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A minor character is hero of her own story ...
on 24 May 2015
Ursula K Le Guin has been writing novels for over 50 years. She’s just celebrated her 85th birthday (the day after my 45th – is that a sign? 😉 ) and is universally acknowledged as the mistress of Science Fiction yet that is not all she writes. In fact, the setting, story and characters of this 2008 novel are based on the last six books of Vergil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
But deep history can be just as fertile ground as deep future or other planets. They say the past is another country so why can the deep past not be another planet?
And there is something very otherworldly in this book. In essence, it is the story of Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins. When we meet her she will soon be of marriageable age and so suitors are flocking to pay her court. But Lavinia does not want to leave her home and father, she doesn’t want to forsake her gods to brush the altar for a husbands gods. Then she meets the poet.
The poet is Virgil, as he lays dying many centuries hence somehow his spirit drifts into his unfinished epic where he meets Lavinia,she is a surprise to him for in his poem she is nothing, just a name. When he meets this intelligent, spirited, dark haired girl, he regrets leaving her character undescribed.
Slowly she persuades him to tell her a little of her future. He tells her of the hero from Troy who will soon be landing there, that she will marry him and they will found the great nation of Rome.
Her story unfolds just as Virgil promises and Lavinia is happy with her husband. But this is the golden age of heroes so the men must have their battles for glory’s sake.
Over the last 40 years or so there have been several retellings of history (or legend, depending on your point of view) from the feminine perspective. As a feminist I am glad to see them, we need to hear as many women’s stories as we do men’s if we are ever to achieve a balanced society.
The problem with many of them is that literature often follows what Joseph Cambell called ‘The Hero’s Journey’, a basic pattern found in many narratives around the world. According to Campbell, most stories have a hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This makes it hard to make a book about a minor character in someone else’s work exciting. After all, in the original work Lavinia is barely a footnote. She’s a princess who is won as a prize and has never left her own home.
But Ursula K Le Guin overcomes this to an extent by recognising that every character is the hero of their own story. She focuses on Lavinia’s shorter physical journey which results meeting the poet and starting on the spiritual journey that helps her take control of her own future.
This story doesn’t achieve the visceral thrill of an action-packed saga like the Aenid, but it does show the greater ramifications of constant adventuring on both those that fight for glory and those that share their lives. Her characters are clearly imagined and expressed, so even though they lived thousands of years ago they seem like old friends.
It’s definitely worth a read, particularly if you are looking for a more meditative tale, I do wish she had fought her stepson more vehemently though.
NB This review first appeared on The BookEaters Blog -> http://www.thebookeaters.co.uk/lavinia-by-ursula-k-le-guin/