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In Search of Myths and Heroes -- An Interview with Michael Wood
conducted by Sandy Auden

© Maya Vision International: Photographer Steve Razzetti
Michael Wood at Glastonbury Tor
Michael Wood at Glastonbury Tor
Historian Michael Wood takes a look at the origins of some of our most ancient legends in his new TV series In Search of Myths & Heroes. He examines the roots of renowned quest stories like Jason and the Golden Fleece, and other enduring tales like King Arthur, the Queen of Sheba and Shangri-La.

On a global scale, there is a huge selection of stories available for Wood to explore, so how did he find a focus for a new series?

In the previous TV journeys we've done, like In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, we were constantly bumping into oral stories that had no relation to history but where the myth had become almost as big as an historical event. That was what intrigued me.

The format of doing history, adventure and travel had been very successful with programs like Conquistadors and Alexander and our commissioners in the BBC and in America really wanted more of that. So instead of doing something that was straight narrative history, we thought it would be fun to explore that margin between history and myth, where out of a small kernel of history, great myths grow to be told over thousands of years and become almost bigger historical facts than the history itself. I mean there's no evidence that Soloman and Sheba ever existed but they're both viewed as founders of their nations!

So I drew up a list of about ten myths on the back of an envelope and talked them through with our co-producer and commissioners. Some of them were not possible because of conditions, like in Iraq for example, and we ended up choosing a Bible myth, a Greek myth, an Indian myth and a Celtic myth. Obviously there's a geographical spread, and we wanted one to be in Britain.

How long did it take to make the series of four programs?

Usually, for films of this nature, it takes about four weeks filming per program. But we split them up so that we didn't do any individual journey that was much longer than two weeks. Except for the Tibetan/Nepali one which was a month.

We started it very quickly in October 2003 and went to film the first one in Nepal/Tibet in mid-November then made the rest in 2004. So the whole thing took 1516 months. When we did Alexander the Great and the Conquistadors, they took over two years to make with the planning and shooting and editing afterwards.

So this series was really quite fast given the difficulty of the terrain -- Georgia and Tibet and Ethiopia and Yemen, they weren't that easy to operate in.

No historical television series will get very far without research though...

You owe it to your audience for the programs to be well researched but you try to wear that scholarship lightly. There's a lot of effort goes into it but you don't want to weigh the audience down with that sort of stuff, so you're sparing in it.

Research helps to focus what you're trying to do and it often gives you the theme. You read somewhere in an old book that in Iran there's this tale of one-man-shows traveling the countryside, story tellers who tell this epic that goes back to the 10th century and before, but these story-tellers were banned after 1979.

When you get to Iran, you go looking for these people. And then you film them in a coffee house and there's the faces of all these ordinary Iranians around them, men and women, kids and all that and it's a very dramatic scene. So sometimes a line in an academic text can give you a very dramatic piece of actuality today.

Making this drama happen takes patience and a lot of organization in advance.

Almost everything came off perfectly for Myths & Heroes but you never know quite how things are going to happen. You plan these shoots in Britain, and sitting in London you can go into Kabul during the Taliban siege with the Red Cross, or get to a lost city of the Incas, or go to Western Nepal and walk into Tibet but you can never quite be sure how these things are going to work on the ground and you've no guarantee that there isn't going to be some difficulty.

To be quite honest, on the Tibetan trip we could have run into serious trouble with the governments on both sides of the divide. But everything went very well, we were very lucky. In Georgia, that valley in Svaneti is a very difficult area. It has not been possible for outsiders to work in the area for quite some time because of very feud-ridden clans up there. But we had good local advice and the local government had rubbed out a big mafia family who were terrorizing the alley only two months before we went.

It all went really well and we didn't feel threatened anywhere, even traveling in the heartland of Yemen in the aftermath of the war with Iraq and various other things. There was a lot of strong feeling in the Arab world and the Muslim world, but people were fantastically welcoming.

That's not to say that they didn't have some adventures along the way however...

We were in Svaneti valley in the Caucasus in Georgia, and the biggest threat there is the number of drinking sessions you're supposed to attend. There's hospitality at every single village going up the valley, people come out with great jugs of firewater and it would be incredibly rude to refuse. You have to engage in these almost courtship-like toastings to Anglo-Georgian friendship or anything else that comes to mind but it isn't just a glass of firewater in Georgia, you also have to make these elaborate speeches, which are then translated into Georgian and almost judged for poetic quality.

