Hero: The Life And Legend Of Lawrence Of Arabia, by Michael Korda
This book, a sprawling effort of about 700 pages, sufficiently demonstrates the difficulty of writing about its subject. There are a variety of reasons for that–the subject remains his most notable source given his letters and sprawling work on his role in the Arab Revolt, and he was someone who did not want to be fully known and that always makes it harder to write about someone. The traumatic circumstances of Lawrence’s life certainly do not make for a great deal of ease in writing about someone either. Lawrence was the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish baronet who had a deep fear of intimacy, had suffered a violent rape during World War I, and long sought to provide order in his life by being an unusual enlisted soldier/airman in the interwar period after having achieved his fame as a guerrilla leader of the Arabs, and found himself with a strong appeal to sadomasochism, none of which make for pleasant writing even if the figure himself is compelling. And the author adds to his considerable skill in writing about Lawrence and a slight family connection (given that one of his uncles once had the film rights to the abridged version of Lawrence’s magnum opus) to the subject a high degree of sympathy with his subject that helps the reader to recognize the effects of trauma on a life that was destroyed by fame.
This book contains twelve large chapters that fill up 700 pages of material. The book begins with a list of maps and a preface. After that the author discusses an event in Aqaba that showcases Lawrence’s fame even as he was in the process of building a reputation as a hero (1), and discusses the successful takeover of Aqaba that marks one of the most daring military exploits of the 20th century (2). After that the author looks back at the family romance that serves as Lawrence’s troubled background (3). Most of the book from this point then proceeds in a chronological fashion through Lawrence’s education at Oxford (4) and the way that he gained a great deal of knowledge in archaeology in his work at Carchemish in the period just before the outbreak of World War I (5). One chapter covers his early efforts in Cairo during the first two years of war (6) before there are chapters discussing Lawrence’s successful efforts at helping the Arab revolt (7) as well as dealing with the triumphs and tragedies that marked his last year within the war (8). After that the author discusses his time seeking to help the Arabs at the Paris Peace Conference (9). The rest of the book is a bit anticlimactic, but that is the way that Lawrence’s life went, with a discussion of Lawrence’s backing into the limelight from 1920-1922 when he sought to disappear under another name (10), his period as a solitary in the ranks who had trouble fitting in (11), and the way he became a shadowy legend during the last few years of life (12). The book ends with an epilogue that discusses his reputation after his death along with acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, illustration credits, and an index.
One of the elements where this book excels is the discussion of the period after World War I. A great many books, some of which I have read, do a good job at talking about Lawrence as a bit of a boy wonder from a checkered background who rose to fame while still a very young man. There was a period, though, between the Peace of Paris in 1919 where he sought to intervene on behalf of the Arabs without much success and his death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, that is not much focused on. During this part of his life Lawrence managed to translate the Odyssey into English and also work on technical manuals that have been highly praised, while also writing a few works, including his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph and a book about his experiences in the Royal Air Force. The author does a good job at demonstrating the lingering effects of trauma and a sense of guilt about his sense of honor with regards to the Arabs. Given the author’s portrayal, it is interesting that his efforts to avoid fame by serving in a remote RAF base proved to be problematic when he was accused of seeking to undermine the government of Afghanistan. That’s life, though.