Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia; A Book Review

Painting by Agustus Johns
Painting by Agustus Johns

When Thomas Edward Lawrence was a child he decided he would be a General and knighted by the time he was 30. When he was in his 20s, his military uniform didn’t quite fit and he didn’t wear it properly. He was well educated, intelligent, self-confident and regarded a know it all by his superiors. They were glad to get rid of him when he went into the desert. He came back as Lawrence of Arabia. He wanted to be neither a General nor knighted.

Hero is an overused word, but T. E. Lawrence is a true hero. Michael Korda’s biography, Hero: The Life and Times of Lawrence of Arabia, gives good insights Lawrence. The Western front was static and not attractive to making heroes. The Arabian front was mobile and exotic with mobile action and more conducive for war reporters to write about. When Lawrence united the Arabs, it was a a more interesting story for reporters to cover than the European war. Lowell Thomas spent a few days with Lawrence and made Lawrence famous in the United States as well Europe.

Lawrence’s parents never married and he felt they should have never had children. This encouraged him to repress his sexuality so that he was neither homosexual nor heterosexual. Lawrence’s brother said he died a virgin.

Lawrence met the requirements of Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero Has a Thousand Faces by the time WWI started. He had trained himself to forge ahead in spite of pain, learned several languages, read the best books on military theory, and learned how to use explosives. His whole life was a training ground for heroism on the grand scale, and WWI provided the opportunity to fulfill that destiny.

Korda relates World War I and the negotiations afterward that produce the Middle East as it is today and how it relates to the areas modern problems. The Middle East would have been a far different place under Lawrence’s vision.

Korda refers to Lawrence as one of the best military writers ever. Lawrence had a perfect recall of landscape and other details. Korda uses sections of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the biography to describe events. He uses Lawrence’s section from the book to describe his capture, beating and rape by a Turk in Deraa. During WWII the British used the Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a textbook to fight the Germans in Africa.

Michael Korda has a personal connection to Lawrence. His uncle, Zoltan Korda, was a film producer that owned the film rights to Revolt in the Desert. Lawrence didn’t want the publicity and met with Korda and he agreed to make the film later. Korda said Lawrence was the nicest man he never did business with. Sam Speigel acquired the rights from Korda and made Lawrence of Arabia in the ‘60s.

It’s hard to think of Lawrence of Arabia without hearing the theme music and picturing Peter O’Toole in billowing white robes. Korda writes about the movie that rekindled interest in Lawrence, and admits it is a great movie, but inaccurate.

T. E. Lawrence was a complicated man. He enlisted in the RAF anonymously, was insubordinate, arrogant and his RAF sergeant major said he was the worst recruit he ever had. Korda addresses these issues and others and tries to put the man in perspective.

The book is a detailed read, but a complete portrait of Lawrence. Lawrence was an interesting and important person, which provides enough reason to continue reading. The book contains military, political and diplomatic details, but anything less would have produced a superfluous attempt at reducing a complex man to a flat character. Throughout the book, Korda sprinkles insights about the negotiations that produced the modern Middle East. For anyone who wants to know more about military history, WWI or Lawrence of Arabia, this is a good introduction to the subject. I recommend Hero: The Life and Times of Lawrence of Arabia, even if the reader familiar with the material.

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