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?
Modern audiences usually find that all the obvious god-meddling makes the human characters quite inaccessible, for all that the Aeneid is known to be a classic. Ursula Le Guin steps into the breach with her re-imagined heroine. Lavinia, daughter of Latinus and Amata, may be fated by the gods to wed a foreign son of martial fame “renown’d in the arts of peace,” but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Her mother will use every bit of her mad cunning to see that her daughter weds the man she herself wishes to bed, and Aeneas’ son by his first marriage may also stand in the way of Roman destiny and Lavinia’s happiness.
In this new telling, whatever gods there are speak through oracles or are simple clay images displayed on the walls of the nobles' homes. The passions presented in Lavinia's story are human and not divine. By making each character of her story be more than mere ciphers for the gods and further enriching the story with a sense of rural and antique places not known to moderns, Le Guin has succeeded in making an enjoyable story for today’s readers.
In 2008, Lavinia
won the coveted Locus Award
for best fantasy novel. Lavinia’s character has much in common with Le Guin’s Tenar
from her award-winning Earthsea's trilogy.
Like Tenar, Lavinia is an uncommon woman who overcomes the events thrust upon her in order to have a hand in her own destiny.
The author’s Web site
has an audio interview, a video of the author reading from her work in front of a live audience, book excerpts, and a map of Latium.