Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in the movie "Lawrence of  Arabia" of 1962 (photo: dpa)

The Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
The Recalcitrant Hero

With the benefit of hindsight, there is something superhuman about his character. However, more than almost anyone else, Lawrence embodies the transformation from hero to anti-hero that shaped literature in the twentieth century. By Stefan Weidner

T. E. Lawrence was not a literary figure. He was a real man, who lived and suffered. Because he became a legend in his own lifetime while at the same time shielding his (rather unexciting) private life from the intrusions of the press, the public at large knew little of the doubting, self-tormenting side of his personality. In terms of this dehumanisation at the hands of the all-consuming media, his figure was a forewarning of our present age. The fact that he was so pestered and pursued by the press made Lawrence's life difficult and twice cost him his much-loved job with the Royal Air Force.

On numerous occasions, the last of which took place shortly before his death in 1935 at the age of forty-six, Lawrence was forced to flee the journalists lying in wait for him – just as Princess Diana was to do years later. Like her, Lawrence too was killed in an accident caused by excessive speed, the difference being that Lawrence was on a motorbike, and was trying, more than anything, to escape himself.

British anti-heroicism

Despite all the attention he was paid during his lifetime, T. E. Lawrence was one of the few modern people who was never actually deceived by their own fame and the image of themselves created by the public; who never at a certain point began to imagine that their fame was justified and that what people said about them was, to a certain extent, true. Lawrence was modest in a way one could almost call militant; not necessarily in his personal dealings, but much more so towards the anonymous public. This led, among other things, to the fact that he, who could have been a wealthy man with women falling at his feet, constantly had financial worries and not one erotic relationship in his entire life.

By resisting both the media and the temptations of wealth and fame, he also looms large over the next, i.e. our twenty-first century. In an inverted way, one that could not have been foreseen, his story has come full circle: it is, of all things, his anti-heroicism that has the potential to make him a real hero, a role model.

Having said that, his legacy is not of a real, political, historical nature.

Of all that he achieved politically in the Middle East, if indeed he achieved anything at all, first as a British liaison officer to the Arab rebel army fighting the Turks and later as a diplomat at conferences discussing the new order in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, little or nothing remains. When considered from today's standpoint, his legacy is of a purely ideational nature. It is the legacy of a person who consistently refused to join the mainstream, to meet society's expectations, and who, although it obviously caused him a great deal of anguish, set himself his own standards, targets, and ideals and sought to implement them with an almost universally ingenious creativity in a number of fields.

Always one step ahead

British Army File photo of T.E. Lawrence in 1915 (copyright expired)
"Almost militantly modest": The legend surrounding his persona had become an unbearable burden for Thomas Edward Lawrence (16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935)

​​He, who could so easily have become rich, translated Homer's Odyssey from the Ancient Greek original into English in order to earn some money; a translation that experts say is still worth reading today. Instead of an academic career as an archaeologist back home in Oxford, he chose to spend years conducting field research under Spartan conditions on a Syrian excavation site. He recognised at an early stage the possibilities opened up by photography and had a camera made especially for him. This camera, which he used to document his excavations and archæological finds, can now be admired in the Oxford Science Museum. It is thanks to Lawrence that we have some spectacular shots of the Arab campaign he led against the Turks during World War One, and of the desert landscapes of the Arabian peninsula.

With his enthusiasm for the latest technical innovations of the day, Lawrence was typical of his era; and he was not an imitator, lagging behind the times, but was always one step ahead. 'Il faut être absolument moderne,' wrote the French poet Rimbaud in 1870. Lawrence was just that: so absolutely modern that it can be no coincidence that he was a contemporary of the Futurists. His fascination with speed shaped a large part of his life, and also put an end to it. He always drove the newest and best motorcycle built by the English luxury motorcycle manufacturer Brough. It was the only hobby he permitted himself, and one for which he occasionally, and as an exception, made use of his fame when he didn't have enough money to buy the latest model.

Undeterred by the difficulties, or by a crash-landing that cost his pilots their lives and Lawrence himself a broken collarbone, in 1919 he hitched a ride to Cairo with a squadron of First World War bombers because it was much faster than making the journey by train and boat. He was later part of an Air Force unit that developed and tested high-speed boats intended for the rescue of pilots who had to ditch their planes in the sea. Once this information came to light, the Sunday Chronicle brought the following headline on 28th August 1932: 'Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence: The Man behind Great Britain's Aeroplanes, Cars, and Speedboats' (cf. Jeremy Wilson's biography). Although most of the report was a fabrication, it intuitively described one of Lawrence's essential characteristics.

