Lavinia of the blushing smiles and flaming hair merited only a few lines in the last books of Virgil’s Aeneid. That Lavinia was simply another lovely and dutiful princess to be married to the hero in accordance with the gods’ wishes. But Lavinia’s character is imagined and fully fleshed out by Hugo-winning writer Ursula K. Le Guin, transformed into a woman of strength and nobility in Lavinia.
The original heroic poem, written in the tradition of Homer’s famous works, traced the journey of Aeneas, a surviving prince from the fall of Troy, to his ultimate destiny as Rome’s progenitor as husband to Lavinia, princess of Latium. Son of Venus and therefore a target of her rival Juno’s spite, the gods themselves conspired in the affairs of these hapless mortals. It was by Venus’ intervention that the African queen Dido loved Aeneas and spared his life. Likewise, it was a messenger from Jupiter that convinced him to leave her for his greater destiny as a founder of Rome. The gods directed every important decision made by mortals.
The battle death of Aeneas’ first wife and abandoned Dido’s suicide are just the sort of collateral damage that happens when the gods insert themselves directly into heroes’ lives—nothing to be taken personally because, after all, the gods’ purpose is to found the Roman Empire, and Aeneas is their agent. What’s a dead wife or royal lover when the divine legitimacy of the Empire is in the balance?