“He gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself”: LeGuin’s Lavinia Reviewed

One theory of fantasy literature that has always appealed to me is the idea that because fantasy fiction permits stories to occur at a remove from what we understand as “reality,” then fantasy literature can begin to heal inequities that continue to plague the real world and, therefore, must be present in any literature representing that world. From a feminist perspective, female characters in fantasy fiction need not be bound by or defined by gender discrimination, stereotypes, or misogynism, all of which have peppered our human history and continue to manifest, at least to a degree, even today. Fantasy literature, then, is the perfect medium for asking questions about women’s potential and influence on the world; the perfect medium to show strong female characters untainted by gender bias.

The premise of LeGuin’s Lavinia is to depict events from Virgil’s Aeneid from the point of view of Aeneas’s wife, Lavinia. Lavinia is named in the original poem but she doesn’t speak a single line; LeGuin has given her not only a voice but regard worthy of being the point-of-view character.

Lavinia, then, is a perfect model of how fantasy literature can give life and strength to the women that it depicts. Because it concerns an ancient culture of our world, Lavinia is, of course, bound more by reality than fantasy novels that occur at a complete remove from our own world.  LeGuin is bound somewhat by what is known of early Latin history and by the “canon” of the Aeneid. That she takes liberties in breaking with both, when the story (or Lavinia herself) demands it, makes me think of the novel more as fantasy rather than historical fiction, though it is flavored by both.

I would love to say that I was delighted with Lavinia, that I couldn’t put it down, that it represents a zenith of feminist fantasy fiction. Honestly, though, there were times when I was more overcome with my disappointment with the book, when I couldn’t help but to regard it as opportunity squandered. As I finished the novel today and thought on it more while in the comfortably silent company of my herbs and vegetable plants, though, I realized that it is still an important novel, if even if did fall shy of the mark in many regards.

Lavinia is a relatively short book for the subject and time period that it covers. The hardcover Harcourt edition that I borrowed from the library checks in at 279 pages, including LeGuin’s afterword. Typical for LeGuin, there were passages wrought with breathtaking skill and the introspection was beautifully handled and never ponderous; her characters achieve a delicate elevation in worth yet remain grounded, believable as human beings. The short length of the novel should, one would think, make for an intense plot, but the opposite often seemed to be the case. I found myself baffled as page after page was spent summarizing action going on off-screen: battles fought and treaties made, harvests brought in and journeys embarked upon; LeGuin opens the novel with a map, but we are privileged to see inside only three of its cities, although many more are discussed. Surely LeGuin, I thought, who is quite possibly the greatest living fantasist, doesn’t need to be told that cardinal rule of writing: show don’t tell. Yet so much of the novel does tell, through second- and third-hand news coming to Lavinia, what is happening in the world that the plot drags and I found myself sighing with relief for an clip of dialogue to relieve the endless parade of off-screen places and people.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that this was less a failure of plotting and more a failing of point-of-view. The novel is told from Lavinia’s point of view, so we see what she sees. And she is a woman in ancient Latium; she does not go to battle or even leave her home city for more than a few days at a time, being as her sacred duty is the upkeep of her household. Although a handful of scenes in a dream world where Lavinia converses with “her poet” Virgil give more intimate insights into the world beyond her own, we as readers are largely confined to the “women’s side” right alongside Lavinia, at most getting a glimpse of battle from a rooftop.

Of course, this doesn’t make those sections of the book any more effective because they are hampered by PoV rather than poor plotting. But it does, I think, reveal something interesting about literature in general and about us as readers and the expectations that we bring to stories.

Here is a question worth considering: Why must we hear about the battles at all? We are in a woman’s PoV, and if she does not ride out to battle, then why should battles (and other political maneuvers) be given anything more than cursory attention? Well, of course, the canon demands it; the Aeneid discusses those battles and events and so they form the fictional backdrop for LeGuin’s story as well. Is it possible, too, that we’ve come to expect it? That we’ve come to regard those battles and political maneuvers–the work of men, not women, in ancient Latium–as the meat of such a story? In fact, Lavinia is surprisingly devoid of details about Lavinia’s life and work as a woman in her world. While we do learn of her religious rituals and her expectations (and fears) concerning the life she faces and her political role and her stewardship of the household, I couldn’t help but to wish that more of those passages devoted to summarizing the doings of men outside of Lavinia’s sphere could have been devoted to her life instead.