In The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil writes how strange it is that people still see riders as the epitome of heroism, even though the modern age offers quite different means of transport. Lawrence, who for many people of his age was the epitome – or perhaps the last nostalgic incarnation – of the classic war hero on a horse and camel (a brand of hero that disappeared in the storm of steel that was the First World War), must have been one of the few people of his era who had already internalised the ideas of Ulrich, Musil's man without qualities. In 1908, only one year after the first Tour de France, which presented the bicycle to the world as a fast and contemporary means of transport, Lawrence completed his own Tour de France from Le Havre on the English Channel to the Mediterranean coast, a trip of some 3,860 kilometres, which he covered in a breathtaking four weeks, the main purpose of (or excuse for) which was an academic study about the architecture of medieval fortresses in France.

Moreover, among the very few luxury items in Lawrence's remote and painstakingly renovated cottage, Clouds Hill, was a good gramophone – where possible, the very latest model – and, in addition to the books, an extensive collection of records.

The martyr of his own expectations

Books were the other great weakness of this strange ascetic who for a long time wanted to be a publisher of magnificent editions, and who only allowed the main fruits of his literary endeavour, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, to be published unabridged in a luxury edition with lavish, multi-coloured plates. This edition was unaffordable for the common reader (he permitted publication of a standard edition only for the US market, thereby missing out on a lot of money).

Lawrence's procrastination with regard to the publication was born of his literary pretensions. Lawrence not only saw himself as a writer; to be one was his greatest desire. Here too we find the typical structure of Lawrence's personality: in his writing, Lawrence is the martyr of his own expectations. One could say that he is Kafka and Max Brod (who published Kafka's manuscripts against his will) in one, an almost tragi-comic literary figure constantly doubting his own talent. The fact that he left his briefcase with the first, almost completed manuscript of the Seven Pillars in the waiting room of a provincial railway station and never got it back almost seems like an unconsciously-intentional Freudian slip on the part of an author who repeatedly postponed the completion and publication of his magnum opus. However, his clear awareness, his will, and his typical discipline won the day: he simply sat down and wrote out the entire book again.

Deconstructing the legend

Movie poster 'Lawrence of Arabia'
Of all the popular portrayals of Lawrence, David Lean's film is the most accurate and the most sensitive. "It succeeds in doing away with more prejudices and legends than it actually creates," writes Weidner

​​Yet T. E. Lawrence's writing is based on another ambiguity. Lawrence was already planning a work entitled The Seven Pillars of Wisdom during his time as an archæologist in Syria. The title is taken from the Book of Proverbs: 'Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars' (Prov. 9:1). Lawrence's original intention was to write a travel book about seven cities in the Orient with which – with the exception of Baghdad – he was already familiar: Constantinople, Cairo, Smyrna, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad. When the eponymous book was eventually published (1926 in the bibliophile edition, 1927 in the abridged people's edition in the USA, the complete edition being published only in 1935), it outlined his experiences of war.

By this time, Lawrence was already a celebrity and his work was first and foremost – regardless of the author's literary pretensions – an account of his war experiences, an account of the kind that was published after the war in large numbers and in varying quality. The work can also be read as an example of memoir literature written by a celebrity. It is not fictional belles letters, because it focuses on immediate contemporary history and unashamedly describes living people with whom, as Lawrence correctly feared, he could (and did) therefore end up clashing.

Another aspect was more problematic: there was no getting around the fact that an account of personal experience as literarily and stylistically ambitious as this, written by a now world-famous war hero, would inevitably contribute to and increase his fame. This too was deeply modern: here we have the hero writing his own book, just like today, when every common-or-garden celebrity writes – or gets someone else to write – his or her autobiography. It goes without saying that none of our stars, heroes, politicians, celebrities, or their ghost-writers writes anywhere near as well as T. E. Lawrence. Yet this does not alter the fact that the Seven Pillars can be read both as a war memoir and as a piece of literature.

