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The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 1
The Heroes Reconsidered

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

A hero, whether royal or common, is essentially a throwback. An examplar of a time when father/right was in formation, still an uncertain condition when heroes were perhaps the norm.


The Premise

The Mythic -- King Arthur

The Medieval -- William the Conqueror

The Modern -- Lawrence of Arabia

Endpaper: The Father's Daughter -- Queen Elizabeth I

This is a continuation of Volume 1, column #11. It completes the entries for this essay.

III The Modern

Lawrence of Arabia

The unusual birth and existence of Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) took place in quite a different patriarchal setting than that of the mythic King Arthur or the medieval William the Conqueror. T.E., as his friends knew him, or Ned as his family called him, long before the world claimed him as the mythic Lawrence of Arabia, was for a start a commoner (though his father was of a certain lesser nobility), thus hardly identified with state or national continuity. His situation however is a grand example of this concern as it has filtered down to every level of society, or to the micro-level of fathers at large. Every father is a king. That is: every father is a king provided he understands what kings always have -- that to perpetuate his family in his name is a state duty. At least one surviving son is required to keep it going. The state is a patriarchal enclave of name fathers, arranged hierarchically with the royal family, or some equivalence, at the top. When Lawrence was born in Britain in 1888 Queen Victoria was the ceremonial sovereign, only the second queen of consequence in the entire history of English royalty. By Victoria's time, illegitimacy had long been a state concern and a private disgrace should it befall any family. The hidden honor in it such as I am outlining in the tradition of the mythic hero had no resonance even for a figure like Lawrence. I am prying his case open to show how the tradition still operates nonetheless.

Patriarchy is micro-managed throughout a culture by internalized commands, respect for the father not least of these; but the control of women's reproductive rights is of its essence. The momentum against legal abortion in America since the 1980s is the leading sign of a revived patriarchy in the wake of feminist inroads during the 1970s. In Victorian times, women were of course severely constrained. T.E. Lawrence had a mother who got away. His mother, by tacit permission of his father, dictated the family shape, producing an inversion of the norm and leading the family into a state of exile and dire secrecy. Illegitimacy can be a strain running through a family (it would be hard actually not to find illegitimacy in any family line), and Lawrence's mother had herself been born -- in Yorkshire -- out of wedlock. Sarah Lawrence was a beautiful young woman when she arrived in Ireland in 1879 to be the governess to Thomas Chapman's four daughters. Chapman, later to become T.E.'s father, was the grandson of a baronet, and scion of seven generations of colonial English landlords. He was also, when Sarah arrived from England to join his household as governess, an unhappy man, trapped in a marriage to a woman he had long ceased to care about. Falling in love with Sarah, a girl very ambitious to better her circumstances, he had a serious choice to make when she became pregnant. In those times it was a rare and unthinkable move for a gentleman to forsake his caste for a liaison with a servant. But when Chapman asked his wife for a divorce and she refused, he did just that, eloping with Sarah to England, landing first in Wales, in 1887, where T.E., their second son, was born one year later. Nothing so ordinary as a missing father -- key to the story of the classic hero -- characterized T.E.'s background. His father was always present. It was his father's name -- his very identity, and passport to patriarchy -- that was missing.

An astonishing name change defined his parents' new life abroad. Now known by Sarah's assumed maiden name (her surname at birth was Junner), they would henceforth live as Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lawrence. Together for 34 years, until Thomas's death in 1919, they kept their secret inviolate, while its consequences within were especially lethal, one could say lethally promising, for their second son, T.E., or Ned, who would change his own natal surname a couple of times before he died in a motorcycle accident at age 47. A clue to the "patrilineal crisis" that gave rise to T.E.'s heroism and renown as Lawrence of Arabia can be found in Thomas's previous life in Ireland as the father of four daughters. Thomas's wife may have been awful enough to warrant an escape; but whatever was wrong with her in his eyes would not have been redeemed by her having four useless daughters, unable of course to perpetuate the Chapman name. Here we can invoke Otto Rank's "difficulty in conception," keeping in mind the importance of the male heir. With Sarah, Thomas would have five sons, a rather striking switch-over, as if redress was made over and over -- an heir and four spares! -- following a repetitious perhaps consciously embarrassing failure to produce a son. But Thomas didn't get off easy. His vengeful wife made him a fugitive from patriarchy, with five illegitimate sons in tow, and a name change that if discovered would have meant certain social death. Yet with as many as five sons, a promise existed of at least one who might rise up and atone or compensate for the sin of Thomas's private revolt.

