Washington, D.C. — Historian and author Michael Wood brings his unique mix of history, travel and adventure back to PBS in his latest four-part series, “In Search of Myths & Heroes.” In this series, Wood embarks on a set of “on the ground” adventures in search of the world’s most famous myths: The Queen of Sheba, King Arthur, Shangri-La and Jason and the Golden Fleece. The series will air in two parts, November 16 & 23 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings).
“In Search of Myths & Heroes” sets Wood off in pursuit of these enduring myths and their roots in historical fact. Wood retraces the steps of these stories and their mythic heroes, crossing the deserts of Yemen, trekking the Himalayas and discovering remote villages in the Caucasus. As with Wood’s past PBS series -- including “Conquistadors” and “In The Footsteps of Alexander the Great” -- the voyage of exploration and the battle to get to the story’s source is half the fun and half the excitement. When “In Search of Myths & Heroes” premiered in Britain earlier this year, it was billed by critics as “riveting, beautifully made television,” “hugely engaging” and as “a series that will be one of the highlights of the year.” Of Wood, they referred to him as “passionate,” “ever enthusiastic” and “a mix of scholar, seeker and historical detective.”
Beyond the travel, history and adventure, these journeys have a deeper purpose: to uncover the truth about some of history’s greatest stories; stories with enduring appeal, romantic legends that are told and re-told around the world. In Wood’s unique style, this is also a series about how myths take on a life and meaning of their own, inspiring, influencing (and sometimes even changing) people and cultures centuries later and geographically distant from their origins.
The well-traveled Wood became even more so in the course of making this series, with 56 flights and countless overland miles in 19 countries whose indigenous peoples speak a total of 17 fascinatingly different languages. The resulting series follows Wood as he explores some extraordinary places, in pursuit of these extraordinary stories.
The quest begins with the search for an exotic and mysterious woman of power, the Queen of Sheba. Immortalized in the Hebrew Bible, the Muslim Koran and in many Christian traditions, the tale of the Queen’s journey to Jerusalem to meet (and sleep with) King Solomon has been told and re-told for nearly three thousand years -- in our time by Hollywood. In Africa and Arabia it is still told today.
“Hollywood made Sheba the lover of Solomon, “ said Wood, “and they made her white. In Africa, she’s black, and a woman of power; in Arabia, she’s half-woman, half-demon. But the tale of her transformations -- from exotic and mysterious alien to eternal female, from fantasy mother and lover to cloven-footed demon -- is a parable of so many women of power throughout history.”
In his second quest, Wood explores the greatest British myth: the tale of King Arthur. Traveling round the Celtic world -- from Cornwall to Wales, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland -- Wood uncovers the extraordinary story of how a shadowy Welsh freedom fighter -- a Dark Ages Che Guevera -- became a medieval Superman, and finally the model of a Christian hero.
On the way, Wood discovers the real stories behind The Round Table, Excalibur, and the Holy Grail itself, the unattainable, mystical cup of Christ. The Holy Grail has inspired poets, novelists and filmmakers, from the Middle Ages right down to Indiana Jones, Monty Python and the Da Vinci Code.
On the second evening of “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” Wood opens with his travels through India and Nepal, into Tibet to explore one of humanity’s great myths, that of an earthly paradise.
The tale of the magical hidden valley of Shangri-La was popularized in the 1930s by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, later an Oscar-winning Hollywood film. But the story of the lost kingdom behind the Himalayas, free from war and suffering, is descended from a much older Indian myth. And when Europeans first caught wind of the tale in the 16th century, they set about trying to discover it. To find the truth behind the legend, Wood follows their tracks on foot through the Maoist-controlled lands of western Nepal and on into Tibet. On the way he visits Mt. Kailash, the sacred center of the world for all Hindus and Buddhists. Eventually, after hundreds of miles on dirt roads, Wood reaches the fantastic ruins of the lost city of Tsaparang, which he suggests is the real inspiration behind the myth.
“One of the oldest myths of humanity, the paradise myth, continues to haunt us today, especially in these times of rapid globalization,” Wood said. “Whether such a paradise actually existed or not, it represents one of the most basic human desires.”
The Greeks have given the world its greatest myths. The myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Wood’s last journey, is an epic tale of the hero’s quest, the ancestor to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Jason’s mission is a formidable one: to sail into the unknown to find the Golden Fleece. He is saved by the priestess Medea and her magical arts. But her love comes at a high price.
Is this a mere fairy tale? Or was there a real Jason voyage? Wood heads from Greece up through the Black Sea, to the wild mountains of the Caucasus to find the truth behind the myth.
“In Search of Myths & Heroes” is a production of Maya Vision International and is presented by WETA Washington, D.C. Leo Eaton is executive producer. The producer is Rebecca Dobbs. For WETA, the executive producers are Dalton Delan and David S. Thompson. Funding is provided by the Annenberg Foundation, the BBC, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and public television viewers.
WETA is one of the three largest producing stations in PBS and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation’s capital. WETA productions and co-productions include “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Washington Week” and documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including, most recently, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, please visit the Web site at weta.org.