Jacket summary: "In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word in the poem. Now Ursula K. Le Guin gives her a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.
"Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother demands that she marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner -- that she will be the cause of a bitter war -- and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life. Lavinia is a book of passion and war and the cost of war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers."
Opening line: "I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal."
My take: A novel of the Trojan Wars for those whose taste runs more to Greek tragedies than the Colleen McCullough First Man in Rome series (though I'm the first to admit there's nothing wrong with the latter now and again). Le Guin makes a setting that's, well, almost as old as they come seem both original and plausible, probably by not introducing too many glaring anachronisms, and by creating characters whose views on destiny, prophecy, honor, and duty evoke shades of Antigone or The Trojan Women.
Lavinia, title character and narrator, is the sole surviving child of king Latinus of Latium, and as such, it is her duty to marry and carry her father's line and kingdom forward. While her mother, Amata, has grown cold and half-mad since the death of her two sons in childhood, her father cherishes his daughter, and entrusts her with a remarkable degree of autonomy. For years, she has accompanied and assisted him on visits to the sacred forest and oracle at Albunea; thus, it seems only natural when she requests and is granted permission to venture there on her own. Here, over a series of visits, she meets a poet who offers cryptic explanations of both his own identity and Lavinia's future:
"'I am a wraith,' he said. 'I am not here in my body. My body is lying on the deck of a ship sailing from Greece to Italy, but I don't think I'll get to Brundisium even if the ship does. I am sick, I am dying, I am on my way to ... to Acheron ... Or else I am a false dream. But they come from under there, don't they, the false dreams? They nest like bats in the great tree at the gates of the kingdom of the shadows ... So maybe I am a bat that has flown here from Hades. A dream that has flown into a dream. Into my poem. To Albunea, the sacred grove, where King Latinus heard his grandfather Faunus prophesy, telling him not to marry his daughter to a man of Latium ... ' His voice was low and musical, like the voice of one talking to the spirits, praying; and that almost laugh came and went in it. ...These spectral visions give weight to Lavinia's distrust of Turnus and the other suitors vying for her hand in marriage, and on the day she is to tell her father who she has chosen, she convinces him instead to consult the spirits at Albunea. Here, of course, Latinus too hears the prophesy that Lavinia is to marry not a man of Latium, but a foreigner -- one who, even at that moment, is coming toward them.
"'I think it has not happened yet. Faunus has not spoken to Latinus. Perhaps it never did -- never will happen. You shall not be concerned about it. I made it up. I imagined it. A dream within a dream ... within the dream that has been my life.'"
Latinus is duly convinced, and after a rough start, goes to meet Aeneas offering peace and marriage to Lavinia. Turnus and the other lesser kings of Italy, however, are incensed that Latinus has chosen none of them for Lavinia, and a bloody, treacherous war begins. As Lavinia explains in the introduction, "Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate."
The story is told mostly as it unfolds, but is interspersed with the reflections of a much-older Lavinia years later. She knows from the start that Aeneas will not live long after their marriage (though she tries to deny it years later, when the two have fallen in love), though he does not, and this knowledge lends a poignancy to their brief time together. When his death finally does come to pass, she must maintain a life for herself and their young son, Silvius, in the kingdoms of her stepson, the heavy-handed and ineffective Ascanius, and her aging father, until Silvius can grow to manhood and assume his rightful throne.
An interesting book with some downright beautiful passages. I recommend it highly.