Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) was a British archaeologist, military officer, diplomat, and writer, most famous for his activities as "Lawrence of Arabia" in the Arab Revolt during World War I. He also wrote two autobiographical books during the post-war years: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, about the Arab Revolt itself, and The Mint, about his life as an enlisted man in the Royal Air Force during the 1920s.
In 1910, after graduation, Lawrence joined a British archaeological expedition at Carchemish, excavating the site of a ruined Hittite city near what is now the Syrian-Turkish border. As well as the archaeological achievements of the expedition, Lawrence gained a lot of useful experience with the local people and their language and culture that would prove essential in a few years.
Lawrence is most famous for his activities during the First World War. After the war broke out, Lawrence was stationed in Egypt working for the British Military Intelligence Department, where he became an expert on nationalist movements in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In 1916, he was sent on a fact-finding mission to study Sherif Hussein of Mecca's rebellion against the Turks. This lead to a long-term role as a liaison officer with the Arab Revolt, serving with the forces led by Hussein's son Emir Feisal/Faisal (best known to western movie buffs for his portrayal by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia). He participated in, and lead, military activities against the Ottoman empire's forces (and their railway system), culminating in the capture of Damascus in 1918.
After Damascus, Lawrence hurried back to Britain, joined the Foreign Office, and switched from warfare to diplomacy and international politics. Working closely with Feisal, he advocated for Arab interests at the Paris Peace Conference, but these were sacrificed to imperialist ambitions and Britain's desire to maintain good relations with France (which had its own colonialist hopes in the Middle East). As an adviser to Winston Churchill in the Colonial Office, Lawrence presided over changes in British policy that put Prince Feisal on the throne of Iraq, established the Kingdom of the Trans-Jordan (modern-day Jordan), and gave both these regions a great deal more self-government. This helped assuage Lawrence's conscience regarding the political fate of his old Arab allies, which had been troubling him deeply.
During the war, Lawrence had encountered an American journalist named Lowell Thomas, who had visited the war in the Middle East in search of more interesting news than the frankly depressing Western Front provided. The Arab Revolt was much more picturesque and adventurous than the trenches of Europe, and after the war, Thomas incorporated his footage into a very successful multimedia edutainment event, which turned Lawrence from one leader in an obscure corner of a much larger war into a celebrity, "Lawrence of Arabia." At first, Lawrence welcomed the publicity as a possible source of greater public awareness and support for Arab independence, but later in life he would come to find fame much more troublesome than it was worth.
By 1922, Lawrence was not doing at all well in terms of mental health. He'd been leapfrogging from stressful situation to stressful situation since 1916, and his work on Seven Pillars of Wisdom kept the war fresh in his mind. In the first chapter of The Mint he portrays himself at that point as a borderline Nervous Wreck. (With There Are No Therapists having been in effect, it's impossible to know for sure, but untreated PTSD seems very plausible.) Lawrence quit the Colonial Office, and later that year enlisted in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name. If Lawrence had hoped to lead a quiet life away from the shadow of "Lawrence of Arabia," he was disappointed, because the press found out about his identity after less than a year and Lawrence was discharged. Lawrence joined the army Tank Corps under a different alias soon after, but he was not at all happy there and kept petitioning to be readmitted to the RAF. Lawrence got his way in 1925, and the more cheerful last section of The Mint was based on his experiences after his re-enlistment.
For a few years in the late 1920s, he was stationed in British India to keep him out of the way of the press, but he was sent back to Britain after rumors spread about what a former adviser-to-rebels stationed in such a politically sensitive area might be up to. (Lawrence had no such intentions: he didn't speak any Indian languages, he didn't know the local culture well, and by that point in his life he was sick of political intrigue.) During his later years in the RAF, Lawrence became interested in air-sea rescue and was deeply involved in the development of high-speed motorboats for water rescues. (While it doesn't often show up in media focused on the Arab Revolt, where there were more camels around than motor vehicles, Lawrence was rather a gearhead, and his love for acceleration was not limited to motorcycles.)
Lawrence left the RAF in March 1935, and died in May of the same year, a few days after sustaining a severe head injury in a motorcycle accident. (His death inspired Hugh Cairns, a neurologist who had attended him, to take a professional interest in motorcycle safety issues, which lead to the popularization of crash helmets.)
Lawrence was a complicated man, and his life and personality provide a notoriously fertile ground for Alternative Character Interpretation, both in fiction and in serious scholarship. Issues ranging from his childhood, to his Character Alignment, his sexuality, his attitude toward fame, his reliability as a narrator, the true cause of his death, and whether he deserved his Memetic Badass reputation have all attracted controversy. Combine this with the usual Artistic License of Historical Fiction, and you get someone who can, and has, been portrayed in many different ways; contrast the flamboyance of Peter O'Toole's Lawrence with the shyness of Ralph Fiennes's.
