The scholar warriors

July 9, 2011 • 9:05 am

Last week’s Slate has a lovely obituary by Christopher Hitchens for Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, soldier, and adventurer.  (As I noted in an earlier post, Leigh Fermor, who wrote some world-class travel books, died on June 10.)  Hitchens takes the opportunity to extol other literary types who fought in the Second World War, and ends with this:

Now the bugle has sounded for the last and perhaps the most Byronic of this astonishing generation. When I met him some years ago, Leigh Fermor (a slight and elegant figure who didn’t look as if he could squash a roach; he was perfectly played by Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, the movie of the Kreipe operation) was still able to drink anybody senseless, still capable of hiking the wildest parts of Greece, and still producing the most limpidly written accounts of his solitary, scholarly expeditions. (He had also just finished, for a bet, translating P.G. Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into classical Greek.) That other great classicist and rebel soldier T.E. Lawrence, pressed into the service of an imperial war, betrayed the Arabs he had been helping and ended his life as a twisted and cynical recluse. In the middle of a war that was total, Patrick Leigh Fermor fought a clean fight and kept faith with those whose cause he had adopted. To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers. For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one.

I think that Hitchens’s assessment of Lawrence is uncharitable, for his “betrayal” of Arab independence seems to me by no means deliberate. Lawrence may have been a mixed bag, but he’s still a hero of mine: a scholar and an archaeologist who fought—physically—for what he believed, an adventurer, and a superb writer (I’d recommend Seven Pillars of Wisdom). How many academics wish they could have been Lawrence, charging Aqaba on his camel in Lawrence of Arabia (one of the best movies in my pantheon)?

When I had a week in Dorset a few years ago, I took a trip to Clouds Hill, the small cottage where Lawrence lived out the last years of his life (he was, as many of you know, killed in a motorcycle crash near that cottage in 1935 at the age of 46).  Clouds Hill is a very simple house, lacking a bathroom (everyone just did their business outside) or guest facilities.  Lawrence had two sleeping bags embroidered in Latin “Meum”—”mine” and “Tuum”—”yours”, for the guests.  They’re still there, for the two-story cottage is almost precisely as Lawrence left it.  I wasn’t allowed to photograph the interior, but this site has pictures of how it looked when Lawrence lived there.

The windows are on the other side.

Over the door is this Greek inscription, “ou phrontis,” which I believe means “without care” (or, in Aussiespeak, “no worries, mate”):

I couldn’t resist taking one photo of Lawrence’s own bathtub, complete with his shaving bowl and the board on which he read:

After the visit I wanted to see the site where he had his fatal crash, for it was supposedly on a rise that obscured his view of two bicycles ahead (the crash occurred when he swerved to avoid the bikes).  The rise is no longer there, but after considerable searching I found a marker:

Eerily, only a short time before I found the site, a car had crashed right next to it:

I can haz adventure, too, plz?

Lawrence loved motorcycles and preferred the Brough Superior, one of which he was riding when he died.  Here he is in photos from the Brough Family website.  If you’re a Lawrenceophile, you’ll know that to flee the spotlight, he enlisted in the R.A.F. under the name T. E. Shaw, and he was an enlisted man when he died.

Here’s how most of us know him:

Update:  Reader Graham pointed out to me that Lawrence is also buried nearby, and that his grave has a “sentinel cat.” I found one photo of both grave and cat, but suspect that the “patrolling his grave” part comes from the number of humans who cluster around that particular grave, attracting any cat who craves a good petting:


36 thoughts on “The scholar warriors

  1. I think that Hitchens’s assessment of Lawrence is uncharitable …

    Hitchens is bluntly correct. Lawrence could only be loyal to his King and commission, or to the Arabs. Of course Lawrence chose the Empire, and says as much in the (homoerotic) dedication to Selim Ahmed in The Seven Pillars:

    I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
    and wrote my will across the sky in stars
    To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
    that your eyes might be shining for me
    When we came. …

    Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house,
    as a memory of you.
    But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now
    The little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
    in the marred shadow
    Of your gift.

