Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (1990, Lawrence James)

Publishing Info:

James, Lawrence. The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Skyhorse, 2008. Original publication 1990. 523 pp.


By the late '80s the Lawrence debate became relatively balanced. Rather than the hysterical black-and-white arguments of the post-Aldington era, shades of gray crept into the debate as new sources and original research appeared. A more interesting Lawrence emerged, even as authors continued to project themselves onto him.

The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia attempts a straight academic biography. Lawrence James provides relatively little original research or fresh insight, and his analysis occasionally grates. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for an intriguingly complex portrait of Lawrence.

The Author:

Lawrence James (born 1943) is an acclaimed British historian and journalist. Besides the present book, he has written extensively on British history, including the excellent The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (1997), Warrior Race: A History of the British at War (2001), and biographies of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Edmund Allenby. His most recent work is Aristocrats: Britain's Great Ruling Class from 1066 to the Present (2010).

The Review:

Despite his cynicism towards the "Lawrence legend," James scrupulously rebukes many outlandish critical claims. Addressing Knightley and Simpson's accusation of pre-war espionage, James argues Lawrence the archaeologist "would have found out nothing... not already well-known to the British government" (45). He also dismisses conspiracy theorizing about Lawrence's death as "thriller fantasy" (495). Between this and his healthy skepticism towards Lawrence's own writings, James establishes himself as a credible biographer.

The most interesting sections involve the development of the Lawrence legend. James has a deep background in British history, and he does a great job placing Lawrence's fame in context. In the grim aftermath of World War I, James shows how much the English-speaking world needed a hero like Lawrence, who mixed traditional romanticism with modern "common man" appeal. He also excellently captures Lawrence's complicity in starting the legend, and mixed feelings of its perpetuation. James ends the book with an overview of Lawrence's portrayal in biography and popular media, growing and mutating to meet cultural needs and the whims of his biographers.

Like other authors, James views Lawrence through his perceived fantasies. Chafing at a strict but not unhappy childhood, the young Lawrence tested his physical limits, traveled abroad and plunged himself into foreign cultures. Enraptured by Morte d'Arthur and The Odyssey, Lawrence viewed his life as a saga, casting himself as its oversized hero. This medievalism also informs Lawrence's love of the simple Bedouin and aversion towards the educated "town Arabs." John Mack and Desmond Stewart advanced ideas of this argument on a personal level, but James explores it in the broader context of Edwardian England.

When James gets to the war years, his analysis grows mixed. He convincingly argues that Lawrence's views on the Middle East - especially his skepticism towards France and hatred of Turkey - evolved in concert with his Arab Bureau colleagues, belying the idea that Lawrence was a committed imperialist from the start. He disparages the Arab Revolt, conceding its propaganda value but trotting out the old canard of gold-hungry tribesmen. He argues the Arabs achieved little militarily, a questionable assessment in light of recent books like James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire. Despite these critiques, James gladly acknowledges Lawrence's skill and courage in the desert.

James adds little new or insightful in dealing with Lawrence's strange post-war career. He dutifully recounts Lawrence's work in the Colonial Office, his attempts to serve as a "gentleman ranker," his bizarre relationship with John Bruce and brushing shoulders with the likes of Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves while dining with gruff RAF flyers. Lawrence's post-war career is fascinating, but James doesn't bring much to the table here.

James casts a skeptical eye on Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pointedly highlighting Lawrence's exaggerations. Interestingly, James notes Lawrence's embellishment extended to his official reports, rendering many contemporary documents suspect. However, James' textual analysis is also spotty. He views Lawrence's descriptions of the Deraa incident and Turkish atrocities at Tafas as justification for later Arab massacres of the Turks. The bloodcurdling depiction of Tafas, and Lawrence's loudly-stated revulsion to bloodshed, seem to bely James's argument. James is wedded to the idea of Seven Pillars as a carefully-structured novel, interesting in specific cases but overstated in general.

James devotes a long chapter to Lawrence's capture and rape at Deraa (pp. 245-263). He raises the usual objections, from Lawrence's inconsistency in accounts to some eyewitness testimony to Hajim Bey's heterosexuality. His bombshell is a diary entry from a colleague at Aqaba, which supposedly proves Lawrence could not have been in Deraa at the time of incident. Jeremy Wilson, however, has shown this diary conflicts with other contemporary documents. James moves on from factual matters to speculation that Deraa serves as a "coded" admission of Lawrence's sexual preference.

James goes beyond the usual arguments by claiming that Lawrence was a practicing homosexual. He makes the most of Seven Pillars' description of Bedouin man-love, and John Bruce's tale of flogging is hard to discount. Beyond these old chestnuts, James is grasping at straws. He repeats Desmond Stewart's spurious "Bluebeard" story, liberally quotes the dubious Richard Meinertzhagen ("boy or girl?") and even suggests Lawrence was about to be arrested for indecency prior to his death. The fact that such rumors existed is suggestive, but does not constitute evidence.

The Golden Warrior remains a worthy biography all the same. If James criticizes Lawrence's vanity and self-aggrandizement, he also praises his genius, heroism, tactical skill and charisma. "Why Lawrence felt impelled to embellish his achievement and then repudiate the fame they offered him remains inexplicable," James notes (433), nicely summing up one of history's most enigmatic figures.


  1. Thanks for these reviews – I’ve been interested in reading more about Lawrence for a while, and they’re helpful for getting some perspective on the many biographies on him. I like that The Golden Warrior provides a fair amount of context for the Arab Revolt and highlights some of the many other people involved, as they tend to get a bit left in Lawrence’s wake in some other biographies. I did find James’ sceptical approach a bit inconsistent. There are quite a few instances where he’ll lead in to an incident as if he’s going to cast doubt on it, then seemingly accepts Lawrence’s word on it without further discussion, which can be confusing. And in a couple of places I was surprised that he didn’t challenge Lawrence’s story: for example his claim to have made Hussein cry while trying to negotiate a treaty with him after the war. But mostly The Golden Warrior just reminds me of how much better I like Prince of Our Disorder!

    I’d be interested in reading reviews of Jeremy’s Wilson’s Authorised biography and the recent Michael Korda bio.

  2. Thanks Laura- it's nice to see someone is reading this blog! I read Korda's book last year - I meant to review it but didn't find the time amidst the chaos of senior year. I remember really liking it. Wilson's I haven't read in a long time.

    In James' defense I think one pretty much has to pick and choose what of Lawrence's writings you accept and what you don't - though James could do a better job explaining why he feels x is reliable while y is not.

    Amusingly, James and Wilson seem to enjoy sniping at each other in print. Besides the examples highlighted, I remember James reviewing another Lawrence book and dismissing Wilson as "too credulous by half" or words to that affect. Wilson was not pleased.

    What I'd really like to do is get around to reviewing more of the early Lawrence bios (Thomas, Liddel-Hart, etc.) to provide more of a context for these reviews, but that's something I don't have the time or resources for right now. Thanks again for the comment and I hope you'll keep an eye for future articles!