17 July 2009

Ursula K. LeGuin's "Lavinia"

The conventional wisdom about The Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro is that, as important and as elegant as it is, it's simply cold when compared to Homer's epics. Of course, compared to Homer, almost everything ever written is cold, so that's hardly a fair comparison -- even if Vergil himself demands the comparison.

Well, if you're one of those who's never warmed to Vergil's protagonist and/or poem, I recommend Ursula LeGuin's 2008 novel Lavinia, which centers on the Italian wife of the Trojan hero. Through LeGuin's deft handling of how one fleshes out another writer's character with little, if any, help from the original, the entire panoply of the poem comes alive: the characters (from Aeneas, Achates, and Ascanius, to Turnus, Evander, and Mezentius), the landscape, the battles, and the early history of what would become Rome.

At one point, Vergil the poet (with whom Lavinia, his character, communes at a holy site through much of the novel) reproves her by saying that she's asked a question only a woman would ask...which, it turns out, is one of the greatest benefits of the novel since she opens the Latin work to a contemporary understanding -- and critique -- which, I hope, will lead folks (back?) to Vergil.

The reader need not know the ancient epic because LeGuin summarizes well (yet briefly) the necessary plot points, but those already well acquainted with it will appreciate this careful reading and enlightening interpretation.

I can well imagine not a few senior-year high school Latin classes, which are probably populated with more young women than young men at this point, reading this book along with their Vergil...and the read will be well worth their while...and, more importantly, not a little enjoyable.

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