And this became the fate of his second born, whose brilliant future would be tied to that great World War I uprising in the Middle East called the Arab Revolt. Technically speaking of course, Thomas had no successors. In the hereditary vacuum he created by abdicating his name, an extraordinary story would emerge to make good on a rather grand, if inadvertent, oversight. The "hoped for outcome of legitimacy" may not occur literally but figuratively. Thomas's second son T.E. was endowed with the extraordinary attributes needed by any hero for overcoming a disadvantageous birth. He would fabricate an entire romance, a kind of "Arabian Nights," with himself as its hero. The real war in Lawrence's Middle East enterprise was so marvelous and unexpected that it entered history straightaway with the luster of legend. According to Robert Graves, author of "The Greek Myths" and also a biography of T.E. published in 1927 and titled "Lawrence and the Arabs" (Graves was a friend of Lawrence's), of the three books Lawrence took into the desert campaign with him, one was Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur."

What Lawrence loved in this book was the Round Table and the exploits of Arthur and his knights. A hero-to-be became inspired by the wonderful adventures of a storied hero conceived at a time when England was uncertain of its future. Looking ahead to 1914, another uncertainty in Britain -- the impending World War -- would become the occasion for Lawrence to bring another such story to life. There seems little reason to believe that Lawrence took much or any notice of King Arthur's birth circumstance. Yet herein was their first and after all most important bond in common. Malory's Arthur was nothing without the paternal doubt and irregularity that dictated his future. Likewise for Lawrence, had he not emerged from a paternal background of fine perplexity, we would never know of him.

The first born, or heir, Montague Robert, known as Bob, never married and became a medical missionary to China, fulfilling his mother's calling to make up for the sins of her illegitimate past and recapitulative present. If Sarah through her name was putative head of the family, as further evidenced in her husband's relative passivity and in her obsessive control of domestic details including her sons, T.E. was the one, like her, who got away. Under primogeniture, second sons typically have become adventurers. Sarah might discipline her second born, and indeed is said to have beaten him repeatedly, but he found many escapes (as indeed paradoxically he was supposed to), most effectively through an inner resistance to his mother's claim. Lawrence was bound for somewhere else. As a student he buried himself in the history of some seven centuries before his birth. He may be our "modern" hero, but he was a medievalist at heart, in training from a young age whether he knew it precisely or not for the kind of warfare -- the guerilla kind -- that ended up suiting his irregular background. In the Arabian desert Lawrence would forge a fighting corps out of tribes as numerous and internally murderous as the medieval European dynasties. The Middle Ages were not yet over in Arabia when Lawrence was born.

A youthful antiquarian, Lawrence specialized in medieval fortifications and armor and visited every single 12th century castle in England and France. Many of these would have been the Anglo/Norman fortresses built by William the Conqueror and his knights or descendants. As an Oxford undergraduate Lawrence toured Palestine and Syria mostly on foot searching out Crusader Castles. He liked saying the world stopped in 1500 with the coming of printing and gunpowder. His B.A. honors thesis for Oxford in 1910 was titled, "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture -- to the end of the 12th Century," published after his death as "Crusader Castles." Foreshadowing the two worlds he later famously tried to bridge -- Britain and Arabia -- his thesis was a detailed comparison of the castles of Western Europe and those of the Middle East built during the Crusades. Between 1911 and 1914, under the aegis of the British Museum, Lawrence spent most of his time at Carchemish in Syria excavating remains of the Hittite civilization, and directing workforces there. By the end of 1914 when he was posted to Cairo as a British Army Intelligence officer, Lawrence, a precocious Arabist, knew as much as or more than anyone else in the British Military about Arabia, its territories and people and history, and had become passionately committed to Arab independence from the Turks of the Ottoman Empire.

Here Lawrence's interests and those of Britain would mesh, with the important difference that Lawrence was a true supporter while the nation he served as an officer had ulterior motives, intending to use the Arab Revolt toward their own goal of helping them vanquish the Turks (who had become allies of Germany) and withholding Arab self-governance at war's end. Lawrence was well aware of his duplicity in serving two masters, one of whom commanded an empire, the other an oppressed people he proposed to lead to freedom. "The [British] Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us," he would write in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," his post-war literary masterpiece, "by definite promises of self-government afterwards. [The Arabs] saw in me a free agent of the British Government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward." As his book progresses, he cries out in pain, and not just from the hardships of surviving in the desert, "Hardly one day in Arabia passed without a physical ache to increase the corroding sense of my accessory deceitfulness towards the Arabs...."