However, the book is more than this: between the lines it is also a political appeal for Arab independence and against British imperialism, as well as a celebration of the natural world of the Arabian peninsula and of the Bedouin Arab way of life, and all completely free of any religious or anti-Muslim sentiment. It is this blend that makes the book worth reading to this day, even if one does not consider it a literary milestone. At the same time, in writing this book, Lawrence was – whether intentionally or otherwise – adding to his own legend. It is likely that as far as he was concerned, he wanted to correct the legend if not deconstructing it altogether. As already mentioned above, this legend had become an unbearable burden for him.

Originally, the cultivation of the Lawrence legend was part of official war propaganda. The story is hinted at in the famous 1962 film about Lawrence, directed by David Lean and starring the magnificent Peter O'Toole as Lawrence. In order to win over the American public for the Allied cause – the US only entered the war in 1917 – the British War Ministry sent an American press team to Cairo to document the battle for the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany. It seemed much more likely that they would be able to provide a positive view of the war against this backdrop than against that of the heavy ammunition battles on the Western front. British Army Command in Cairo then came up with the idea of sending the photographer and his reporter to the Arab rebel army and their liaison officer, T. E. Lawrence.

T. E. Lawrence on his Brough Superior (copyright expired)
High-Brough hobby of a "strange ascetic": Driving models of the English luxury motorcycle manufacturer Brough was practically the only hobby Lawrence permitted himself

​​Lowell Thomas, the journalist in question, and his photographer immediately recognised that Lawrence's activities would make great news (an episode that is also included in the David Lean film). Nevertheless, Lawrence only became a frequently-mentioned figure in the European press in 1918, after Britain's General Allenby had taken control of Jerusalem. Although he was considered a war hero, he was certainly not a legend or a media star. That came later, as a result of Lowell Thomas's post-war activities.

After a war with such heavy losses, the public yearned for a positive perspective and a classic hero. In the form of (coloured) slides and short film sequences, Thomas had the material he needed to supply them with both. In this way, the Lawrence legend is not the product of exceptional military achievement (as much as it could have been), but the product of a new media for which Lawrence himself had a great weakness: photography. On the basis of the material shot in the Middle East, Thomas put together an illustrated lecture using state-of-the-art slide projector technology.

Rumour mill working overtime

His series of lectures began on 14th August 1919 in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. On 2nd October of that year, the Daily Telegraph wrote: 'With his films, Mr Lowell Thomas makes Lawrence seem like the Chosen One.' The Lawrence legend was born. More than one million people, including members of the Royal Family and leading politicians, attended the lectures in London over the course of four months. In subsequent years, almost four million people (!) were to follow. According to Lawrence's biographer Jeremy Wilson, the Palestinian campaign was described as the 'last crusade', and in this context Lawrence suddenly saw himself thrust into the role of national hero.

For Lowell Thomas, it was an inexhaustible source of money. Lawrence, on the other hand, distanced himself from the spectacle as much as he could. On 10th January 1920, he wrote to his acquaintance A.J. Murray: 'They [the lectures] are as revolting as they could possibly be and make my life very difficult because I have neither the money nor the desire to maintain the permanent role of the fraud he makes me out to be. He [Lowell Thomas] asked me to correct his proofs, but that was simply impossible for me because I could not have let one-tenth of them pass. […] I simply did not know where to start setting the record straight' (Wilson, p. 474).

Various other aspects, for which Lawrence was also responsible, albeit not intentionally, intensified the effect. Initially, his general recalcitrance with the press set the rumour mill working overtime. He even declined a request for an interview with the serious broadsheet The Times, with the words: "I fear I cannot grant you the interview. I never pay attention to what people claim about me or say about me, but I do my best to avoid helping them do so, and I myself will not make any statements about it. It is embarrassing to read my name in the press and despite the courteous manner in which Lowell Thomas portrays me, I very much wish he had left me out of his show."

Scene from 'Lawrence of Arabia'
Self-doubt and internal struggles of a war-time hero: The film's themes include Lawrence's emotional struggles with the personal violence inherent in war, his personal identity, and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army and his newfound comrades within the Arabian desert tribes

​​The curiosity of the press was merely intensified by his secretiveness about his career. With the approval of Army Command, he re-enlisted in 1922 as an ordinary aviation soldier (he had been made a lieutenant-colonel during the war) under an assumed name. When his cover was blown rumours spread like wildfire, and in the summer of 1928 he was sent to Waziristan, near the Afghan border with British India. When this news trickled through, the London Evening News published a story with the headline 'Lawrence of Arabia on a secret mission. Fighting red activities in the Punjab. Posing as a holy man. Banning the evil eye and healing diseases' on 26th September 1928 (Wilson, p. 603).

