Novel Gives Roman Maiden Her Moment in the Sun

Author Ursula K. Le Guin i i

hide captionUrsula K. Le Guin, author of more than 20 books and novels, researched her latest book, Lavinia, by reading Virgil's The Aeneid in its original Latin.

Marian Wood Kolisch
Author Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, author of more than 20 books and novels, researched her latest book, Lavinia, by reading Virgil's The Aeneid in its original Latin.

Marian Wood Kolisch

In Virgil's poem The Aeneid, a blond maiden named Lavinia whose father is the king of Italy marries the Trojan hero Aeneas. Virgil doesn't give Lavinia any lines, and he scarcely mentions her for the rest of the epic.

For Ursula K. Le Guin, an author best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels, Virgil left a gaping hole that she was eager to fill — albeit slowly. Her latest novel, Lavinia, picks up where the classic Roman poet left off.

Le Guin, 78, says she started work on the novel methodically by reading the The Aeneid in its original Latin and doing copious research on the Bronze Age. She brings Lavinia's rustic Roman world to life, delving into her childhood, her suitors and the cast of characters who ultimately wage war over her after she marries Aeneas.

Virgil himself even makes an appearance in Le Guin's novel, traveling back in time by hundreds of years to appear as a spirit who forewarns Lavinia about the great battle that is to come. As he counsels Lavinia in a sacred grove, Virgil frets about how he shortchanged her in The Aeneid.

NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with Le Guin about how she gave voice to a character largely forgotten in Roman literature.

Excerpt: 'Lavinia'

'Lavinia' book cover

I know that there will be far greater kings of far greater kingdoms than Latinus of Latium, my father. Upriver at Seven Hills there used to be two little fortified places with dirt walls, Janiculum and Saturnia; then some Greek settlers came, rebuilt on the hillside, and called their fort and town Pallanteum. My poet tried to describe to me that place as he knew it when when he was alive, or will know it when he lives, I should say, for although he was dying when he came to me, and has been dead a long time now, he hasn't yet been born. He is among those who wait on the far side of the forgetful river. He hasn't forgotten me yet, but he will, when at last he comes to be born, swimming across that milky water. When he first imagines me he won't know that he is yet to meet me in the forest of Albunea. Anyhow, he told me that in time to come, where that village is now, the Seven Hills and the valleys among the hills and all the river banks will be covered for miles with an unimaginable city. There will be temples of marble splendid with gold on the hilltops, wide arched gates, innumerable figures carved of marble and bronze; more people will pass through the Forum of that city in a single day, he said, than I will see in all the towns and farmsteads, on all the roads, in all the festivals and battlefields of Latium, in all my life. The king of that city will be the great ruler of the world, so great that he will despise the name of king and be known only as the one made great with holy power, the august. All the peoples of all the lands will bow to him and bring tribute. I believe this, knowing that my poet always speaks the truth, if not always the whole truth. Not even a poet can speak the whole truth.

But in my girlhood his great city was a rough little town built up against the slope of a rocky hill full of caves and overgrown with thick scrub. I went there once with my father, a day's sail up the river on the west wind. The king there, Evander, an ally of ours, was an exile from Greece, and in some trouble here too — he had killed a guest. He'd had sufficient reason for it, but that sort of thing doesn't get forgotten by our country folk. He was grateful for my father's favor and did his best to entertain us, but he lived far more poorly than our wealthy farmers. Pallanteum was a dark stockade, huddled under trees between the wide yellow river and the forested hills. They gave us a feast, of course, beef and venison, but served it very strangely: we had to lie down on benches at small tables, instead of sitting all together at one long table. That was the Greek fashion. And they didn't keep the sacred salt and meal on the table. That worried me all through the meal.

Evander's son Pallas, who was about my age, eleven or twelve then, a nice boy, told me a story about a huge beast-man that used to live up there in one of the caves and came out in twilight to steal cattle and tear people to pieces. He was seldom seen, but left great footprints. A Greek hero called Ercles came by and killed the beast-man. What was he called? I asked, and Pallas said Cacus. I knew that that meant the fire-lord, the chief man of a tribal settlement, who kept Vesta alight for the people of the neighborhood, with the help of his daughters, as my father did. But I didn't want to contradict the Greeks' story of the beast-man, which was more exciting than mine.

