Lavinia, the title character of Ursula LeGuin's unusual novel, is a character from Virgil's AENEID. She plays an important function in that epic about the forefather of the Roman people, because she will become Aeneas' wife and the mother of his son Aeneas Silvius. First mentioned in Book VII, just beyond the half-way point, she becomes the cause of the wars between the Trojans and the Latin tribes that occupy the last six books of the saga. But although she is desired and fought over, she remains a peripheral character whom Virgil never allows to speak. LeGuin now remedies that omission.
"I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write. [...] I won't die. Of that I am all but certain. My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death." In these passages near the beginning of the book, Lavinia recognizes herself as primarily a character of fiction -- Virgil's fiction, and now her own. That is what she means by "contingent," a word that recurs often. In one of her most brilliant strokes, LeGuin, with the imaginative freedom of a science-fiction writer, has Lavinia travel backwards and forwards in time, knowing not only her own history but also parts of her future, and communicating directly with the poet who gave her birth. The two early scenes in which the spirit of the dying Virgil appears to the teenage girl at night in a sacred grove are among the most effective in the book.
But "contingent" has other meanings. In Virgil's epic, as in those of Homer, the actions of men are partly controlled by the intervention of the gods; the whole AENEID can be seen as the outcome of a struggle between Venus and Juno. In writing of the early Italian tribes, LeGuin goes to a simpler form of religion, whose deities are treated as relatives and mentors, appearing in birds and trees, hills and streams. This rural pantheism gives LAVINIA a simple and welcoming setting, in which even the cities seem little more than the clustered houses of the farmers who work the surrounding lands. The absence of distant controlling gods does not make the characters any less contingent on the omens and auguries they draw from the natural world around them; obedience to such influences is a mark of piety and honor, and there are several times where they redirect the whole course of the action. Lavinia has an especially close affinity with the land and its creatures, so the omens that speak to her seem less like outside forces than a reflection of her own sense of what is right.
"Contingent," alas, can often be applied to women's dependent relationship with men. Lavinia, for Virgil, is little more than a trophy, for whom -- no, for which -- Aeneas fights and ultimately kills the Rutulian prince Turnus. But LeGuin paints a society in which women are, literally, given a seat at the table. Her Lavinia has her father's ear and a place in his affections. She has personality and feelings, fire and a will of her own, and she gets to exercise it. Later in the passage quoted above, Lavinia compares herself to a princess who features at the start of Virgil's epic: "Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate." In writing LAVINIA, LeGuin gives her heroine a feminist liberation. When she is free and follows her heart, in her struggles with her mother, and even when she has to fight against residual male domination, Lavinia is a character to weep over and cheer for. But when, about halfway through the book, the action descends into descriptions of male wars, with long roll-calls of soldiers and warring factions, the title character is momentarily eclipsed. She re-emerges in the second half, which follows her story after the AENEID ends and shows her as a mother rather than a bride. There is a lot here that is interesting, including Lavinia's troubled relationship with her step-son Ascanius, but I feel that without a parallel Virgil text to illuminate, without his compelling time-line, LeGuin's narrative loses cogency and focus. A pity.