Excerpt from Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 288 pages
    Apr 2009, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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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.

Copyright © 2008 by Ursula K. Le Guin

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