Fortunately for fans and amateur historians, Lawrence was an avid correspondent, and many of his letters have survived and been published, so researchers today have access to the primary sources from which they can form their own opinions of his personality.
- Actually Pretty Funny: Auda's reaction to Lawrence's parody of his storytelling style in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Lawrence shows signs of being a Shell-Shocked Veteran in The Mint.
- Banana Peel: Features in the "Ceremony" chapter of The Mint, when a disastrous session of drill degenerates into slapstick.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Auda Abu Tayi in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
- Chromosome Casting: Neither Seven Pillars nor The Mint have any significant female characters.
- Cluster F-Bomb: The dialogue in The Mint includes a lot of cursing, perhaps not surprising given the military setting. Lawrence's narrative style is much less vulgar and even lyrical in spots, which makes the book as a whole Sophisticated as Hell.
- Cool Old Guy: Auda in Seven Pillars. A fierce warrior, a generous host, and he can take a joke on himself. "Auda's such a splendid thing to be."
- Creepy Blue Eyes: According to an old Arab woman in Seven Pillars, Lawrence had them.
- Dented Iron: Lawrence himself, in The Mint. Lawrence had formidable stamina, but keeping up with a regimen designed to tire men ten years younger would have been hard enough without a badly healed old rib injury and recurring bouts of malaria.
- Disguised in Drag: In Seven Pillars, Lawrence and Farraj disguise themselves as gypsy women to do a bit of scouting.
- Doorstopper: Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Just how much of one depends on the edition (it has a complicated publication history), but it's a substantial chunk of text either way. Lawrence's heavily descriptive prose style doesn't make it any faster going, either.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Stiffy in The Mint. He's technically a commissioned officer, but he was a sergeant in the Guards before he joined the RAF and he remains a drill sergeant in his heart.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Part Three of The Mint. After around fifty chapters of exhaustion, verbal abuse, low-grade misery, and demoralizing mismanagement, Lawrence finally has work he enjoys, officers he likes and respects, and even camaraderie.
- Epic Fail: When Lawrence accidentally shot his own camel in the head during a battle in Seven Pillars.
- Even the Guys Want Him: Ali ibn el Hussein, in Seven Pillars. The description of his good looks and charisma gets rather homoerotic.
- Evil Cripple: Downplayed with the Depot Commandant in The Mint, a disabled veteran who was a good soldier but is a terrible leader in a non-combat situation. The Commandant does not have bad intentions but he is a thoroughgoing Jerkass with an awful temper, which is terrible for morale.
- Gentleman Ranker: Lawrence himself, in The Mint.
- Gym Class Hell: An adult version in The Mint, with military P.T.
- I Call It "Vera": Lawrence gave his motorcycles nicknames. One of them, Boanerges, stars in a chapter of The Mint.
- The Insomniac: Lawrence himself, in The Mint. He mentions that even during the most grueling parts of basic training, he never got a full night's sleep.
- Kill the Cutie: Farraj and Daud, the Plucky Comic Relief teenage sidekicks with a rather sweet Romantic Two Boy Friendship, from Seven Pillars. Neither of them survived the war.
- Lots of Luggage: Lawrence himself, in the "Rail Journey" chapter of The Mint, much to his irritation. Lawrence wasn't a big guy, and full kit (complete with "two and a half pounds of lukewarm water") was cumbersome enough without carrying his personal baggage in the bargain.
- Lovable Rogue: Abdulla el Nahabi, in Seven Pillars. He'd settled down a little by the time Lawrence hired him, but his previous career was... colorful.
- Mundane Made Awesome: Lawrence's parody of Auda's storytelling style in Seven Pillars, recounting the epic saga of a shopping trip. The Bedouins - including Auda - find it hilarious.
- Narrative Filigree: Lawrence loaded his works with details of the local scenery and customs. Even the deliberately minimalistic Mint has some extraneous description to set the scene.
- The Neidermeyer: A few show up in The Mint, ranging from Jerkasses to outright sadists.
- One Steve Limit: Averted in Seven Pillars. There are a few different guys named Ali, much to the confusion of movie fans trying to figure out who was the inspiration for Omar Sharif's character.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Most of Lawrence's fellow airmen in The Mint.
- Phrase Catcher: Nobby in The Mint is always referred to as "little Nobby." (And since Lawrence was rather short himself, Nobby must have been tiny.)
- The Prankster: Farraj and Daud, in Seven Pillars.
- Romantic Two-Boy Friendship: Farraj and Daud, in Seven Pillars.
- Sacred Hospitality: As this is an important cultural value for the Arab characters, it comes up in Seven Pillars. Notably, an incident just before the Arab Revolt broke out into open warfare when Prince Feisal unexpectedly had to entertain a couple of Turkish officials without tipping his hand.
- Scars Are Forever: Done subtly. The injuries Lawrence suffered in Deraa in Seven Pillars get a Call-Back in the opening chapter of The Mint, when the doctor notices the scars during Lawrence's RAF induction physical.
