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Lawrence: Fresh Look at Warrior of Desert

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By Janet Maslin

  • Nov. 21, 2010

Michael Korda’s long, sometimes secondhand but finally satisfying book about T. E. Lawrence starts in a strange way. He opens “Hero” in 1917, when Lawrence, an Englishman leading an Arab guerrilla force and using military tactics that proved to have enduring impact, devises the bold strategic move of attacking the port city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, by approaching it from an unexpected direction. In the monumental film biography of Lawrence that Mr. Korda does his best not to mention, this is the very famous “Aqaba — from the land!” moment.

The success of this strategic Aqaba coup would establish Lawrence’s legend. It was a pivotal part of his story, and for that reason may seem like a logical starting point. But it is also an oft-described, hashed-over and heavily analyzed event in military history, to the point where Mr. Korda relies transparently and heavily on the work of Lawrence’s many other biographers. And he too often simply quotes or paraphrases Lawrence’s own classic book about his desert military experiences, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

best biography t e lawrence

Why start “Hero” with what will turn out to be Mr. Korda’s least original contributions to a latter-day understanding of Lawrence and his reputation? Perhaps because of the title conceit. Although the sensible raison d’être for “Hero” is that there has not been a major Lawrence biography in years (there have been Lawrence-related books but no full-fledged portrait), Mr. Korda seems to want a catchier hook. So he repeatedly stamps this biography with the idea of Lawrence as a classically heroic figure.

Calling Lawrence a hero means trotting out the Joseph Campbell archetypes, bringing up Napoleon, Ajax, Ulysses and Achilles, and using the word “hero” as often as possible. It means finding heroic implications in Lawrence’s reading of William Morris’s “Sigurd the Volsung,” a “Victorian-Icelandic-Anglo-Saxon-German epic poem.” But as “Hero” later acknowledges, Lawrence was much too complicated and self-contradictory to fit any one-word label. And if he has to be given one, in light of his ambivalent yet attention-seeking attitudes about being famous, it makes almost as much sense to simply call him a star.

After the Aqaba opening, “Hero” goes back to the history of the Lawrence family, which Mr. Korda, in one of his more assured and comfortable moments, says gives the lie to Tolstoy’s famous pronouncement about happy families being all alike. (“The Lawrences constituted a very happy family,” he writes, “but one that hardly resembled anyone else’s.”) It then follows the young T. E. Lawrence, called Ned, to Carchemish, the Hittite dig where he spent several happy years, made himself conversant with Arab life and culture, and had the closest thing to a love affair that he would ever experience. Even in this part of the book the familiar voices of biographers like John E. Mack (who took a psychiatric look at Lawrence), Richard Aldington (who took a nastily debunking one) and those seeking a covert homosexual subtext in Lawrence’s story are echoed in Mr. Korda’s prose.

But the strength of “Hero” lies in its ability to analyze Lawrence’s accomplishments and to add something meaningful to the larger body of Lawrence lore . It is here that Mr. Korda’s full affinity for his subject shows. Like seemingly everyone with an attachment to Lawrence, he formed an intense one and formed it early. Mr. Korda joined the Royal Air Force in the 1950s (as Lawrence had joined it under an assumed name after he became world famous) and rode a motorcycle for 50 years, seduced by the allure of Lawrence’s dashing example.

Mr. Korda writes with authority about the disputes among the various camps of Lawrence biographers and scholars; about the lasting impact of Lawrence’s ideas for creating post-World War I borders in the Middle East (not perfect, but respectful of religious, ethnic and cultural differences in ways that the actual creation of Iraq, Syria and other parts of the region were not); and especially about the merits of Lawrence’s writing and the bizarrely complicated publishing history that Lawrence created for his magnum opus. In all these areas, his commentary is sagacious and valuable.

As an illustrious editor in his own right, Mr. Korda is in a fine position to assess Lawrence’s savvy instincts about keeping “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” scarce; about publishing the abridged, “boy-scout” version that was “Revolt in the Desert” (Mr. Korda deems it the more readable of the two); about dicier literary projects like “The Mint”; and about soliciting advice from literary friends like George Bernard Shaw, who was more than happy to dish it out. “Confound you and the book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo,” Shaw once wrote to Lawrence, who was not only a Shaw protégé but, Korda says, also a model for his “Saint Joan.”

