“God created man,” British historian Michael Wood says in the opening of his new PBS series, “because he loved stories.” Wood unravels some of civilization’s most riveting and timeless tales in his newest production, “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” which premieres on PBS November 16 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET.
In this four-hour series, Wood investigates the historical truth behind four enduring myths: the Queen of Sheba, King Arthur, Shangri-La and Jason and the Golden Fleece. As with his past acclaimed series (“In Search of Shakespeare,” “Conquistadors”), Wood combines travel, adventure and history into a compelling mix of arresting visuals and exquisite writing that led the British press to dub him “the Indiana Jones of factual television.”
But of all the world’s myths, how did Wood come to select these four?
“When we sat down with PBS to discuss what we were then calling ‘the little project’ -- which became quite large, actually -- I drew up a list of 10 myths. Then came the hard part of picking the ones we would actually explore,” Wood said.
In ordere to choose the subjects for “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” Wood needed to think practically. “We wanted to provide a geographical and cultural mix,” he said, “but also needed to be able to get to the places we would need to film. For instance, one of the 10 myths on our list would require our going into Iraq, so that was out of the question.”
Wood said he also sought stories that were archetypal myths, the kind that would resonate with his viewers.
“One of them, the Jason myth, is the hero’s quest, the young man who has to go and prove himself against terrible dangers. Usually, he only manages it with the help of the divine woman. That’s one of the most common myths in the story of humanity,” Wood said.
“The Shangri-La story is a paradise myth, that somewhere there is a place that has escaped the ravages of time and history.,” he continued. “Every culture has one.”
The Queen of Sheba myth treads into the realm of gender politics. “The Sheba story is really about the woman of power, who in a male-dominated world has been both fascinating and demonized for thousands of years,” Wood said.
As for the King Arthur myth -- perhaps the most familiar of the four to an American audience -- Wood had a more dark evaluation. “This story is really a ‘golden age’ type of myth,” he said. “It’s an age where, for a moment, it seems the highest values of humanity seem about to emerge. But it always is destroyed in the end by civil war and greed and jealousy.”
The cultural mix Wood sought for the series is certainly there, with Greek myth (Jason), the Bible (Sheba), Indian myth (Shangri-La) and a tale of Celtic chivalry and valor embodied in the Arthur myth. And given the compelling tales these make for the television screen, one question remains: how long before Wood explores the other six myths on his Top Ten list?