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WHEN THE TITLE CHARACTER OF URSULA K. LE GUIN'S RETELLING of the Aeneid meets the poet who gave her life, she finds that she has much to say to him; conversely, Vergil's own demure Lavinia never speaks a word in his poem of nearly ten thousand lines. In Lavinia, then, Le Guin makes use of confessional first-person narration in order to recuperate a lost female voice from a classic text, a narrative strategy by now almost over-familiar in the recent rash of revisionist retellings. For a high-profile example of this strain of revisionism, one could point to Margaret Atwood's backbiting epic The Penelopiad (2005), which aims not only to give voice to the long-suffering Homeric heroine, but also to indict the summary justice executed on her twelve maidservants. (1) Unlike Atwood's contrarian Penelope, however, Lavinia very much sings in the same key as Vergil, even if she chooses to take for her primary subjects, in place of arms and the man, her own domestic life and indeed the poet himself. In a sense, for all her tinkering with Vergil's mythology and narrative arc, Le Guin delivers a fairly orthodox reading of the great Latin epic; (2) for example, especially in her analysis of the death of Turnus, one can hear an echo of Adam Parry's pioneering conception of the poem's two voices: "We hear two distinct voices in the Aeneid, a public voice of triumph, and a private voice of regret" (121). (3) At times Lavinia--or perhaps her co-creator Le Guin--appears to possess two distinct voices of her own, the one deeply in love with the world Vergil has created for her, and the other equally desirous of traveling beyond its limitations. In the end, Lavinia does not so much constitute a new myth as offer a humble extension of Vergil's epic mythmaking, which takes for its setting the transactional space that exists between writer and reader; in fact, even when Lavinia's story proceeds past the ne plus ultra of Turnus' death, her poet's weighty presence continues to guide or possibly even limit her newfound voice. Yet, when we realize that Lavinia herself can stand in metonymically for either the Aeneid or the poem's more conscientious readers, her reliance on Vergil for being and meaning becomes much less surprising. Although I would not accuse Atwood of sheer antagonism towards her literary predecessors, the difference between Le Guin's attitude towards Vergil and Atwood's towards Homer becomes immediately obvious, for all the superficial similarity of their projects and indeed of their protagonists' narratorial voices. For example, we meet Atwood's omniscient, self-conscious narrator in the underworld--"Now that I'm dead I know everything" (1)--and Lavinia likewise speculates that she may be telling her tale from beyond the grave, from some "deceiving place where we think we're alive" (4). Whether or not Le Guin intended to issue a direct challenge to Atwood, Lavinia in fact distinguishes herself from Penelope on precisely this count: "But then I think no, it has nothing to do with being dead, it's not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry" (5). In an even more striking parallel, Atwood ends her retelling with a final exeunt in which Homer's hanged maids "sprout feathers, and fly away as owls" (196), while Lavinia similarly concludes with the narrator's transformation into an owl, Le Guin's multipurpose numinous animal of choice. Again, we need not interpret Le Guin's novel as a riposte,4 but Lavinia also self-consciously addresses this trend of righteously indignant feminist re-readings: "I am not the feminine voice you may have expected. Resentment is not what drives me to write my story. Anger, in part, perhaps. But not an easy anger. I long for justice, but I do not know what justice is" (68). In effect, whereas Atwood seems troubled by Homer's entire world--"The story as told in The Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies" (xv)--Le Guin takes Vergil to task more for a sin of omission, an

Professional & Technical
September 22
Mythopoeic Society
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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