Pallas asked me if I'd like to see a she-wolf's den, and I said yes, and he took me to a cave called the Lupercal, quite near the village. It was sacred to Pan, he said, which seemed to be what the Greeks called our grandfather Faunus. Anyhow, the settlers let the wolf and her cubs alone, wisely, and she let them alone too. She never even hurt their dogs, though wolves hate dogs. There were plenty of deer for her in those hills. Now and then in spring she'd take a lamb. They counted that as sacrifice, and when she didn't take a lamb, they'd sacrifice a dog to her. Her mate had disappeared this past winter.

It was not the wisest thing perhaps for two children to stand at the mouth of her den, for she had cubs, and she was there. The cave smelled very strong. It was black dark inside, and silent. But as I grew used to the dark I saw the two small, unmoving fires of her eyes. She stood there between us and her children.

Pallas and I backed away slowly, our gaze always on her eyes. I did not want to go, though I knew I should. I turned at last and followed Pallas, but slowly, looking back often to see if the she-wolf would come out of her house and stand there dark and stiff-legged, the loving mother, the fierce queen.

On that visit to the Seven Hills I saw that my father was a much greater king than Evander was. Later I came to know that he was more powerful than any of the kings of the West in his day, even though he might be nothing in comparison with the great august one to come. He had established his kingdom firmly by warfare and defense of his borders long before I was born. While I was a child growing up, there were no wars to speak of. It was a long time of peace. Of course there were feuds and battles among the farmers and along the boundaries. We're a rough people, born of oak, as they say, here in the western land; tempers run high, weapons are always at hand. Now and then my father had to intervene, put down a rustic quarrel that got too hot or spread too widely. He had no standing army. Mars lives in the plowlands and the borders of the plowlands. If there was trouble, Latinus called his farmers from their fields, and they came with their fathers' old bronze swords and leather shields, ready to fight to the death for him. When they'd put down the trouble they went back to their fields, and he to his high house.

The high house, the Regia, was the great shrine of the city, a sacred place, for our store-room gods and ancestors were the Penates and Lares of the city and the people. Latins came there from all over Latium to worship and sacrifice as well as to feast with the king. You saw the high house from a long way off in the countryside, standing among tall trees above the walls and towers and roofs.

The walls of Laurentum were high and strong, because it wasn't built on a hilltop like most cities, but on the rich plains that sloped down towards the lagoons and the sea. Farmed fields and pastures lay all round it outside the ditch and earthwork, and in front of the city gate was a broad open ground where athletes played and men trained their horses. But entering the gate of Laurentum you came out of sun and wind into deep, fragrant shade. The city was a great grove, a forest. Every house stood among oak trees, fig trees, elms, slender poplars and spreading laurels. The streets were shady, leafy, narrow. The broadest of the streets led up to the king's house, great and stately, towering with a hundred columns of cedar wood.

On a shelf on each wall of the entryway was a row of images, carved by an Etruscan exile years ago as an offering to the king. They were spirits, ancestors — two-faced Janus, Saturn, Italus, Sabinus, grandfather Picus who was turned into the redcapped woodpecker but whose statue sat in stiff carved toga holding the sacred staff and shield — a double row of grim figures in cracked and blackened cedar. They were not large, but they were the only images in human form in Laurentum, except the little clay Penates, and they filled me with fear. Often I shut my eyes as I ran between those long dark faces with blank staring eyes, under axes and crested helmets and javelins and the bars of city gates and the prows of ships, war trophies, nailed up along the walls.

The corridor of the images opened out into the atrium, a low, large, dark room with a roof open in the center to the sky. To the left were the council and banquet halls, which as a child I seldom entered, and beyond them the royal apartments; straight ahead was the altar of Vesta, with the domed brick store-rooms behind it. I turned right and ran past the kitchens out into the great central courtyard, where a fountain played under the laurel tree my father planted when he was young, and lemon trees and sweet daphne and shrubs of thyme and oregano and tarragon grew in big pots, and women worked and chatted and spun and wove and rinsed out jugs and bowls in the fountain pool. I ran across among them, under the colonnade of cedar pillars, into the women's part of the house, the best part, home.

If I was careful not to bring myself to my mother's attention I had nothing to fear. Sometimes, as I grew towards womanhood, she spoke to me kindly enough. And there were a lot of women there who loved me, and women who flattered me, and old Vestina to spoil me, and other girls to be a girl with, and babies to play with. And — women's side or men's side — it was my father's house, and I was my father's daughter.

