Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

BOOK: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
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The Life and Legend
Lawrence of Arabia

For Margaret, again and always
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
    But westward, look, the land is bright.
—Arthur Hugh Clough,
“Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth”
I do not pretend to have understood T. E. Lawrence fully, still less to be able to portray him; there is no brush fine enough to catch the subtleties of his mind, no aerial viewpoint high enough to bring into one picture the manifold of his character…. I am not a tractable person or much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world. I loved him for himself, and also because there seemed to be reborn in him all the lost friends of my youth…. If genius be, in Emerson’s phrase, “a stellar and undiminishable something,” whose origin is a mystery and whose essence cannot be defined, then he was the only man of genius I have ever known.
—John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir),
Pilgrim’s Way
          The will is free;
Strong is the soul, and wise and beautiful;
The seeds of godlike power are in us still;
Gods are we, bards, saints, heroes, if we will!
—Matthew Arnold,
    written in a copy of Emerson’s Essays
He was indeed a dweller upon mountain tops where the air is cold, crisp and rarefied, and where the view on clear days commands all the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.
—Winston S. Churchill,
    on Lawrence
Oh! If only he had died in battle! I have lost my son, but I do not grieve for him as I do for Lawrence…. I am counted brave, the bravest of my tribe; my heart was iron, but his was steel. A man whose hand was never closed, but open…. Tell them…. Tell them in England what I say. Of manhood, the man, in freedom, free; a mind without equal; I can see no flaw in him.
—Sheikh Hamoudi,
    on being told of Lawrence’s death


t has been ninety-two years since the end of World War I, known until September 1939 as the Great War. Of the millions who fought in it, of the millions who died in it, of its many heroes, perhaps the only one whose name is still remembered in the English-speaking world is T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

There are many reasons for this—even during his own lifetime Lawrence was transformed into a legend and a myth, the realities of his accomplishments overshadowed by the bright glare of his fame and celebrity—and it is the purpose of this book to explore them, as objectively, and sympathetically, as possible, for Lawrence was from the beginning a controversial figure, and one who very often did his best to cover his tracks and mislead his biographers.

Since the British government began to open its files and release what had hitherto been secret documents in the 1960s, Lawrence’s feats have been confirmed in meticulous detail. What he wrote that he did, he did—if anything he underplayed his role in the Arab Revolt, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that followed the Allies’ victory, and the British effort to create a new Middle East out of the shards of the defeated Ottoman Empire in 1921 and 1922. Many of the problems that confront us in the Middle East today were foreseen by Lawrence, and he had a direct hand in some of them. Today, when the Middle East is the main focus of our attention, and when insurgency, his specialty, is the main weapon of our adversaries, the story of Lawrence’s life is more important than ever.

As we shall see, he was a man of many gifts: a scholar, an archaeologist, a writer of genius, a gifted translator, a mapmaker of considerable talent. But beyond all that he was a creator of nations, of which two have survived; a diplomat; a soldier of startling originality and brilliance; an authentic genius at guerrilla warfare; an instinctive leader of men; and above all, a hero.

We have become used to thinking of heroism as something that simply happens to people; indeed the word has been in a sense cheapened by the modern habit of calling everybody exposed to any kind of danger, whether voluntarily or not, a “hero.” Soldiers—indeed all those in uniform—are now commonly referred to as “our heroes,” as if heroism were a universal quality shared by everyone who bears arms, or as if it were an accident, not a vocation. Even those who die in terrorist attacks, and have thus had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, are described as “heroes,” though given a choice most of them would no doubt have preferred to be somewhere else when the blow was struck.

Lawrence, however, was a hero in the much older, classical sense—it is surely no accident that he decided to translate Homer’s Odyssey—and like the heroes of old he trained himself, from early childhood, for the role. Without the war, Lawrence might never have accomplished his ambition, but once it came he was prepared for it, both morally and physically. He had steeled himself to an almost inhuman capacity to endure pain; he had studied the arts of war and of leadership; he had carefully honed his courage and his skill at leading men—like the young Napoleon Bonaparte he was ready to assume the role of hero when fate presented him with the opportunity. He seized it eagerly with both hands in 1917, and like Ajax, Achilles, Ulysses, he could never let go of it. No matter how hard he tried to escape from his own legend and fame later on, they stuck to himto the very end of his life, and beyond: seventy-five years after his death he remains as famous as ever.

This book, therefore, is about the creation of a legend, a mythic figure, and about a man who became a hero not by accident, or even by one single act of heroism, but who made himself a hero by design, and did it so successfully that he became the victim of his own fame.

“His name will live in history,” King George V wrote on Lawrence’s death in 1935.

And it has.

BOOK: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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