Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hero: A valuable, detailed biography of T.E. Lawrence.

T.E. Lawrence is a fascinating historical figure whose life is often blurred between fact and fiction. This may be because Lawrence himself would simultaneously step into the limelight, while denying his own identity. He was a shapeshifter, “Lawrence of Arabia” one moment, Aircraftman First Class T.E. Shaw the next. Those around him went along with the ruse, like a Tony Clifton audience sans nicotine and alcohol, hoping he would revert to Colonel Lawrence, “the uncrowned King of Arabia” before the act was over. Michael Korda sifts through this, Lawrence’s interesting and confusing life, in the aptly-titled biography, Hero.
Korda starts with a description of Lawrence’s World War I service, his eighteen months leading the Arabian revolt against the Turks. The detail here is enough that someone who is unfamiliar with Lawrence will begin to realize why his actions were studied by Mao and Che Guevara, and remain important scholarship for unconventional warriors today. Hero then starts at the proverbial beginning, chronicling Lawrence’s childhood and college years where his intelligence, endurance, and quirkiness all combined to form this unique character. Most enjoyable are Korda’s description of Lawrence Oxford years, especially his study of archeology in Egypt, Turkey, and throughout the rest of what is today’s Middle East that made him so familiar with the various tribes, cultures, and dialects and thus invaluable to British efforts against the Turks.
Hero thoroughly covers the revolt in the desert, quoting at times from Lawrence’s own work on the subject, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Korda adds his own insight into some of the actions, and the geopolitical fencing between the French and British as they determined the lines to be drawn in this new territory vis-à-vis the Sykes-Picot agreement. He also includes a much appreciated discussion of Lawrence’s role as the advisor to Prince Faisal in the post-war talks.
Like Lawrence’s college years, Korda thoroughly covers the years when he sought anonymity while simultaneously publishing Revolt in the Desert and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is most curious that Lawrence would develop long friendships with the likes of Winston Churchill and Bernard and Charlotte Shaw (whose name adopted as his nom de guerre), while serving in the enlisted ranks as means to avoid attention.  He even surreptitiously attended Lowell Thomas’ performance in London of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, likely reveling in the tale while hoping nobody noticed him.
The whole account is a valuable addition to any library, but especially those who appreciate history and T.E. Lawrence in particular. Korda should be most commended for the aforementioned sections on Lawrence’s college and post-war years as they provide insight into the man not commonly found elsewhere.

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