Reflective Heroes

Self-Integration through Poetry in T. E. Lawrence and Homer’s Odysseus
  • Maren Cohn


Our tale begins with a man who fights a grueling tribal war in a foreign country, a war in which he excels as much by ingenuity as by strength of arms. With the fighting over he begins to question both the military system that guided his efforts and his own moral involvement in the war, and he embarks upon on a long quest for self and home. After spending many years in lonely reflection he arrives anonymously in a new place. Here the man jealously guards the secret of his identity, but soon his name is dramatically revealed. He now also tells the story of his past adventures, a story that has no available witnesses: the entire account depends on his word. As it turns out, the man possesses no great attachment to the ideal of literal truth. No one matches him in using words to win a desired effect. Sometimes he contradicts himself, and even when he doesn’t he frequently tells different versions of his exploits to different people. Besides his expertise as a storyteller the man is adept at disguise and gives himself a series of fictitious names. Such machinations of fiction and disguise strike many observers as questionable, even despicable, yet they serve two important aims. First: the man has become extremely famous; he hears tales about himself everywhere—some true, but some false. People tell stories about him for fun and for profit. His own stories both counteract and advance this process. They advertise his brilliant deeds while cloaking his person in mysterious ambiguity.


Enforce Privacy Outer Frame Heroic Action Literal Truth Moral Involvement 


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  1. 1.
    4.222–26; pp. 50–51. All translations from the Odyssey are Lawrence’s unless otherwise indicated and are taken from T. E. Shaw, trans., The Odyssey of Homer (London: Oxford University Press, 1960). Book and line numbers refer to Homer’s original, page numbers to Lawrence’s translation.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See the letter to E. Garnett, August 26, 1922, in David Garnett, ed., The Letters of T. E. Lawrence (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938), 360. This volume of letters will be referred to hereafter as Garnett.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See Pietro Pucci, Odysseus Polytropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and Iliad (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 60, and John Peradotto, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 51–52.Google Scholar
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    The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979), 237, quoting W. J. Verdenius, “AINOS,” Mnemosyne 15 (1962), 389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 8.
    Ibid., 240.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    See C. Segal, “Kleos and Its Ironies in the Odyssey,” L’Antiquité Classique 52 (1983), 38–43.Google Scholar
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    Besides Sophocles, Dante, Tennyson, Joyce, and others have recreated the Odysseus character in substantive aesthetic works. See W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968).Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    For the many transformations of Lawrence’s legend, see S. Tabachnick and C. Matheson, Images of Lawrence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988), and W. Chace, “T. E. Lawrence: The Uses of Heroism,” in J. Meyers, ed., T. E. Lawrence: Soldier, Writer, Legend (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989), 128–60. On “polytropic,” see the next note.Google Scholar
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    T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1935), 549. Citations to Seven Pillars of Wisdom will hereafter be indicated in the text as SPW.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    T. E. Lawrence, The Mint (New York: Norton, 1963), 195. The Norton edition has the same pagination as the original Doubleday edition. Citations to The Mint will hereafter be indicated in the text as M.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Letter of February 20, 1924, in Garnett, 455–56. Also see his letter to E. Garnett, December 1, 1927, in Garnett, 550, and his accounts of the historical aspect of the book in Robert Graves and B. H. Liddell Hart, T.E. Lawrence to His Biographers Robert Graves and Liddell Hart (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), 79, 117–18 of the Graves section. Even if we accept at face value his claims (not maintained with perfect consistency even by himself) to historical accuracy, we would have to doubt them in the face of the enormous research that calls parts of his narrative into question.Google Scholar
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    Letter to L. Curtis, December 22, 1927, in Garnett, 559; quoted in M. D. Allen, The Medievalism of Lawrence of Arabia (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 137–38.Google Scholar
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    “Evolution of a Revolt,” in T. E. Lawrence, A. W. Lawrence, ed., Oriental Assembly (London, 1939), 131.Google Scholar
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    André Malraux, “Lawrence and the Demon of the Absolute,” Hudson Review 8 (1956), 520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 32.
    In a letter to Charlotte Shaw he wrote: “For fear of being hurt, or rather to earn five minutes respite from a pain which drove me mad, I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with—our bodily integrity…. You may call this morbid: but think of the offence, and the intensity of my brooding over it for these years.” Letter of March 26, 1924, in Malcolm Brown, ed., T. E. Lawrence: The Selected Letters (New York: Paragon House, 1992), 261–62.Google Scholar
  16. 33.
    In another version of the incident Lawrence writes of “the breaking of the spirit by that frenzied nerve-shattering pain which had degraded me to beast level when it made me grovel to it, and which had journeyed with me since, a fascination and terror and morbid desire, lascivious and vicious, perhaps, but like the striving of a moth towards its flame.” Oxford text, p. 285, quoted in Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 246.Google Scholar
  17. 34.
    See the letter to W. F. Stirling, June 28, 1919, in Brown, 165–66; and his letter home about a month after the alleged event in M. R. Lawrence, ed., The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers (Oxford, 1954), 344.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    John Mack observes that Lawrence “rarely told stories about himself that had no kernel of truth.” “T. E. Lawrence and the Uses of Psychology in the Biography of Historical Figures,” in L. Carl Brown and Norman Itzkowitz, eds., Psychological Dimensions of Near Eastern Studies (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1977), 52.Google Scholar
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    Irving Howe, “T. E. Lawrence: The Problem of Heroism,” Hudson Review 15 (Autumn 1962), 356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jeffrey Meyers, The Wounded Spirit: A Study of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York: St. Martin’s, 1973), 130.Google Scholar
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    Thomas J. O’Donnell, The Confessions of T. E. Lawrence: The Romantic Hero’s Presentation of Self (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979), 13. See also B. H. Liddell Hart, Colonel Lawrence: The Man Behind the Legend (New York: Halcyon House, 1934), 352, and Erik Lönnroth, Lawrence of Arabia: An Historical Appreciation, trans. Ruth Lewis (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1956), 50.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Storrs, The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs (New York: Arno Press, 1972), 472. Storrs saw Lawrence’s “heightenings” and “colour” not as faithful attempts to render Homer, but as “most un-Homeric puckishness of his own” (ibid.). Storrs’s only mistake lies in calling such puckishness “un-Homeric.”Google Scholar
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    H. A. Mason, To Homer Through Pope: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad and Pope’s Translation (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1972), 127.Google Scholar
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    On Lawrence’s use of “we” in The Mint, see K. Hull, “Lawrence of The Mint, Ross of the R.A.F.,” South Atlantic Quarterly 74 (1975), 340–48. O’Donnell also discusses the Lawrencian “we” in Confessions, 142, 172–75.Google Scholar
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    R. P. Blackmur, “The Everlasting Effort: A Citation of T. E. Lawrence,” in The Expense of Greatness (New York: Arrow Editions, 1940), 20.Google Scholar

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© Charles M. Stang 2002

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  • Maren Cohn

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