But, of course, this puts LeGuin in a difficult situation. Lavinia’s character is knowledgeable about the world around her; she is trusted worthy of learning and contributing to both her father and husband’s reigns, and so the focus on the work of men like her father and her husband also proves her competence, her abilities beyond being a good wife, mother, and housekeeper. But, here, we fall into the trap of defining worthiness from a masculine perspective. Why should Lavinia’s work for her household and her people be any less worthy? I felt like LeGuin was seesawing between wanting to show Lavinia as possessing traditional competence–knowledge of the world around her, of politics, of how to get what she wanted from other people–and wanting to show the feminine contributions to that sort of life. In the latter regard, LeGuin did a good job of showing how the women in Latium were often the silent, unacknowledged backbone of the Latin people: those who provided comfort, healing, sustenance, and foresight enough to see beyond a single day’s battle to the deeper future. I just wish that there could have been more of it, and that LeGuin could have embraced tighter the worth of Lavinia’s contributions in these areas rather than attempting to define her competence in masculine terms.

Still, this represents also a shortcoming of our own perceptions concerning competence and worth. We’ve still not reached the point where “the work of small hands” (to borrow the title of one of my own stories that attempted to show how the quiet, unacknowledged influence of a woman saved her people) is appreciated the way that prowess in battle and agility in politics are. In a way, this conundrum parallels closely a conversation between Aeneas and his war-mongering son Ascanius:

“If you are to rule Latium after me … I want to know that you’ll learn how to govern, not merely to make war, that you’ll learn to ask the powers of the earth and sky for guidance for yourself and your people, that you’ll learn to seek your manhood on a greater field than the battlefield. Tell me that you will learn those things, Ascanius.”

This wisdom, gentle guidance, and piety are feminine traits: They are Lavinia. If only the story could have honed closer to Aeneas’s own ideals for his kingship and that of his son, they too could have been Lavinia.

But, as noted, these are hurdles that we are only learning to overcome in trying to depict strong women and show positively femininity in a world that traditionally has and a society that continues to view those traits as signs of weakness. I applaud LeGuin for aiming high in her novel and making a strong attempt to accomplish these goals and, at times, doing so. I give Lavinia 2.75 E.L. Fudge “Elves Exist” cookies out four.

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2 Responses to ““He gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself”: LeGuin’s Lavinia Reviewed”

  1. Angelica says:

    Your discussion reminds me of a book I read about the development of the modern world (meaning 15th century onwards) and how come Europe became leader over cultures that had been vastly more developed up to then. The historian tries to write history that is not Europeocentric. But in a footnote he says maybe historians got it all wrong when they try to understand the history of other cultures from the political/military/economic perspective of traditional Western history, that they should be deal with other cultures in their own terms and not projecting Western categories. From what you say, LeGuin -who is undoubtedly a marvelous writer- seems to have run into that conundrum of trying to write male political/military/economic stuff from a female PoV in a society where women were not even remotely involved in that.

  2. Dawn says:

    Angelica, you and Bobby could probably have many long conversations about looking at history through the wrong lens! :) He often rants to me about the tendency of many people to look at history from a modern Western perspective when the subject is definitely not modern and, perhaps, also not Western.

    I do think that was a major hang-up of this story. Literature (especially in the time in which the Aeneid was written) regarded these topics as important, and I think we still do. Perhaps LeGuin felt that because the original source covered them, then she needed to touch on them as well. Or perhaps she worried that her audience would grow bored or frustrated without knowing what was going on outside the city walls; maybe a bit of both. In any case, I definitely agree with you that she was trying to look at the life of a female aristocrat in an ancient civilization through the wrong lens.

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