Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 5, 2009

Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:02 pm

Like Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the Aeneid, and Aeneas is about to land on the shore of Latium. Our viewpoint character is Lavinia, king’s daughter and faceless cipher in Vergil’s poem – but, since this is LeGuin, it gets Complex. The Lavinia who speaks to us is not a historical character precisely, not a real person[1] in the secondary creation, but the character in the poem, rounded out and given life in the Miltonian sense[2].

She has a series of conversations with Vergil as he lies dying, and he’s enjoying getting to know her properly – rather than the one-dimensional character with no lines that he wrote. “I thought you were a blonde.” On the other hand, there’s no recrimination or contempt for his (lack of) characterization, and it’s obvious that the poet’s insufficiency (unfinishedness – there’s quite a debate about that) hasn’t detracted from the secondary world. LeGuin obviously loves the text, even without the afterword explaining so, and she describes the countryside of mythic Latium very evocatively.

I say mythic, because LeGuin’s always very conscious of the Aeneid’s roots in Octavian’s time – the afterword discusses why she had the characters drinking wine and eating olives despite the agricultural anachronisms involved. This is very much a novel which looks forward rather than backward – that’s absolutely characteristic for LeGuin, but rare in fiction set in Classical times.


[1] Insofar as “real person” has any meaning in fiction, but you get what I mean.
[2] For books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them equal to that soul whose progeny they are.

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