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Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Nearly a century after Lawrence of Arabia’s fame, many of his ideas about the Middle East remain prescient.

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So Lawrence washes upon us again, thanks to Korda, whose timing couldn’t be better. Just as the caldron of Middle East politics has taken its most dramatic turn since Lawrence led a motley band of rival Arab warriors in a successful, unified revolt against the Turks, the story of the ascetic genius behind that earlier groundswell carries tremendous relevance for anyone trying to better grasp the modern Arab world.

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For those who care little for geopolitical entanglements, Lawrence’s story is story enough. He remains an enigmatic and fascinating character 76 years after his death.

T.E. Lawrence, like his four brothers, was illegitimate. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, gave up status and wealth to run away with Sarah Lawrence, the governess to his four daughters. Sir Thomas never divorced his first wife, but left under a lengthy cloud of shame to create a new life with Sarah, the strict, domineering mother of the future Lawrence of Arabia.

Despite, and because of, a lifelong clash of wills with his mother, Lawrence displayed prodigious intellect and ambition from an early age. Korda notes that Lawrence learned Latin at 5 years old and French the following year. Sir Thomas was a pervasive and strong influence, as well, passing along many of his interests, from architecture to classical literature.

From the beginning, Lawrence displayed a character largely resistant to authority and incapable of homogeneity. As a teenager, he lived in a cottage behind his parents’ house, where, in typical fashion, Lawrence spent most of his time pursuing what interested him (including the history and setting of the Holy Land, weapons and armor, coins, heraldry, and more) rather than what formal education demanded.

Several vital mentors helped him through his time in college at Oxford and, later, his brilliant but odd military career. At 5-foot-5, Lawrence was nonetheless formidable, boasting “ice-blue” eyes, a firm jaw, and blond hair. His pain threshold was all but inhuman and his expertise far-flung: marksman, military strategist, diplomat, writer, scientist and more. Korda quotes liberally from Lawrence’s account of his heroics, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” a work that tortured its author even as it dazzled such contemporary literary lights as George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster.

Beyond those outsized talents, Lawrence possessed determination and endurance in abundance. He learned the intricacies of all manner of explosives and gadgets through potentially lethal trial and error, endured sexual assault at the hands of the Turks while being held prisoner, and persisted in his improbable desert campaign amid infinite agonies. Among the agonies Korda cites: “heat, cold, rain, flash floods, windstorms, biting insects, and sandstorms, sometimes all on the same day.”

Lawrence required little food, subsisting on meager portions that rarely included meat. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, he also had a lifelong aversion to physical contact and willed himself against sexual interest of any kind. Material possessions meant little to him. Lawrence retained a rare gift for mixing with the wealthy and influential while living in modest fashion long after celebrity arrived.

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