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.

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia By Michael Korda Harper 762 pp.

First Tunisia, then Egypt. Who’s next?

Those stunning liberations, driven by the so-called Arab street in recent weeks, seem poised to hopscotch to other countries in the Middle East, a prospect that would, no doubt, make Lawrence of Arabia smile.

Nearly a century after Lawrence became the most famous British military hero in World War I, many of his ideas and tactics in the Middle East remain prescient.

His guerrilla warfare strategies remain potent, as the improvised explosive devices of contemporary Iraq – a nation Lawrence created – make painfully clear.
And though Lawrence was political in his own way, he saw the need for Arab independence, pushing, in vain, for greater self-determination across that region during the Paris Peace Conference as the Western powers carved up the region with imperial interests at the forefront.

Those points resonate again and again in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Michael Korda’s lengthy new biography of Lawrence, a brilliant, idiosyncratic man who remains misunderstood despite (or because of) decades of biographies and the epic 1962 movie based on his life starring Peter O’Toole.

Lawrence spent three years in the desert during World War I, winning over hardened Bedouin warriors, serving as the military liaison to and securing the loyalty of Prince Feisal (the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca) and, of course, leading the disparate Arab factions and clans as they toppled the Turks and overturned longstanding Ottoman Empire control of the region. He did all of this despite being outmanned by a wide margin, relying on his own ingenuity to develop tactics such as the hit-and-run guerrilla style favored by insurgencies of all kinds to the present day.

That an Oxford University-trained scholar and archaeologist with no formal military training achieved all of this makes the story all the more compelling.
Add in a flair for the dramatic, embodied by his penchant for eschewing British military attire in favor of flowing white robes and Arabian kaffiyehs, and it’s little wonder that the story of Lawrence morphed into what Korda convincingly describes as the first modern-day celebrity circus.

Indeed, in his post-Arabian pursuits, a time when Lawrence tried and failed to win anonymity – albeit with flamboyant and provocative hiccups – Korda compares him to Princess Diana in his love-hate relationship with the media. Lawrence, as his first and most prominent biographer once put it, was forever “backing into the limelight.”

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.

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.

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).

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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