- Scenery Porn: Lawrence loved describing desert landscapes and moonlight.
- Self-Deprecation: Of both the humorous and serious varieties.
- Situational Sexuality: Discussed in Seven Pillars.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Lawrence was not the most consistent with his transliteration of Arabic names in Seven Pillars.
- There Are No Therapists:
- In The Mint: the doctors notice the state of Lawrence's nerves during his RAF induction physical in the first chapter, and are not unsympathetic, but neither of them suggest anything he might do about it. Nor did anyone bring up that the military might not be the best place for someone who already shows signs of PTSD.
- In a later chapter, Lawrence recalls that during his very unhappy time in the Tank Corps, he was talking in his sleep half the night from stress-induced dreams, but again, nobody raised the possibility of professional help.
- Too Kinky to Torture: Averted, despite Lawrence's reputation for masochism and legitimately impressive pain tolerance. There were some kinds of abuse that even he couldn't handle.
- Too Much Information: In the "Dance Night" chapter of The Mint, a young fellow airman is very excited about losing his virginity and winds up squeeing about it, completely unsolicited, to Lawrence.
- Total Eclipse of the Plot: Downplayed example in Seven Pillars. The Arabs are able to take a Turkish fort with unusual ease and lack of casualties because the defending soldiers are distracted by a lunar eclipse.
- What's Up, King Dude?: Discussed in Seven Pillars. Bedouin leadership required a personal touch.
- Adventurer Archaeologist: Given that he was both an archaeologist and a war veteran, he's a real-life example of this.
- Ambiguously Gay: Most famously in the 1962 movie, where he's an outright Agent Peacock but his sexuality is never directly addressed. Lawrence's historical sexuality is controversial - the most common interpretations are that he liked men or nobody.
- Badass Biker: Lawrence's love for motorbikes was well documented.
- Badass Bookworm: Particularly in media focusing on the Arab Revolt.
- Bastard Angst: Lawrence was illegitimate, which had a fair amount of social stigma in the early 20th century, and he's often portrayed as rather troubled by it.
- Broken Ace: In portrayals that emphasize his psychological conflicts.
- Conflicting Loyalty: Britain supported the Arabs in their fight against the Ottoman Empire, but their long-term visions for the future of the Middle East were not compatible. As a British officer working with the Arabs and sympathetic to their goals, this put Lawrence in a very awkward situation (of which he was bitterly aware in his own writing).
- Historical Beauty Update: 6'2" Pretty Boy Peter O'Toole as the 5'5" average-looking Lawrence is probably the most dramatic example, but this happens when he's played by any conventionally tall-and-handsome leading man type.
- Inverted in the original production of Ross. John Mills, the creator of the role, was not at all ugly, but he was over fifty and looked it, while Lawrence, at the time the play was set, was a rather boyish-looking thirty-four (and would have been in his late twenties during the wartime sequences).
- Iconic Outfit: If the story features the Arab Revolt or its immediate aftermath, Lawrence's white Bedouin robes will make an appearance.
- Rape as Drama: If the story deals with Deraa and its aftermath.
- A comical expy of T.E. Lawrence, Private Meek, plays a role in the play Too True to Be Good (1932), which was written by Lawrence's friend George Bernard Shaw.
- Ross: a Dramatic Portrait (1960), a play by Terence Rattigan, focuses on Lawrence's post-war life in the RAF. More psychology than action.
- Obviously, T.E. Lawrence's most famous fictional portrayal is the historical epic drama Lawrence of Arabia (1962), where he is played by the actor Peter O'Toole.
- A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1992), a historical-political TV movie set during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Stars a very young and Bishounen Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence, and a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Alexander Siddig as Prince Faisal. Since it picks up Lawrence's life story where the 1962 film left off, it's often regarded as an unofficial sequel.
- Lawrence himself doesn't appear directly, but the android David 8 in Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) is canonically a big T.E. Lawrence fan, particularly the 1962 movie version. He even copies his hairstyle.
- Lawrence is a minor character in Werner Herzog's film Queen of the Desert (2015), where he is played by Robert Pattinson. The film itself focuses on the life of his fellow archaeologist Gertrude Bell (played by Nicole Kidman).
- Lawrence is a minor recurring character in Young Indiana Jones (1992-1996), where he is played by two different actors (Joseph Bennett and Douglas Henshall). He befriended a 9-year-old Henry Jones Jr. in Egypt in 1908. The two later meet again when both of them are fighting in the Middle East during World War I. They later cross paths again one last time while both attending the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.
- T.E. Lawrence is mentioned throughout Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011), where Nathan Drake travels to the Arabian Peninsula in search of the legendary Iram of the Pillars, following the writings of Lawrence while doing so. Lawrence also provides this opening quote at the beginning of the game:
"All men dream. But not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to realize it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men. For they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This, I did."
- Lawrence's life and work are integral to the Blake and Mortimer book The Oath of the Five Lords (2012).