do have a moral base and, generally speaking, act from it… and when they fail to, the result is suitably shocking both to the characters and – so effectively does she draw us into their world – to the reader.

I can’t resist sharing just a couple of my favorite passages dealing with piety and religion:

* “Maruna grew up here. She’s pious.” By that word I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe. My father had taught me the meaning of that word, and the value of it.

* The world is sacred, of course, it is full of gods, numina, great powers and presences. We give some of them names – Mars of the fields and the war, Vesta the fire, Ceres the grain, Mother Tellus the earth, the Penates of the storehouse.

This sense of the sacred, the near-constant awareness of the presence of the numinous and of human duty towards it, breathes through practically every page of Lavinia. As one who tries to cultivate this awareness myself, how could I not be moved?

There is another sort of awareness in this book, that I alluded to earlier. Early in the book, Lavinia becomes aware that she is a character in a story – not Le Guin’s story, mind you, but Vergil’s. As a girl she is visited several times by the spirit of the dying poet as she sleeps in the sacred grove of Albunea, where she goes to seek the will of the gods. How this works is left deliberately vague, since the characters have no way of knowing that themselves, but the conversations they have will inform Lavinia’s sense of herself throughout her life.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have come off as a cheap trick, or just not come off at all. Under Le Guin’s gifted pen, this extra level of awareness is a large part of what gives this book its particular magic, and makes it one of a handful of modern books that I expect I will reread, with profit, a number of times in years to come.

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6 Responses to “Lavinia”

  1. “This sense of the sacred, the near-constant awareness of the presence of the numinous and of human duty towards it, breathes through practically every page of Lavinia…” OK, I’m sold. Gotta get me a copy of this one for my summer reading.

    Incidentally, I am currently reading Margaret George’s historical novel from nearly the same era, Helen of Troy. I’m enjoying the way she integrates the relationships with the gods with the more secular aspects of the story, and the three-dimensional nature of Helen.

    I’m a little nervous about where she’s going to take the relationship with Paris. And, of course, we all know how well that relationship is going to work out for the city of Troy! It’s reminding me a little bit of George’s earlier book, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which I absolutely loved, right up until the point where Caesar died and Cleopatra winds up with the so-not-in-Caesar’s-class Marc Antony.

    I just couldn’t bear to read that one through to the ghastly finish. Of course, Helen winds up a picture of domesticity, back home with Menelaus, after the war. At least according to Homer. So perhaps I don’t need to flinch quite so hard from the inevitable with this book?

    I am liking George’s take on Helen–not an innocent and much-maligned victim as a lot of feminists who are shallow writers might have drawn her, and not as the narcissist most male authors have liked to show her over the years. She’s very human: likeable, yet capable of errors and mis-steps.

    So, if you’re looking for a next book, you might pick up George’s. (And maybe let us know what you think of that one, too, when you’re done.)

    Blessings!

  2. executivepagan said

    Thanks! I’ll see if the library has it (I bet they do… )

    Sounds like you need to write your own review! (nudge) :)

  3. Yvonne said

    Ooh, want to read that – I love Le Guin’s stuff anyway.

  4. executivepagan said

    Great! I hope you like it. Thanks for reading!

  5. Nettle said

    I finally got Lavinia from the library (it was on a waiting list! I love that – not having to wait for a book, but that there are still enough people who love to read that we line up for good books.)

    It’s so rare to find a book that deals with the old gods with respect. Lavinia’s religion is real and personal while still being properly enmeshed in her culture and society. I especially appreciated the sensitive way Le Guin described the sacrificial rituals. Too often, modern writers describe these with disgust or sensationalism (the same writers, often enough, who would eat a factory-slaughtered steak without a second thought)and neglect the real depth and understanding behind the rite.

  6. executivepagan said

    Lavinia’s religion is real and personal while still being properly enmeshed in her culture and society.

    Exactly.

    I found those passages particularly poignant – while I’m not a Recon, I do struggle to understand, at least a little, what my religious practices might have meant to those who first performed them, and what it might have felt like to live in a context where my religious perspective would be… normal.

    That’s one reason I would love to go to Japan and India some day – to experience at first hand a living, breathing, more or less continuously polytheistic (for some value of that term :) ) culture.

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