Lawrence's updated guilt, rooted in his mother's illegitimacy and in his, had grown to encompass affairs at large. He sought legitimacy for the Arabs on the world stage. And he would fail them just as his parents had failed him -- in their bid to cover up a scandalous past. They could keep it from society but not from him. His parents had deceived him as a child, and he in turn would betray the "children" called Arabs. By the time Lawrence was ten he had begun precociously to piece his family story together, overhearing conversations and processing other bits of evidence. Unlike Arthur or William or Theseus, he had no mandate by which to proceed. He could never make good on his father's name without betraying the parental secret, i.e. making it public, a committal left to legions of biographers and correspondents. Since he enacted the hero's role, the secret of illegitimacy would inevitably come out. There was no supernatural tradition, like a Poseidon or Zeus around to take the onus off his mortal father's wrongdoing. And Lawrence became too famous to hide such a vital piece of origin. Yet he was not famous enough. His father's good name, i.e. the one he abandoned, was not important enough to the state to matter. He needed certainly to be redeemed, but being of some lesser Irish nobility, the state could manage without him. The classic hero, we remember, is of royal descent. Thomas's social crime in forsaking his patriarchal identity, visited upon his second son and resulting in one of most astonishing feats known in the stories of heroes -- the welding of diverse tribes in a desert campaign to defeat a far superior enemy -- was private from the state's point of view, thus ever so vulnerable to the scourge of illegitimacy once the secret was out. For the hero to exist and be effective, his father had to be identified and claimed. There had to be an explanation. But Lawrence could only express this indirectly by his personal heroism. He had by all accounts a wonderful father who helped him (and his brothers) in every conceivable way, providing the best education to be had in England then, and conveying such passions he had as archaeology and bicycling and photography that T.E. adopted as youthful means of preparing himself for his future. Nothing was wrong with this father except his name. And the cover-up it engendered. T.E.'s case, his very existence, rested on the fault of the name -- its transgression, concealment, and shame.

In some metonymic sense, Lawrence succeeded his father, both vanquishing and avenging him, in the coincidence of Lawrence's privileged appearance at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 with his father's death that very year.

Otto Rank's interpretation of the hero's plight via Freud's "family romance" theory, in which a neurotic child imagines a royal couple replacing his disappointing parents, is appealing in Lawrence's case. "The child," writes John Mack in his superb biography of Lawrence, "imagines that he will embark on a heroic quest in which he will perform great deeds and [in so doing] restore his real parents to their rightful place, eject the impostors, and be reunited in greatness with his true forbears." For Lawrence, the two sets of parents, lowly and royal, were one and the same. The "impostors" or lowly ones, who had to be ejected, were simply his real parents, who lied and covered up true origins, assuming a verboten maternal identity. The "royal" ones were the same couple returned to such origins, i.e. the father's estate. By his exploits and fame Lawrence's secret was exposed, his father was outed, and it became clear that the family had paternal origins of some consequence.

Lawrence's story has great potential for an Arthurian-type mythology. As in 1135, when England was threatened by civil strife over the contested throne upon Henry I's death without heir and King Arthur as a supernatural, i.e. illegitimate, child was conceived by Geoffrey of Monmouth, England in 1914 was facing possible annihilation from abroad by a superiorly armed enemy. T.E. Lawrence, born with the mark of Oedipus et al, and of his own hero King Arthur, became England's transcendent warrior. His theater of operations was far from the main battlefields, but his feats as a leader were amazing and inspiring, making him emblematic of England's eventual victory.

Lawrence's marvelous conquests in Arabia, and his unvarnished fame, were short-lived. His end conforms in essence to final biographical stages outlined by the hero topographers Lord Raglan and Johann von Hahn. The hero, after becoming king and ruling for a time and setting laws, loses favor with gods or subjects, is driven from throne or city, meets with a strange or mysterious death and has no children to succeed him. Called by some the "uncrowned king of Arabia" (by the way also an "Oxonian Ishmael"!), Lawrence "ruled" in that capacity for two years, and he "set laws" when the conflict was over, gaining rights for the Arabs in consort with Winston Churchill after the Paris Peace Conference had failed them. Then he retired.

