It’s a tale as old as western civilization.
Man leaves home culture. Man finds new culture. Man’s home culture is so inherently superior that it gives him the ability to learn the new culture even better than the people who had grown up in it. All of a sudden he’s leading them to victory against his own people or a darker, more savage version of theirs. You’ll see it all over the place. Dances With Wolves, Avatar (the Cameron one, not the great cartoon), Tarzan, arguably some Conan stories, Dune (well, the first one before Herbert does some… interesting things with the fallout of having a fanatical fremen army at your beck and call), The Last Samurai… I could go on for a depressingly long post just listing these out, but you take my meaning by now. It’s very prevalent, it’s damaging, and it’s a shitty storytelling tool. You might be able to make a plotline work while using it, but it’s the equivalent of throwing a rotten plank into the supports of your new shack.
It may look good on the outside, I’m saying, but worst case the whole thing collapses and best case you’ve got kind of a gross smell lingering around the structure.
So, you might ask, why the hell am I going to T.E. Lawrence to help myself subvert this particular trope when Lawrence of Arabia is one of its grandfathers?
Because the actual Lawrence is very different from Peter O’Toole’s representation in the classic film.
I’ll come out and say that I love Lawrence of Arabia, I’ve seen it over a dozen times, it is one of my favorite war films this side of The Great Escape. It’s brilliantly shot and acted and approaches the British-Arab alliance with more nuance than you would expect out of a 60s epic with a lot of money riding on it, but I acknowledge that it’s a problematic fave. O’Toole’s Lawrence is a towering, self-confident figure who wrests control of the tribal confederation from a bunch of noble savage figures and, with a little bit of their advice, uses their army to deftly pull apart the Ottoman war machine because of his inherent military brilliance coming out of Europe and with his training as a British soldier.
If you read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom penned by Lawrence you’ll see a fairly different person, and if you read any of the countless biographies written about the dude he seems to have been the polar opposite to how he was portrayed on the screen.
I’ve been completely entranced by one of the newer books to come out on the subject, Lawrence In Arabia by Scott Anderson, just out a few years ago. It’s probably the single best exploration of the era and story that I’ve run across. Anderson is my kind of cynic and he doesn’t hesitate to pull apart popular speculation about Lawrence and his campaign. He also weaves in the stories of other major figures active around the region, particularly Oppenheimer, Aaronsohn, Prufer and Yale with their various machinations being as big a drive as Lawrence himself was. It formed a kind of complex machine driving things along on the forces of various personalities at play and the international interests they served as mouthpieces to.
Lawrence is a weird dude. As far as historical figures go, I’ve felt an odd kind of kinship to him for some time, or about as close as you can feel to a possibly gay or asexual masochist who lived a hundred years ago on the other side of the ocean. But his mindset and the way he is described as processing information feels very at home in my head. Anderson talks at some length about how Lawrence was incredibly introverted and shy but became more aggressive during confrontations, particularly when he spotted a small flaw in an argument and could use it to dismantle the entire thing. The way he tended to hyperfocus on small things in general, and his tolerance levels for sensory overload. How he would become obsessed with concepts and feel the need to learn everything about them. I mean, the guy once wrote a dissertation on the chemical makeup of pottery glazes in antiquity because he felt it gave him a better understanding of those cultures.
What separates Lawrence in my mind from a lot of white savior characters and makes him a good role model for my own fictional character(s) is that he sought out cultural immersion and engaged with the tribes as equals or people he could amplify the voices thereof. He was a liaison to the tribal chieftains during the campaign against the Ottomans and this role was one he worked at tirelessly. It was due in part to a reputation he had established even before the war, when he would do stuff like walk between archaeological sites with just his rucksack and hung out in seedy taverns to become conversant in “common” slang and accents instead of hiding out with the nobility as others of his station were wont to do when they’d travel abroad. He wasn’t slumming it for kicks, there was a genuine interest there and it comes through in every quote where he waxes poetic about Cairo coffee houses or the unbelievable hospitality rites of Bedouin hosts, how sometimes they’d stay up into the early morning hours trading stories and delighted to have found a traveler who was actually interested in what they had to say.
As an embedded British agent, at least according to the biographies and this one in particular, it was less about him taking credit for the military advice of the chieftains. He recognized that other people were not going to listen to them, so he basically did the 1900s equivalent of signal-boosting them. In the military texts he was credited with coming up with these plans but, as far as I can tell, stealing the glory wasn’t his intention and in fact he hated being the focus of attention. He created a hybrid of European strategical training and Bedouin tactics because he considered them equal, which led to the usual accusations of going native during his time and co-opting their culture later on.
This isn’t to whitewash Lawrence at all, either. He was complicate in betraying his allies in the long run, his attempts to play kingmaker with Emir Faisal crashed and burned miserably, and he left cracks in the tribal confederations that Anglo-French interests would later exploit quite handily. He may not have liked being part of this but in the long run his actions led to the Hashemites being cordoned off in Jordan and many of the nomadic groups he fought alongside being marginalized by the new regional power scramble. He promised people power and independence from the Ottomans, and instead traded them to a new empire where they were only a little “freer” (at the cost of imperialist micromanagement and a sliced up fraction of the land they felt owed).
He was also, as a lot of people tend to gloss over, tremendously racist as evident by his many remarks on how the noble Arabs were contrasted by the cruel swarthy Turks and the cunning, inscrutable Kurdish people.
So, again, why go to this dude as an inspiration for a character?
Because he’s what it realistically looks like when someone has a strong enough admiration to a culture to try and become part of it, uses his inherent privilege or louder voice to try and champion their cause(s), and the ways that it can fail and break down. That’s precisely what I want to happen to my character, because while it’s tragic and the repercussions are felt generations later in real life, it makes for some incredibly compelling storytelling potential. The trick is just to get the full picture and not just show the good elements, and to make it clear that when he begins adapting to the new culture he is doing so through hard work. Never eclipsing the people who have grown up in that culture since day one. Bringing along the baggage of his prior life and all the internal and external tension that entails. The immediate advantages he brings as an ally and the long term disadvantages they have to deal with as a result.
My Lawrence-inspired dude is not a savior at all, and I’m hoping he will never be mistaken for one. He’s just come out of a military campaign where his nation promised citizenship and rights to a group of nomadic tribes if those tribes would throw in and help with the war effort, and when those promises are broken later he decides he’s going to adopt the orphaned daughter of his war buddy from one of the smaller tribes, and move in with them. Before I even get to the main plot, there’s an emphasis on how he is and isn’t able to integrate, how his presence is both a good and bad thing for his adopted daughter, the ways it benefits the tribe to have him as a liaison who can speak the lingo of settlers from his old city and how it damages them by making those settlers think of them as his primitive pets.
It’s a bit of a minefield and something I make myself extremely neurotic about, hence the gobs and gobs of research. I think it’s a story worth telling, though, and something I haven’t seen explored in many fantasy books.
You know what they say, if you can’t find what you like on the shelves you’ll probably have to write it.