British historian Michael Wood has always been searching for something. Often it has been the people and places that pepper some of the dominant events or breakthroughs in human history: Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, or the subjugation of the Americas by the conquistadors.
In his latest PBS series, Wood is looking for something even more elusive: the historical truth behind four of the world’s greatest and most enduring myths. “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” which premieres November 16 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET, has Wood trekking the Himalayas, traversing the deserts of Arabia, and exploring remote villages in the Caucasus, all in pursuit of the historical roots behind the ancient stories of the Queen of Sheba, King Arthur, Shangri-La and Jason and the Golden Fleece.
Wood, however, sees this documentary as part of his continuum of work. Although the existence of King Arthur, for instance, is very much open to debate, and Shakespeare was flesh and bones in Elizabethan England, Wood feels they are all of a piece.
“I’ve been making history films for a long time,” he said, “and there are always different ways of presenting them. A lot of those subjects I made films about in the past are quite mythic tales in one way or another.
“One of our early films was ‘In Search of Troy.’ It’s still debated whether there was ever a Trojan War or not. When we did ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,’ we learned that the farther east we went, the more amazing the stories that were embedded in the culture. I remember trying to sleep in some tiny hut in Afghanistan, and in the middle of the night they would bring in some aged mullah -- some old boy with a long beard -- and he would tell us these fantastic stories of how Alexander rose to heaven on a winged chariot. In seemed that, with some of the stories we’ve explored, the myth seems to become almost as important as the historical truth.”
In this series, Wood discovers that these myths endure, despite their centuries-old pedigree, and many resonate in today’s cultural landscape.
“We were struck in the story of the Queen of Sheba,” Wood said, “that she journeyed to Jerusalem to meet -- and sleep with -- King Solomon. Well, the Solomon story is part of the founding myth of the state of Israel, while the Sheba myth is the founding myth of Ethiopia, where she is still regarded as the mother of the nation.”
Likewise, Wood learned that the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece has for 3,000 years been the founding myth of the Greek expansion into the east ¾ the Black Sea, the Ukraine, Russia and the Caucasus.
“And the Arthur legend has been borrowed by the English from its Celtic origins,” Wood continued. “These stories have lasted for thousands of years, not only because they are great stories to hear around a fireside at night, but also because they all somehow enshrine the historical process. And that’s what interested me most about these myths.”
And to watch Wood searching out these heroic tales and their truths, from Tibetan plateaus to Arabian ruins, from the abbeys of Brittany to remote Caucasian mountain settlements, many of us will be interested, too.