My best friend, though, was not a girl of the Regia at all but the youngest child of the cattleman Tyrrhus, who was in charge of my family's herds as well as his own. His family farm was a quarter mile from the city gates, a huge place with many outbuildings, the stone-and-timber farmhouse bulking up among them like an old grey gander in a flock of geese. Cattle-pens and paddocks and pastures stretched away back from the kitchen gardens among the low, oak-crowned hills. The farm was a place of endless industry, people working everywhere all day; but unless the forge was lit and the anvil clanging, or a drove of cattle was penned in close by for castration or for market, it was deeply quiet. Distant mooing from the valleys and the murmur of mourning doves and wood doves in the oak groves near the house made a continuous softness of sound into which other noises sank away and were lost. I loved that farm.

Silvia came to keep me company sometimes at the Regia, but we both preferred to be at the her place. In summer I ran out there almost every day. Tita, a slave a couple of years older than I, came with me as the guardian my status of virgin princess required, but as soon as we got there Tita joined her friends among the farm women, and Silvia and I ran off to climb trees or dam the creek or play with the kittens or catch polliwogs and roam the woods and hills, as free as the sparrows.

My mother would have kept me home. "What kind of company is it she chooses to keep? Cowherds!" But my father, born a king, ignored her snobbery. "Let the child run about and get strong. They're good people," he said. Indeed Tyrrhus was a trusty, competent man, ruling his pastures as firmly as my father ruled his realm. He had an explosive temper but was just with his people; he kept every feast day generously, with observance and sacrifice to the local spirits and sacred places. He had fought beside my father in the old wars long ago, and still had a bit of the warrior about him. But he was soft as warm butter when it came to his daughter. Her mother had died soon after her birth, and she had no sisters. She grew up the darling of her father and brothers and all the house-people. She was in many ways more a princess than I. She didn't have to spend hours a day spinning or weaving, and had no ceremonial duties. The old cooks ran the kitchen for her, the old slaves kept the household for her, the girls swept the hearth and fed the fire for her; she had all the time in the world to run free on the hills and play with her pet animals.

Silvia had a wonderful way with creatures. In the evening, the little owls would come to her quavering call, hu-u-u, hi-i-i, and alight a moment on her outstretched hand. She tamed a fox cub; when it grew to a vixen she let it go free, but it brought its cubs round yearly for us to see, letting them gambol in the twilight on the grass under the oaks. She reared a fawn her brothers took on a hunt, the hounds having pulled down its mother. Silvia was ten or eleven when they brought the little thing in. She nursed it tenderly, and it grew into a magnificent stag as tame as any dog. He trotted off to the woods every morning, but was always back at supper time; they let him come into the dining room and eat from their trenchers. Silvia adored her Cervulus. She washed him and combed him, and decked his splendid antlers with vines in autumn and flower-wreaths in spring. Male deer can be dangerous, but the stag was docile and mild, far too trusting for his own good. Silvia fastened a broad white linen band round his neck as a sign, and all the hunters of the forests of Latium knew Silvia's Cervulus. Even the hounds knew him and seldom started him, having been scolded and beaten for doing so.

It was a wonderful thing to be out on the hills and see a great stag come walking calmly from the forest, balancing his crown of horns. He would kneel and put his nose in Silvia's hand, and folding his tall delicate legs under him, sit there between us while she stroked his neck. He smelled sweet and strong and gamy. His eyes were large, dark, and quiet; so were Silvia's eyes. That is what it was like in the age of Saturn, my poet said, the golden time of the first days when there was no fear in the world. Silvia seemed a daughter of that age. To sit with her on the sunlit slopes or run with her on the forest trails she knew so well was the delight of my life. There was no one in all that country of our girlhood who wished us any harm. Our pagans, the folk of the plowlands, greeted us from their fields or the doorstep of their round huts. The surly bee-keeper saved a comb of honey for us, the dairy women had a sip of cream for us, the cowboys showed off for us, riding bull-calves or vaulting an old cow's horns, and the old shepherd Ino showed us how to make piping flutes of oat-straw.

Sometimes in summer as the long day drew toward evening and we knew we should be starting home to the farm, we'd both lie face down on the hillside and push our faces right into the harsh dry grass and the hard clodded dirt, breathing in the infinitely complex smell, hay-sweet and soil-bitter, of the warm summer earth, our earth. Then we were both Saturn's children. We leapt up and ran down the hill, ran home — race you to the cattle ford!

Copyright © 2008 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Printed with permission by Harcourt.

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