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In Search of Myths and Heroes
Michael Wood
Maya Vision International, 4 x 1 hour episodes

In Search of Myths and Heroes
Michael Wood
Michael Wood is the writer and presenter of many critically acclaimed series on television, including Art of the Western World, Legacy and In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. He is author of over sixty TV films which have been shown worldwide and of several best selling and highly praised books.

He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Oriel College Oxford where he did postgraduate research in Anglo-Saxon history. Since then he has worked as a journalist, broadcaster and film maker. His films have centred on history, but have included travel (Great Railway Journeys of the World; River Journeys; The Sacred Way); politics (Saddam's Killing Fields: an award winning account of the destruction of the Marsh Arabs of South Iraq) and cultural history (Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail, 1999: a study of the abuse of history and archaeology under the Nazis).

Indian civilisation has long been a special interest: Over the years Michael Wood has made a dozen visits to India and in addition to his films, Darshan and Legacy, he has written The Smile of Murugan, about a small town in Tamil Nadu and its annual pilgrimage.

His academic background was in early medieval English history; among his publications are In Search of the Dark Ages and Domesday. He published a recent series of medieval essays as In Search of England.

Michael Wood lives in North London with his wife and their two daughters.

Maya Vision International Website
SF Site Interview: Michael Wood

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sandy Auden

Presenter Michael Wood turns his considerable historical research skills towards the realms of fiction with this four-part television series examining the roots of some of the most enduring myths in history.

Wood looks at Jason and the Argonauts, the Queen of Sheba, the mythical city of Shangri-La and King Arthur, chasing across the world for actual physical evidence to support these legendary stories.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Jason's tale is three to four thousand years old, set in the generation before the Trojan war, sometime before 1300 BC, but first mentioned three centuries later in the age of Homer.

One of the ancestors of all Fantasy Quest stories, Jason gathers a renowned crew around him (including Hercules) and embarks on an epic journey to find the Golden Fleece. Jason's wicked uncle, King Pelias of Iolkos, has insisted that Jason retrieve the fleece as proof of his worthiness to claim King Pelias's throne.

Wood traces Jason's outward journey from Volos past the Clashing Rocks at Istanbul to Colchis (now Georgia). He recounts Jason's individual adventures along the way and examines the high-level history of each area as they pass through, finding old traditions surviving in cafés and bars, ingrained into the local culture over centuries.

Arriving at Colchis, the Argonauts travel up river towards city of Aia. Wood follows the trail of archaeological sites that lead up that river valley, to the possible location of the Golden Fleece at Mestia -- where sheep fleeces were used to filter stream water and capture gold particles washed down from the mountain.

The episode ends with a recounting of the dark side of the story often missed out in the movies. Jason's ultimate destiny is lonely and tragic, and Wood delivers these harsher elements of the tale with compassion, completing the story and rounding off the episode with skill.

The Queen of Sheba

In this, the most convoluted of the four episodes, Wood searches numerous locations looking for the Queen of Sheba, the ruler of Ethiopia -- or so the stories say.

The Queen of Sheba first appears in the Old Testament. She came to visit King Solomon bearing both gifts of frankincense and myrrh, and hard questions to test his wisdom. After some clever shenanigans, Solomon and Sheba fall in love and she bears him a son called Melenik. Solomon converts Sheba to the Christian faith, and when she returns home her entire kingdom starts to worship The One True God.

Later references to Sheba are wide-spread. She appears in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian stories, Turkish and Persian painting, in Kabbalistic treatises, and in medieval Christian alchemical and mystical works. Wood's journey in this episode is as much an exploration of the Sheba myth as it is an investigation of the actual historical trade links between Arabia, the Near East and Asia in the first century.

Starting in Jerusalem, Wood looks into the first stories about Sheba with a visit to see the oldest surviving Hebrew text of the Bible, written in the 10th century AD. It's clearly a moving moment for the historian, as he gazes in awe at the delicate, thousand-year-old parchment. But he looks in vain for any real geographical evidence of Sheba's kingdom and instead, turns his attention to the frankincense and myrrh she brought with her. They must have come from somewhere and there are only two places where the bushes are cultivated: South Arabia and the Ethiopian borderlands with Horn of Africa.

Following Sheba's return route to Ethiopia, Wood travels overland to the Red Sea. He passes ancient graffiti carved into the roadside rocks and uses a Greek merchant captain's guidebook (written in the first century and still accurate today) to locate the ancient place names mentioned on Sheba's journey home.

Visiting Axum, the legendary location of Queen of Sheba's palace, Wood finds evidence that points to South Arabia, so it's off to Yemen and the valley of Petra and The Incense Road and the kingdom of Saba to follow more clues to the location of Sheba's palace. He comes to rest in an isolated, crumbling city, built using its own ruins. Here, the evidence is from the right time period, the first millennium BC. Still inhabited, the ruined city holds tantalising clues to the origins of the myth, but is it the palace of the Queen of Sheba?


The existence of an earthly paradise, where humans live in harmony and free of suffering, has long been a repeating myth from such diverse sources as the Sumerian epic and the Islands of the Blest in Celtic literature. Shangri-La itself, however, is a more recent incarnation of the story, invented by James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizons.

