War, slavery, hope, and trust: Lavinia and the Western Shore

If you’ve spent any time at all talking to me about fiction then it won’t surprise you that Ursula K. Le Guin is far and away my favourite author. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first book of hers that I read – a tattered old paperback edition grabbed from my father’s bookshelf when I’d have been ten years old or so – and in the years since I’ve gone from story to story at an inconsistent but never unpleasant pace.

I could write glowing praise of almost any work of hers you’d care to name, but some particular favourites of mine are a loosely linked trilogy published quite late in her career: Gifts, Voices, and Powers. Like the first three Earthsea books, they’re ostensibly targeted at a younger audience: they at heart coming-of-age stories with young protagonists who must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses and with the roles their societies expect them to fill.

I stumbled across Gifts in my first year of university while looking for textbooks – while the weight of the author’s name did have some weight with me, the real persuasion came from the fact that the particular edition I found (by Orion Books) was gorgeously presented, with wonderful art on a good solid hardcover.

While I had devoured the first three Earthsea books when quite young, I had never managed to find further purchase on her body of work; I struggled mightily to engage with The Dispossessed, I had chosen not to pick up Tehanu out of a misguided feeling that the Earthsea books were already “finished”, and I’d never thought to look at her short fiction or the other Hainish novels.

I enjoyed Gifts immensely, and it had a big impact on my future reading – not only did it ensure that I’d make a point of getting its two sequels the moment they came out, it opened me up to a new, proper look at The Dispossessed, and from there through much of her other work, including the modern Earthsea books and most of the Hainish novels.

Amongst the books I’d picked up in this frenzy of enthusiasm was Lavinia – but for one reason or another, I could never quite bring myself to open it, and it ended up in the bookshelf completely untouched. A long time passed, in which I’d often find myself revisiting this story or that, but it remained fast in the bookshelf until Le Guin’s passing in 2018 prompted me into an (almost) systematic re-read. This wasn’t quite enough to get me to open the book, but it did end up moving from the bookshelf to the coffee table in order to gather dust for a few more months.

In the end, the tipping point was an off-hand remark from a visiting friend who noticed the book lying around; with not much else to read at the time, I gave the blurb a fresh look and dove in.

As the title suggests, (at least, to those better versed in the classics than I am), Lavinia is a retelling of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem about the journey of the exiled Trojan prince Aeneas to Italy. I’d been only vaguely conversant with the work at this point; my only real exposure had been through having to briefly study an opera I didn’t like much, and given its derivative nature I’d always put it in Gospel of Mark Fanfic territory – but well, it’s tremendously famous and highly regarded, and Le Guin couldn’t really be that far off the mark, right? I dove in.

After a half-dozen pages, I realised that I was in a very familiar place: while the clean, bare prose could be expected in any work of Le Guin’s, the setting was instantly familiar. Lavinia’s grounded, pre-industrial society, social tensions, and reverence for the mundane and domestic were almost enough to fool me into thinking I was reading Powers again.

Lavinia is the daughter and only living child of the ageing Italian king Latinus: she is promised in marriage to Aeneas to the displeasure of her Latin suitors. Despite her pivotal role as the casus belli in the war that spans the last six books of the Aeneid, Lavinia herself is only sparsely depicted and is never afforded the chance to speak. Amongst other ends, Le Guin’s novel seeks to give Lavinia a voice, telling the war and its aftermath from her perspective.

What does all this mean? I’m hoping to spend some time exploring the themes and craft involved in Lavinia and the three Western Shore novels – with some likely excursions into the Aeneid itself and some other works when I feel there’s a point to be made or something interesting to share. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey!

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2 Responses to War, slavery, hope, and trust: Lavinia and the Western Shore

  1. UnwiseOwl says:

    Very up for this. Haven’t read Lavinia (or remotely enough Le Guin) but it does feel like I’ve been indulging in a lot of retellings lately.

  2. James says:

    Still super keen for this, please go on!

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