T. E. Lawrence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

T. E. Lawrence, that extraordinary if enigmatic figure who captured the battle-wearied imagination of the West after World War I, once again has surfaced as the subject of a major biography. In fact, the present study by Desmond Stewart is the third major biography of Lawrence to appear in the last decade. The reasons for Lawrence’s enduring reputation, however, are plain enough. Like Charles Lindbergh, he was a heroic figure in a world that became increasingly unheroic. In addition, the many uncertainties about every part of his life has made him a fascinating subject for biography. Lawrence, of course, was a legend in his own time, and, as it is with most legendary figures, he has both his defenders and his detractors. In this biography Desmond Stewart, a noted Arabic scholar, attempts to present Lawrence in a believable manner.

The basic outline of Lawrence’s life is easily discernible, as it always has been. Born in Wales in the year 1888, Lawrence spent his boyhood in Oxford where his family moved in 1896. It was there that he was schooled, there that he acquired an interest in archaeology, and there that he entered Jesus College in 1907. After winning first-class honors in history in 1910, he received a post-graduate award that allowed him to join an archaeological expedition at the old Hittite city of Carchemish in Asia Minor. His knowledge of the Arabs, their customs and language, and of the area, led to his being assigned to the Military Intelligence Office in Cairo at the start of the war in 1914. By the end of the war, he had emerged as a daring desert fighter and a person deeply involved in the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. When the war ended, Lawrence served for a while under Winston Churchill, who was then Colonial Secretary, as an adviser to the Middle East Department. After that, he spent time, under assumed names, in the Royal Air Force and in the Tank Corps, all the while gradually disappearing into self-imposed obscurity. As he became more estranged from public life, perhaps from life itself, he turned to writing and produced several books, including his famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Death came in 1935 as a result of a motorcycle crash.

Difficulties appear, however, the moment one strays beyond a basic sketch of his life. All of Lawrence’s biographers prove that in him fact and fiction become entwined as soon as one begins to explore the nature of the actions and thoughts of this remarkable man. The answers to questions necessary to ask to understand the real Lawrence appear enshrouded in mystery. Was Lawrence a legend of his own making? Was he a military genius? In what way was he attracted to the cause of Arab nationalism? Why, as his legend grew, did his own self-esteem appear to fade? On an even more personal side, his biographers want to know what the fact of his illegitimate birth and the influence of his mother meant to the unfolding of his own character. Were such personal roots the source of his heroic ambition, his adventures in the desert, or of dissatisfaction with himself in later years? In fact, almost every element, either of his personality or of his accomplishments, that any biographer must explain, is questionable and debatable in nature. But this should not come as a surprise, for he was, after all, an unlikely hero of an unusual theater of operation in one of the most unsettling wars of modern times. Nevertheless, all of the basic questions that must be asked about Lawrence are included in this book, and from its pages he emerges more as a vulnerable yet skillful person than he does a romantic hero.

The great appeal of Stewart’s treatment of Lawrence’s life lies in the effort he makes to find the real man behind the Lawrence legend. Basically, the author sees his subject as a fallible man greatly attuned to...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)