          1. David Lean is a genius filmmaker, and treats many challenging aspects of Lawrence’s life subtlety and deftly. Some of the most famous scenes in filmmaking appear in Lawrence, from the longest character introduction in film history (Omar Sharif) to the implied rape depicted by José Ferrer as a coughing Turkish Bey. The editing is fantastic, as in the cut from O’Toole’s lit match to the sun rising over the desert.

            One less famous but nevertheless hilarious cut is the introduction of Lawrence’s young Arab lover “S.A.” (Daoud). In the caravan scene, Lean’s camera cuts from Lawrence, then to a harem wife, and then to Daoud, who engages in the horseplay of jamming his stick up a camel’s butt. Given the history, perhaps in hindsight not a very subtle introduction to “S.A.”

            Lawrence wasn’t cited nearly enough during the hateful, stupid, and ignorant Republican opposition to military service by gays.

            1. While it’s a great movie, it’s at best only modestly accurate from a historical point of view. Lawrence’s young Arab protege(who Lawrence had strong feelings for, but is unlikely to have been an object of consummated physical desire) worked with Lawrence before the war on archeological investigations at Carchemish, and had no part in the Arab Revolt. Lawrence last saw him before the war, and, as the poem indicates, he died during the war before the Allied forces reached northern Syria. His name was Selim Ahmed or Dahoum (not Daoud). The character of Daud in the film is based on one of two Ageyli servants Lawrence did hire during the Revolt, on the advice of Sherif Nasir, one of the Arab Revolt leaders.

              1. Lean had to contend with conflicting and contradictory historical narratives, often from Lawrence himself, and also from conflicting historians. Google “te lawrence daraa” to see the host of problems with Lawrence’s bizarre account of his time in Dara’a. There is no “accurate historical point of view” here, so Lean filmed the rape scene ambiguously yet suggestively.

                The same is true, with even more salacious controversy, about Lawrence’s relationship with Selim Ahmed. Homosexual or not? Consummated or not? No one really knows, so the best you can do is examine the historical record and draw your own conclusions. There appears to be no shortage of circumstantial evidence, and plenty of public, personal, and legal reasons for Lawrence to conceal such a relationship. For example, a quick Google search uncovers a recent verifiable claim that “Dahoum posed as model for a naked figure which TE carved, which caused a scandal in Carchemish. … This sculpture’s photo appears on The Journal of the T. E. Lawrence Society, Autumn 1997, pp.38-39.”

                Lean again drew his own conclusions about Lawrence for the film, again treating this subject ambiguously yet suggestively. Are we to believe that Lean based on an insignificant servant the significant character Daoud with whom the film Lawrence had a deep emotional bond, or the fact that there was a real-life character said to be the dedicatee of the book on which the film is based? Lean’s Daoud is clearly Dahoum.

                It is a great movie, and knowing a little background about these controversies enhances, not detracts from, the film.

    1. Is it really quite so simple? Surely, Lawrence recognised that he had, in fact, betrayed the trust that had been given him. He may have betrayed it because he was, after all, a British officer, and had to obey orders, but he betrayed it all the same. And while he did, it seems, spend the rest of his life, as Hitchens says, as a cynical recluse, may this not have been in part because of his consciousness of how much he had betrayed? In other words, perhaps Hitchens is being uncharitable, after all. I no longer can find my copy of Seven Pillars, but I have read it many times, though it is only a dim memory now. Lawrence wrote so beautifully of an enchanted time and place. It is not so simple now, as it was then.

      1. Is it really quite so simple?

        A good working definition of betrayal is that you know it when you see it. Lawrence promised the Arabs Allied support of an independent greater Arabia in return for the Arab ressurection against the Ottomans. Sykes-Picot negated Lawrence’s promise, and Lawrence knew it but said nothing, as duty required. That’s a betrayal, even though he didn’t have any real choice in it. We’re still living with all the consequences, and so will our children, so it was significant.–Picot_Agreement#Consequences_of_the_agreement

        may this not have been in part because of his consciousness of how much he had betrayed?

        I don’t think it will yield much to play armchair psychoanalyst, but it seems safe to conclude that Lawrence was afflicted both by disillusionment and deeply personal problems.

