Many of us are familiar at this point with what is known as fanfiction, a largely internet-based genre in which writers of every level of ability apply their skills to worlds and characters created by others. At worst, they offer amateurs a chance to allow their imaginations to play in fields plowed by more skilled craftsmen. At best, they create a fractal lens to the original work, expanding the reader’s understanding of the original book and its themes, turning the perspective offered by the original author inside-out and upside-down.
Of late, this genre has gone mainstream. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked recast the Wicked Witch of the West as the protagonist of Frank Baum’s Oz books. Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad tells of the hardships suffered by Odysseus’ abandoned queen.
In Lavinia, master fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin takes a minor character who appears late the Aeneiad–Aeneas’ second (or perhaps third, but certainly last) wife, and tells a rich story around her, properly epic in scope and detail.
The book starts with a breath-taking descent into the point of view of Lavinia, princess of a minor Latin kingdom. She is a seer, and the subject of numerous prophecies–the most powerful and closely guarded imparted to her by the dying poet Virgil, who lived hundreds of years in Lavinia’s future.
The narrative continually seems to loop back on itself, as Lavinia’s knowledge as the point of view character looking back on the events about which she is telling, the knowledge imparted to her by Virgil, and the urgency of the crises through which she lived seem to cross and overlap.
As the book reaches its halfway point, several things begin to weigh it down: Lavinia’s own passivity as a character, which is quite profound, and the author’s desire to tell the story fully. The final chapters are rushed, whole decades sailing by in the space of paragraphs.
Nevertheless, this wonderful storyteller’s ability to weave a fantastic tale out of the material of everyday life (even the everyday life of the Latium of some 2500 or 3000 years ago), and the compelling philosophical questions that Le Guin raises and Lavinia considers–together they make this a worthwhile and original glimpse into Virgil’s world.