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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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Korda knows his subject, to be sure. He mentions in an aside that his uncle once owned the film rights to Lawrence’s condensed version of his Arabian triumph, “Revolt in the Desert,” and even met with Lawrence and acceded to his wishes not to make the movie (at least while Lawrence was alive).

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At times, however, Korda’s familiarity with his subject and British military and political life does him – and, more important, the reader – no favors. Time and again, he tosses out casual mentions such as, “the future General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO,” as though such honorary shorthand is as familiar in 21st-century America as anything discussed on ESPN – or CNN, for that matter.

Also, Korda, the former editor in chief at publisher Simon & Schuster, obviously knows about putting books together. So why on earth did he allow a book filled with arcane and confusing geography to be assembled with a dearth of maps and without endpapers offering those much-needed maps at an easy glance?

Readers will find themselves flipping in frustration to find smaller maps from earlier pages to figure out just where Lawrence’s roving adventures are taking place.
Overall, however, such missteps are forgiven because of the care and detail the rest of the book offers. Fascinating asides abound, from the story of how Lawrence of Arabia became an international celebrity – thanks to a gifted American propagandist (Lowell Thomas) – to the parade of notable names who befriended Lawrence (George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, as well as Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill and Robert Graves, among many others).

“Hero” explores the follies and exasperation of fame, as well as the futility of resistance. By the time he was 30, Lawrence had seen more and achieved more than most men could hope to accomplish in several lifetimes. The final 16 years of his life – he died at 46 in a motorcycle crash – were dedicated to killing a legend that had already grown far beyond his control.

In this, Lawrence failed more spectacularly than he ever did elsewhere. Even today, he remains, as Churchill once described him, “one of nature’s greatest princes.”

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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