  2. You were 30 minutes from me and you didn’t pop in for a cup of tea!
    You were about a mile from where he is buried too. Complete with sentinel cat by headstone.

    1. This was before I had a website! I found a picture of the grave with the “sentinel cat” which I’ve added to the post. Thanks!

      1. At age 61 I am currently re-reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and am feeling that peculiar sensation that I had never really read the book at all. First ‘ploughed through’ when I was 25 with somewhat hasty curiosity (I even skipped whole sections) “Seven Pillars” now grips my soul and imagination as I leisurely traverse each chapter. T.E.’s descriptions of the desert environment, the night camel marches, the train minings, the dress and equipage of the fighters, the bickering and volatile Arabs in his charge whom he had to deftly manage makes this book one of the most fascinating ever written. Moreover, there are brief, confessional passages wherein Lawrence delves deeply into his psyche and the mainsprings of his being that are gripping and often harrowing. It is a type of ruthlessly self-examining mindset of that Edwardian generation that seems all but gone today. Also, the tone of sadness (the book was written after the war, with few on the spot jottings in his possession, and overwhelmingly from memory) is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that Lawrence lost two of his brothers during that cataclysmic conflict. I agree that the film, historical inaccuracies aside, is magnificent.

  3. Those taps (sorry, “faucets”) look suspiciously modern, and the bath suspiciously pristine (and of a style meant to be inset, when baths of his period were usually freestanding), and isn’t that bowl stainless steel?

    When you say “everyone just did their business outside” that’s not sustainable for any length of time, and I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t an outhouse.

  4. If Lawrence had an internet connection in that place, I’m sure he would have used it and quickly put to rest any notion that he was a “cynical recluse”. Hitchens is very likely just being his usual contrarian and provocative self.

    But it does sound like Hitchens was disappointed somehow that Lawrence chose a modest life of cerebral peace and serenity over, say, the schmoozing cocktail-napkin scene of a certain pugnacious Washington insider. In my mind the questions regarding Lawrence’s sexuality in a time when such behavior was condemned (and egregiously misunderstood) loom very large indeed.

    Nice post, Professor Coyne.

  5. With all due respect to Leigh Fermor, who was a far greater man than I, he didn’t have even close to the same impact on a whole theatre of war as TE Lawrence.

    Now apparently Leigh Fermer didn’t betray anyone. But was he ever put in that position? Does Hitchens honestly think that if Fermer was in Lawrence’s position he would have done any differently?

    And perhaps Lawrence’s “life as a twisted and cynical recluse” was due largely to the way he and the arabs were treated by the Empire after the war?


  6. The inscription on the stone “book” at the foot of the grave, “DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO MEA” (The Lord is my light) is the colophon of Oxford Univesity Press. Is it also the motto of Oxford?

  7. The inscription on the tombstone was clearly NOT carved by some everyday stonemason. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Eric Gill did it; it’s certainly elegant enough.

    1. I had that same thought about the crash monument. Apparently Eric’s son Colin did a portrait of Lawrence. “Both father and son were friendly with William Rothenstein, and the introduction of the younger Gill to Lawrence apparently came through this agency.” So it seems not at all unlikely.

  8. “Over the door is this Greek inscription, “ou phrontis,” which I believe means “without care” (or, in Aussiespeak, “no worries, mate”)”

    More likely, Lawrence was thinking of Frederick the Great’s “Sanssouci” at Potsdam.

    1. Which is the same name Eric Sevareid and his companion named their canoe that they paddled from St. Paul, MN up the Red River and Nelson rivers to Hudson Bay.

      He wrote this journey in his excellent, Canoeing with the Cree which I strongly recommend to you.

  9. I agree about Seven Pillars of Wisdom with one important (IMO) caveat:

    Skip the first ~100 pages of navel gazing and begin reading once he lands in Jeddah for the first time. Brilliant from there onward.

  10. Hitchens is dead wrong on both counts and it sounds more like a sound bite to me. TEL did not intentionally betray the Arabs and his letters demonstrate a lively correspondence with just about anyone who wrote to him. It would not surprise me, however, if he suffered PTS with everything he went through.

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