T. E. Lawrence and The English Patient

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Author: Jeffrey Meyers
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,113 words

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[(essay date May 2006) In the following essay, Meyers chronicles the ways in which The English Patient draws upon the life and experiences of early twentieth-century British soldier T. E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia."]

The life of T. E. Lawrence and his epic account of the Arabian campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), though not mentioned in the acknowledgments, had a powerful influence on Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992). Both Lawrence and Ladislaus de Almásy (the eponymous hero) are aristocrats: Lawrence the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, Almásy a Hungarian count. Like Lawrence, Almásy is well read and learned, and has a great deal of specialized technical knowledge. Both love the Histories of Herodotus. In 1930 Lawrence wrote that "Herodotus is a marvelous fellow. ... Also he is pre-eminently human. A first-rate Herodotus would be a most useful book" (The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. David Garnett, 1938; London: Spring Books, 1964, p. 681). Almásy carries a precious copy of Herodotus with him throughout the war, and enhances it with other works: "in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus' Histories, are other fragments--maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books" (Ondaatje, The English Patient, NY: Vintage, 1993, p. 96).

Like Lawrence, Almásy was "a desert lover. ... He had spent his childhood [as Lawrence had spent his young adult life] in the Levant and knew the Bedouin" (p. 165). Before and during World War I Lawrence went east from Cairo to explore and fight in the Arabian desert; before and during World War II Almásy went west from Cairo to explore and fight in the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100084240