Most important, Mr. Korda makes himself a credible authority on some of the most egregious misconceptions that surround Lawrence’s story. He is particularly dismissive of the idea that postwar Lawrence, variously known as T. E. Ross and T. E. Shaw, lived a monastic and friendless life. If anything, he sees Lawrence as an adroit networker with many powerful friends and a remarkable ability to gain access to world leaders. He thinks the romantic allure of Lawrence’s accomplishments should not obscure the great foresight, planning abilities and meticulousness for which he should be equally famous.

As for Lawrence’s military importance in the Arab Revolt and his direct communication lines to Edmund Allenby, the British commander in the Middle East, Mr. Korda ably puts that in perspective too. It is as if, he writes, “an acting major commanding a small force of guerrillas behind enemy lines had direct access to Eisenhower whenever he pleased in the second half of 1944.” And yet, to a man with Lawrence’s heroic aspirations, such access never seemed overreaching or abnormal.

The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

By Michael Korda

Illustrated. 762 pages. Harper. $36.

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T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence was a British military officer who took part in the Great Arab Revolt and later wrote the memoir 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.'

T.E. Lawrence

Who Was T.E. Lawrence?

T.E. Lawrence served in the British military, becoming involved in Middle Eastern affairs and playing a key role in the Great Arab Revolt. He was a staunch advocate for Arab independence and later pursued a private life, changing his name. Author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia , he died on May 19, 1935.

'Lawrence of Arabia'

Born on August 16, 1888, in Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales, Thomas Edward Lawrence became an expert in Arab affairs as a junior archaeologist in Carchemish on the Euphrates River from 1911 to 1914, working for the British Museum on archaeological excavations. After the start of World War I, he entered British intelligence.

Lawrence joined Amir Faisal al Husayn's revolt against the Turks as political liaison officer, leading a guerilla campaign that harassed the Turks behind their lines. After a major victory at Aqaba—a port city on the southern coast of what is now Jordan—Lawrence's forces supported British General Allenby's campaign to capture Jerusalem.

In 1917, Lawrence was captured at Dar'a and tortured and sexually abused, leaving emotional scars that never healed. By 1918, Lawrence had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Order of Bath by King George V, but politely refused the medals in support of Arab independence.

Spiritually and physically exhausted, and uncomfortable with his fame, Lawrence returned to England and began diligently working on an account of his adventures .

'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' and Later Years

His book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom , was published shortly thereafter, becoming known for its vivid descriptions of the incredible breadth and variety of Lawrence's activities in Arabia. The work garnered international fame for Lawrence, who was aptly dubbed "Lawrence of Arabia."

After the war, Lawrence joined the Royal Air Force under an assumed name, T.E. Shaw (in his quest for anonymity, he had his name officially changed).

Death and 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident on May 19, 1935, in Clouds Hill, Dorset, England.

A film based on his life, Lawrence of Arabia , directed by David Lean and starring Peter O'Toole, was released in 1962. The film won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture.


  • Name: Thomas Edward Lawrence
  • Birth date: August 16, 1888
  • Birth City: Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales
  • Birth Country: United Kingdom
  • Best Known For: T.E. Lawrence was a British military officer who took part in the Great Arab Revolt and later wrote the memoir 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.'
  • Politics and Government
  • World War I
  • Journalism and Nonfiction
  • Astrological Sign: Leo
  • City of Oxford High School for Boys
  • Interesting Facts
  • T.E. Lawrence was only 5'5" tall—possibly the result of a bout of mumps in childhood, thought by some to have stunted his growth.
  • Death date: May 19, 1935
  • Death City: Clouds Hill, Dorset, England
  • Death Country: United Kingdom
  • All men dream; but not equally.

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  1. T.E. Lawrence

    T.E. Lawrence (born August 16, 1888, Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales—died May 19, 1935, Clouds Hill, Dorset, England) British archaeological scholar, military strategist, and author best known for his legendary war activities in the Middle East during World War I and for his account of those activities in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

  2. T. E. Lawrence

    Thomas Edward Lawrence CB DSO (16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935) was a British archaeologist, army officer, diplomat, and writer who became renowned for his role in the Arab Revolt (1916–1918) and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915–1918) against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

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    He opens “Hero” in 1917, when Lawrence, an Englishman leading an Arab guerrilla force and using military tactics that proved to have enduring impact, devises the bold strategic move of attacking...

  5. T.E. Lawrence

    QUICK FACTS Name: Thomas Edward Lawrence Birth date: August 16, 1888 Birth City: Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales Birth Country: United Kingdom Best Known For: T.E. Lawrence was a British...