If we can trust the Roman epic poet Virgil, Queen Lavinia ought to be honored as the
mother of the Western world. As wife to Aeneas, she gave birth to Silvius, whose
descendants include Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. But her existence is
neither validated by historical accounts—which give some credence to Romulus, but
hardly any to Lavinia—nor elaborated by mythology. Our knowledge of her is restricted
to her appearance in Virgil’s
Aeneid, where she plays a modest role in the background
of the larger narrative.

Here’s what Virgil tells us: Lavinia turns down her
suitors, including the formidable warrior Turnus,
because an oracle declares that this princess of
Latium is destined to marry a foreigner. When
Aeneas, an exile from his native Troy, arrives on
the scene, he is greeted as the prophesied suitor,
and his rival in romance, the scorned Turnus, turns
into an adversary on the battlefield. Virgil focuses
his attention on warfare, the time-honored subject
of epic poets, and Lavinia disappears from the story.

This seems odd, especially when compared with
the love affair of Aeneas and Dido, a much shorter
fling in Carthage before the Trojan’s arrival in Italy.
That precursor romance has been celebrated in
more than a dozen operas, and the Queen of
Carthage’s presence can be detected everywhere
from Shakespeare plays (the Bard mentions Dido
almost a dozen times) to the
Civilization series of
video games. Meanwhile Lavinia lingered on in semi-obscurity. She makes a brief
appearance in Dante’s
Inferno, introduced and dealt with in a scant two lines. You can
find her in a few paintings, for example in Tiepolo's
Latinus Offering his Daughter
Lavinia to Aeneas in Matrimony
from 1754. The sixteenth century Italian painter
Mirabello Cavalori (1535–1572) has left us an image of the most famous incident in
Lavinia’s obscure life: when her hair is crowned with supernatural flames, an omen of
her special status in the prehistory of Rome.

Speculative authors of the current day have aimed to fill in the gaps in Lavinia’s
biography. Poet Claudio R. Salvucci has written an entire alternative epic in her honor,
Lavinium, published in 1994. But no one has done more for our neglected Latin
princess than Ursula K. Le Guin who provided her with a complete biography and rich
inner life in the 2008 novel
Lavinia. This book was awarded the Locus Award as best
fantasy novel of the year, and was Le Guin’s last full-length work of fiction, a fitting swan
song to an illustrious career that began even before her teens, when she submitted a
story as an eleven-year-old to
Astounding Science Fiction.

Related Reading (essays by Ted Gioia)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin makes clear that her intention isn't to replace Virgil’s Aeneid. In her afterword
Lavinia, she even laments the disappearance of Latin literacy over the last several
decades, a shift that ensures future generations will rarely experience the great Roman
epic in the original language. Virgil’s poetry, Le Guin declares, "is so profoundly
musical, its beauty so intrinsic to the sound and the order of the words, that it is
essentially untranslatable.” She describes her novel about Lavinia as “an act of
gratitude to the poet, a love offering."

But Le Guin is too modest here. She has gone far beyond the hints and allusions in the
Aeneid, and even when Virgil has offered a telling detail, Le Guin doesn’t hesitate to
change it to meet her own very different needs. As a result, Virgil’s fair and blonde
Lavinia becomes a dark-haired Mediterranean woman. A passive participant in the
destiny imposed by the deities in the original Latin, Lavinia turns into a self-willing
protagonist in the modern mold under Le Guin’s tutelage. In fact, the Roman gods take
a back seat throughout this entire novel, with even oracles coming from ancestors
rather than deities, and divine intervention relying on human intermediaries. These are
all wise authorial decisions, and enhance the novel.  

But Lavinia herself also gets a chance to challenge Virgil. At several junctures in the
novel, the spirit of the Roman poet appears to the young princess of Latium, a quasi-
ghost who serves as a soothsayer and oracle—and who could be better positioned to
predict the future than the same author who composed the epic tale of Aeneas and
Lavinia. By the time our protagonist has finished with him, Virgil is even apologizing for
not giving Lavinia a bigger role in his famous work.

At first this seems like a familiar postmodern trope: an author shows up as a character
in a story. But Le Guin is doing something far cleverer here. She is building on Virgil’s
peculiar reputation as a seer, a strange legacy that found the author of the
treated by later centuries as a kind of wizard or mystic. Virgil’s writings were used as a
tool for divination; applying a technique known as
Sortes Vergilianae, randomly
selected passages of the
Aeneid are interpreted
as a guide to future events. This aspect
of Virgil’s legacy served as the spring-
board for his appearance as a guide to
the Inferno in Dante’s
Divine Comedy
and as a channel for Christian revelation
Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil.
When Lavinia goes to consult her ancestors,
at a key juncture in Le Guin’s novel, her
encounter with Virgil both resonates with
this history of oracular pronouncements and adapts it to the narrative techniques of the
current day.

In the current instance, Lavinia gets more prognosticating than she wants. Virgil
promises her Aeneas as a husband, but also provides a long litany of the victims and
assailants whose bloody conflicts will pave the way for her to become Queen. She also
gets advance warning of her husband’s death. Perhaps worst of all, she begins to
suspect that she is just a literary invention of the poet—a hypothesis so troubling she
prefers not to dwell on its full implications.

We are now far afield from the starting point of this novel as a kind of feminized
alternative to a classic text. Le Guin calls into question a wide range of issues that
Virgil merely took for granted, ranging from metanarrative concerns about character
motivation to richer philosophical questions dealing with free will and just wars. By
removing the pagan deities from the center of the story of Rome’s founding, our author
leaves us with a tale burdened with too much guilt and responsibility even for a founder
of a great civilization.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books.
His most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: April 24, 2018
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Gibson, William
The Peripheral

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Joe
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

McDonald, Ian

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Russell, Karen

Saramago, José

Saumders, George
Lincoln in the Bardo

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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By the time our protagonist has
finished with him, Virgil is even
apologizing for not giving Lavinia
a bigger role in his famous work.