Unless the forces and countercurrents of world history change abruptly or virtually reverse themselves, it is unlikely that an Englishman will ever again have the opportunity to approximate the exploits and terrors, the sense of achievement and frustration, that T. E. Lawrence experienced and described in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This work is autobiographical history, lived by a most extraordinary and strangely gifted man.
The unusual qualities manifest in the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom developed early. Lawrence’s lifelong interest in archaeology and his field of special study at Oxford brought about his travels as a professional archaeologist in exploratory rambles through Syria, Egypt, and Northern Mesopotamia. When war broke out in 1914, Lawrence, who spoke perfect Arabic and who knew the region, served in British Intelligence in Egypt. In 1916, Captain Lawrence sought leave from these duties to try to bring about unity among the Arab chieftains in order to counteract the military and political activities of Turkey. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is concerned with these extraordinary years.
Following World War I, Lawrence’s life fell into unusual patterns. Granted many military distinctions and special recognition for his achievements during the war years, he refused nearly every honor. For a time, he served as Arab consultant at peace conferences and as a political adviser to the colonial office of his government. By 1921, however, his secretive nature had asserted itself. He enlisted as an aircraftman under the name of Ross; he saw duty as Private T. E. Shaw in the tank corps; and he enlisted again as T. E. Shaw in the air force. Upon completion of this last tour of duty, he returned to England, only to lose his life in a motorcycle crash. His strange and unusual life was filled with adventure, heroic achievement, planned self-effacement, and an accidental conclusion.
Just as extraordinary were the events culminating in the final publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Working from his own detailed notes, which he destroyed as he completed each major section of the book, Lawrence lost almost the entire first draft. Again he set about his task, this time writing from memory alone. Some of the work appeared as early as 1922 and in a limited edition in 1926. In the following year he issued an abridgement, Revolt in the Desert, for the general public. Following his death in 1935, the full text of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was released. Comparison of the complete work with Revolt in the Desert affords no good explanation for the author’s insistence upon the delay in releasing the full text.
Strange, even quixotic, as some of the incidents of Lawrence’s life and the fortunes of his principal publication may seem, the book itself is far more extraordinary and revealing: a detailed and absorbing recital of two years of striving, of attack and maneuver, of persuasion and rebuff, of privation and intense strain, which culminated in a large measure of success with partial victory of Arab forces over the common enemy, Turkey.
The title of this account is to some extent indicative of the complex mind of the author. Some years before, he selected the phrase from the first verse of the ninth chapter of the book of Proverbs: “Wisdom...
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