Going back to the inspirational roots of Lost Horizons, Wood's research starts with a manuscript containing the autobiography of a western missionary who was living in the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar in the 1580s. Akbar sent an expedition to find the source of the sacred river Ganges and his team bought back tales of a world beyond the Himalayas where humans lived on a great plateau.

Fascinated by these stories, an intrepid young Jesuit, Antonio Andrade, became the first westerner to actually cross the Himalayas to reach the Tibetan culture in the 17th century. Wood follows in Andrade's footsteps in this intriguing journey to some of the most remote locations on the planet.

The first stage is along the well-trodden pilgrim route from Delhi to Hardwar, a holy city where Ganges river pours out of a rocky defile onto the plains. But their journey is blocked from going over the Mana Pass, as Andrade did, because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. So Wood flies to Kathmandu to get to western Nepal through the back door.

Their heading is for Mount Kailash, a holy mountain, probably shrouded in more myth than any other location in the world. It's a dangerous route through bandit country with the help of Russian helicopters but undaunted, Wood still stops off occasionally to visit enduring outposts of the Tibetan culture, where a way of life is preserved regardless of who is in charge.

Past Mount Kailash, they come to the legendary kingdom of Guge, a civilisation virtually unknown until the 1600s. Its deserted capital city Tsaparang nestles in the mountains, carved out of the very rock itself. Was this the place where paradise existed on earth? Could these monuments, deserted three centuries ago, be the inspirational heart of the Shangri-La myth?

King Arthur: The Once and Future King

This is perhaps the most well-known legend in the series (at least in the UK). Wood immediately disappoints thousands of Brits by opening with the declaration that Arthur is just one huge fictional story made up by Geoffrey of Monmouth around 1130 -- 1150. A young cleric based in Oxford, Geoffrey created Guinevere, Merlin, Excalibur and Avalon and even the evil Mordred -- all were born from his brilliant imagination.

Splitting his investigation, Wood both scours the British Isles looking at artefacts from Arthur's reign and shows how Arthur's legend has been manipulated by the country's politics for hundreds of years.

He visits the site of the earliest archaeological dig in 1191 at Glastonbury where the tomb of Arthur was allegedly excavated. While some historians argue that it is indeed Arthur's resting place, the evidence seems to indicate a fake -- a lead cross was discovered that bore text written in a twelfth century style, and references to places created by Monmouth point at a later burial, long after Arthur's probable time of around the 5th century.

The Round Table at Winchester is another lasting icon that Wood visits, but even here, the politics can be seen in action. Henry the Eighth had the Winchester Round Table re-painted with Henry's own face on King Arthur's body in an attempt to cash in on Arthur's legacy.

There are other political reasons for the Arthur myth emerging when it did. Back in 1066, the Norman Conquest of England ignited a series of bloody events. By the mid-1100s the Norman's subjugation of the Welsh had begun, with Ireland the next target. Geoffrey of Monmouth's story gave hope that the invaders would be driven out and the Celts returned to their former glory. By the late 1100s, after many years of fighting, the story takes on more spiritual aspects when the Grail story gets added by Chrétien de Troyes.

Wood then follows Arthur into Tudor times -- where Thomas Malory's Death of Arthur was finally printed in 1486, 15 years after Malory's own death. Moving into the modern day, the influence is still strong, with it appearing in Lord Tennyson's poetry and the décor in the House of Lords.

But was Arthur real?

The question takes Wood to County Cork in Ireland where he talks to a lone storyteller who can still translate Gaelic hero tales into English. Here he finds a tale with a sword and a cup that brings everlasting life, and elements of the tale can be traced back 1500 years. Is this timeless oral tradition indicating a real person at the heart of the myth?

But there's one last place to visit. The isle of Iona is the burial place for Scottish kings. Records exist here that detail the first king of the Scots -- King Aedan of Dalriada. Aedan had a son who was killed in a big battle in the 6th century, north of Hadrian's Wall. His name was Artuir. Was that the real Arthur?

In Search of Myths and Heroes is an enjoyable series of programs: well researched, dynamic, visually sumptuous and informative. These programs are not out to give exhaustive explanations of historical events. Instead, they approach the heavy subject matter with a light touch, a sense of adventure and the feel of a quest -- searching for factual evidence of fictional characters.

The main drawback comes if you have any in-depth knowledge of the myths being investigated. You'll probably find that you won't expand your knowledge very much by watching the program. However, they're still packed with detail for the newcomer and you do have to pay close attention to pick up all the clues that lead Wood from place to place. If you stop listening closely, it'll feel like the episodes are jumping around a lot with little direction.

Wood has always brought history to life. He connects to the past through the people keeping the traditions alive and through the ancient festivals and celebrations that have been handed down across the centuries. His enthusiasm for his field is seemingly unlimited and his barely contained excitement as he follows his routes in search of evidence is damn well addictive.

As Wood points out, much of today's fiction has its roots in these, and other, mythical stories. Heroic tales like The Lord of the Rings and James Bond are modern equivalents of Jason and Arthur. Hidden lands lurk not only in Tibetan mountains but also just behind the wardrobe. Other great women continue to make incredible journeys, in stories from authors as diverse as Robin Hobb and Gregory Benford.

Our continuing love of epic quests seems to indicate that the human spirit cannot do without its heroes and heroines. May they endure for another four millennia at least.

Copyright © 2005 Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.

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