When a revolt did actually break out in Afghanistan a few weeks later, the rumours got so out of hand that the British were forced to withdraw Lawrence from the border region. He never in fact set foot in Afghanistan; instead, he spent his time in this sleepy outpost drafting a new translation of Homer's Odyssey from the Ancient Greek. Rarely have rumours been so far from the truth. When he returned to England, a group of journalists was already waiting for him on the quay. His subsequent activity, designing high-speed rescue boats for the Air Force, was also the stuff of wild rumours, as illustrated by the report quoted above concerning 'Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence, the government's speed expert'.

Moreover, as cynical as it may sound, Lawrence's premature death in a motorcycle accident in 1935 was the icing on the cake of his potential status as a legend. Photos taken at the funeral show a number of well-known faces, including that of Winston Churchill.

Self-doubt and internal struggles

With the Second World War and the subsequent new order in the Middle East, which also eradicated the remaining concrete results of Lawrence's Arabian campaign, and with the rise of new heroes and more widely effective media, one would have expected the Lawrence legend to fade. On the contrary, another medium, namely film, has kept the legend alive – to be more precise, the historic, wide-screen, technicolour Hollywood film, i.e. cinema at the height of its resplendent glory, a glory that we today can barely imagine, with its pretensions to being a complete work of art.

The film was made in the golden age of cinema, and with actors who have since become legends in their own right: Alec Guinness, Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn. Nowhere are its pretensions to classicism more apparent than at the start: it opens with a screen that remains black for five minutes, like the overture to an opera before the curtain is raised. Given its nature, the film inevitably revived the Lawrence legend and introduced it to an even larger audience, through a more lasting medium than Lowell Thomas's lectures.

The idea of a film about Lawrence was not, however, born in the age of CinemaScope. In the early 1930s, a director approached Lawrence and asked whether he would agree to his war experiences being adapted for the silver screen. Naturally he did not, and would not have done so at a later date if he had lived to see the genesis of the new film, as would have been possible had he not died prematurely. And yet, of all the popular portrayals of Lawrence, David Lean's film is the most accurate and the most sensitive. It succeeds – and this is not exactly typical of a Hollywood film – in doing away with more prejudices and legends than it actually creates. Carefully, yet also unmistakably, the film and its wonderful leading actor, Peter O'Toole, show the self-doubt and internal struggles of this hero.

The fact that it was possible, in a film shot for a mass audience, to portray a figure such as this as a broken man, one who is not, in the positive sense, at one with himself, hints at the growing awareness of anti-heroism in the twentieth century. Even if most people still like to see Lawrence as a classic hero, it was suddenly possible – as it was not during his lifetime – to make the anti-matter of his character visible. Ever since, the Lawrence legend has had the potential to continue to exert an influence right on into the twenty-first century, albeit in a very different way: namely as a legend of resistance and abstinence, scepticism, asceticism – values that no longer have champions or media in Western society.

The disappointed idealist

Curiously, in terms of the history of mentality Lawrence's ethos, from his moral rigidity – directed principally against himself – to his sexual asceticism, is more reminiscent of the Taliban than of the high-tech Western armies that are fighting them.

Photo exhibition 'Lawrence of Arabia' (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Growing awareness of anti-heroism in the 20th century: Lawrence's legend is a tale of resistance and abstinence, scepticism, asceticism – "values that no longer have champions or media in Western society"

​​Yet even for the era in which he lived Lawrence was a true, albeit relatively unhappy, British citizen; he was an outsider, above all because he took British culture and mentality seriously in an almost naive manner; he measured both – and himself – against their ideals. This was the perfect recipe for a man with a depressive disposition who would never be happy with himself or with the society in which he lived. If people still identify with Lawrence to this day, they do so not with the media-inflated hero we met in the twentieth century, but with the disappointed idealist, the man struggling with himself, the disenchanted man, who put his life on the line for something in which he himself had difficulty believing.

As an anti-hero, he is more than just a negative, failing hero. He is, above all, the wrongly interpreted, misunderstood hero; a man who could not identify with his role, and who was not what he appeared to be. It is therefore here, in the fracture between appearance and reality, that we find the decisive characteristic of this kind of figure. The prerequisite for this fracture is the drifting apart of the portrayal and the person portrayed, in this case the drifting apart of the apparent content of the heroism or legend and that which the hero, the object of the legend, himself actually feels. The precondition for this division is, at least in this case, not so much the reality of the war, but the way it is presented.