As a mega-star, Lawrence put himself out to pasture as soon as possible, hiding under a pseudonym in the RAF, then later when his identity was discovered under another pseudonym in the Royal Tank Corps, leading a relatively anonymous, not unsatisfying, private life. Practical and perhaps necessary as his pseudonyms were, they symbolize at the same time a man who remained paternally nameless. It was his hobby of fast motorcycle driving on narrow country roads that killed him in a road accident at age 47. As for descendants, he never married, or had any children. Apparently he was sexually neutral. Whether or not he was gay, as has been widely thought, he remained happily a virgin. He never smoked or drank either, and food for him was only a necessity. He was a kind of monk, focused completely on his mission.

A boy at the center of a patrilineal crisis, Lawrence had no way of comprehending this heritage from any political historic perspective, or identifying it with the stories he most loved. Like every classic hero, he was supremely innocent, driven by forces beyond his control or understanding, and only able to read them in personal terms. The personal was never declared political so far as I know until women through a feminist education saw themselves defined against the backdrop of patriarchy.

Endpaper: The Father's Daughter

Queen Elizabeth I

Of all the victims of history Queen Elizabeth I (b 1533, d 1603) surely had the best situation for understanding the essence of the system in which we live, since it gave rise to her birth in quite a spectacular way. Her father Henry VIII in his desperation for a proper heir, had her mother beheaded, had Elizabeth herself bastardized the moment her mother was dead; contracted six marriages in all, and changed the country's religion to accommodate his needs. Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn was charged with crimes of adultery, but her true crime was failing to produce an heir.

We can call Elizabeth a hero; she was certainly a successful queen, surviving many plots against her, and furthering Britain's post-medieval quest for supremacy. But she was really something else: a supreme example of that anomaly -- a Father's Daughter. As such, she remained faithful to her father, and/or his state interests, never giving herself away in marriage. Historians have undividedly pointed out that by not marrying, Elizabeth kept a firmer hold on the throne, since any husband, especially a foreign one, could threaten the integrity of a woman in power, thus the state, a firm with which, as queen, she was synonymous. Tactically, staying single was a smart move. Psychologically, at our distance it seems it was inevitable, given Elizabeth's history as the daughter of a woman whose marriage in effect condemned her to death. Religiously, a father's daughter has often sought refuge as a daughter of God, a nun, and Elizabeth became England's lady superior -- best known as their "Virgin Queen." These various advantages of remaining single can be applied, by slippages of thought, to women at large. Even that of having a mother who was condemned to death by her father -- with "death" viewed as the powerlessness of any woman in marriage.

The marriage of Elizabeth's immediate predecessor on the throne, her half-sister Mary I, to a foreigner, Philip II of Spain, raised real fears in England of 1) a return to Catholicism and the Pope, and 2) the actual loss of Britain to Spain. When Mary died in 1558, four years after her marriage to Philip, the country sighed with relief and rejoiced in Elizabeth, the unequivocally Protestant successor to her father. Ruling of course only by default, a condition including a history of bastardy, Elizabeth fulfilled one of the classic hero's functions: to unite disparate forces (she was for example very diplomatic and forbearing toward the Catholic population remaining in Britain), and bring accord to the land.

Elizabeth's death in 1603, after her long 45-year reign, dying childless after all, produced another caesura in the succession. This time, an uncontested outcome returned the throne to a male heir, the Tudor dynasty ending with Elizabeth. The struggle between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had a claim to the throne through her grandmother Margaret, one of Henry's sisters, and was executed by Elizabeth in 1587 for plotting against her, was nicely resolved when Mary's son James VI of Scotland became also James I of England, the first in the Stuart line, in 1603.

The huge anxiety and outpouring of emotion in England over its recent royal tragedy -- the death by accident of Princess Diana -- shows how identified the people in this country still are with the fate and wellbeing of its royal family. However powerless in fact, it remains a dynamic force. And beneath the people's admiration and affection for their Queen, Elizabeth II, surely lies a potent desire for a return to the male accession through Charles and his sons William and Harry -- the heir and the spare.

However beloved the Princess Diana was, her attacks on the royal firm through public struggles with her estranged husband made her a kind of enemy to the system, and her death a kind of sacrifice. If her son William is ever crowned, reparations would be understood.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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