Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?
My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.
In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.
The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.
But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:
Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)
The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.
This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:
“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)
While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?
Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.
In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.
Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?
To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.
Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.
Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me […] (ln. 1-4)
Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.
Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”
Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:
the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)
But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.
The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.
Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.
To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia. “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).
A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.
Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. 1926. London: Penguin, 1962.
“Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6 February 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Pillars_of_Wisdom.