To put it another way, the division could not have happened without the development of the (mass) media, which has had the effect that the image (or the rumour, the legend) has increasingly made itself independent, with no feedback mechanisms, no real relationship to the subject which could constitute a fair representation. The representation – which in Lawrence's case was the image, the word, the slide show – becomes independent and has only a purported relationship with its subject. Lowell Thomas's illustrated lectures demonstrate this point with extreme clarity.


© Boris Becker + VG Bild Kunst Bonn
The Wadi Rum photos by Boris Becker do not reduce the existing traces of Lawrence of Arabia to a ready-made idea, writes Weidner. "I believe that T. E. Lawrence would have found himself in these photos, simply because he is not to be seen in any of them" © Boris Becker + VG Bild Kunst Bonn


The message Thomas conveyed about Lawrence corresponded more with the desires and perceptions of his audience – at least after the hero-destroying mechanism of the First World War – than with anything with which Lawrence himself was associated. Any remaining traces of his heroic ego were eradicated in 1917, at the latest when he was whipped in captivity, an episode he relates so memorably in the Seven Pillars.

He had been captured while on a reconnaissance mission at the railway junction Deraa in Syria, which was ruled by the Turks. Luckily for him, he was not recognised (the Turks had put an exorbitant price on his head). Nevertheless, while being tortured with the whip during interrogation he felt, as he wrote, a 'gradual disintegration of his entire self' (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, New York 1935, p. 444). Since then, if not before, he was inwardly torn, and must have considered every subsequent glorification of himself to be false.

A present absence

The splitting of the public persona from the true character, of the image from the object depicted is, of course, at work in every kind of media representation that seeks to achieve more than just being a work of art in its own right. This is particularly true of every photographic or film portrayal of the Arab world. In this case, the Occidental clichés have long since overshadowed the reality, not necessarily with evil intent, but because the media portrayal of reality seems all the more like data reduction the more foreign and distant the object actually is – in other words, the less capable we are of filling in the unavoidable gaps in the representation with our own views. Television reports on the various conflicts in the Middle East are a prime example of this.

The photos by Boris Becker that have been reproduced in the print edition of this magazine, on the other hand, move in the opposite direction, in that they do not reduce the existing traces of Lawrence of Arabia to a ready-made idea, or to the expectation prompted by the Lawrence legend; rather, they return to them a kind of speechlessness and openness of interpretation. Just as Lawrence the reluctant hero withdrew from the public and its over-hasty interpretation of his character, these photographs withdraw from prior expectation.

However, that which was tragic for T. E. Lawrence the man, namely the fact that his resistance provoked many rumours, comes across in Boris Becker's Lawrence photos as the strength of not establishing a specific interpretation; a state of affairs which allows beholders to arrive at their own interpretations without prescribing these from the word go. As accurate and virtually objective as they seem, the photos decline to tell us anything binding about the object of the image. Instead of relieving us of the task of interpretation, they challenge us to interpret.

I believe that T. E. Lawrence would have found himself in these photos, simply because he is not to be seen in any of them. Perhaps, however, it is possible to put this more accurately: he has disappeared from the images, but like all things that have disappeared he is somehow still present, though invisible, as the missing element. The present absence of Lawrence in these pictures fulfils, in a contemporarily enlightened manner, an old hope from the early days of photography, namely that photographs might make visible the spirits of the dead.

Stefan Weidner

© Goethe-Institut / Fikrun wa Fann 2011

Stefan Weidner (b. 1967) lives and works as an author, translator of Arabic, and literary critic in Cologne and Berlin. His book publications include the 'narrated essay' Mohammedanische Versuchungen [Mohammadan Temptation], the travel report Fes (including 21 photographs taken by the author), and the intentionally controversial Manual für den Kampf der Kulturen. Warum der Islam eine Herausforderung ist [Manual for the Clash of Civilisations: Why Islam Is a Challenge].

Translated by Aingeal Flanagan editor: Lewis Gropp

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Comments for this article: The Recalcitrant Hero

I believe he was agreat personality.

Solon Lechonitis18.02.2015 | 14:49 Uhr