We ended up trying to distract people's attention and pour glasses away at every available opportunity because at the end of a day like that, you have a meal and at 11 o'clock your host says: 'Now we can sit down and drink like men!' And we're like: 'Can we be wimps please?'"

Some of the anecdotes are tinged with Wood's darker sense of humour...

When were a couple of days up in Svaneti, some soldiers were sent to look after us. There'd been an argy-bargy with one of the hosts on the road and our current hosts were slightly worried that the guy they'd fallen out with was going to come after us with a machine gun. So they sent six soldiers, in a beaten-up jeep that had bullet holes all through the bonnet and windows. And these guys, of course, travel with a plastic jerry can full of firewater. You'd sit there for breakfast at some windy height in the Caucasus and not only was there bread, cheese and mutton but they'd put out these great quantities of booze too.

© Maya Vision International: Photographer Steve Razzetti
Georgian singers to entertain Wood and crew at yet another toasting
Georgian singers to entertain Michael Wood and crew at yet another toasting
We spent a couple of days with these soldiers and at the very end we parted at a crossroads, with night coming on. They insisted that we had one more set of toasting for Anglo-Georgian friendships. They decided we were going to have a shooting competition and nominated a target up on the valley side, then proceeded to blow apart the surrounding shrubbery with their Kalashnikovs. Then they tried again with an even heavier machine gun, but were obviously too pissed to hit the target!

Then they handed the gun to us! We pushed our sound recordist, Callum Bulmer forward. He's this tall, craggy, six foot four New Zealander who happened to have been brought up on a farm and learned to shoot when he was ten years old. Callum proceeded to blow the target to bits with his first shot.

The jaws dropped on these Georgian troops and by the time we'd parted, the legend was already going down the valley that these Brits weren't wimps at all. They could not only drink but they could shoot as well! We had a great deal of laughter about that and everyone took the piss out of us afterwards.

As well as having fun along the way, there's a serious side to Wood's work and the new series focuses closely on the stories and their role in re-constructing history.

I think all history is story telling but on television you have to tell a good story. We were interested in this area where story gets told and re-told and expanded and changed, sometimes over thousands of years.

Look at King Arthur -- he first appears in the 9th Century as a Welsh freedom fighter, fighting against the Anglo-Saxons; and then by the 12th Century he's the Napoleon of the Middle Ages and marches on Rome and all this kind of stuff. Another 100 years go by and he's this chivalrous figure of romance with knights and round tables and spiritual quests. To the Tudors he's a political figure, and to the Victorians he becomes something else. The same character has the name Arthur but the story has changed out of all recognition.

And obviously it's much more important than any historical fact. One of the things that I've felt throughout is that in the end it doesn't really matter whether King Arthur or Jason or Soloman or Sheba literally existed. Whether there is a historical truth behind the myth or not is quite an interesting question -- it's fascinating to know that there might be a lost civilization in Tibet that's part of the reason for that legend -- but actually the myths are much bigger than the truth.

© Maya Vision International: Photographer Steve Razzetti
Michael Wood in Marib, Yemen
Michael Wood in Marib, Yemen
I'm a great believer that the real thing about history is its living connection with the past, and in these cultures the living past is still there to connect with. Those scenes at the monastery in Tibet are very close to what you would have seen a thousand years ago. And the guy in the Yemen, the scholar who was talking about the Sheba story in the Koran, was from a line of scholarship that goes back to the 7th or 8th Century.

By following the stories and talking to the people you're getting a handle on the living tradition of the stories. It's something that happened to us constantly when we were doing Alexander the Great, we met people many who knew stories about Alexander. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Central Asia and Iran very few of these stories have any relationship to the history at all. But they're testimony to the myth.

To experience this living connection with the past, Wood completes the journey to distant lands on behalf of the viewer.

When you go to somewhere like the Limi Valley in Tibet, it's an incredibly powerful feeling. You walk in and their lives are still very close to the way that they lived generations in the past. You go in the evenings to the yard of the monastery and see those spirit dances and it's fantastically powerful because everywhere in the world these ancient traditions and ways and thinking are being rubbed out by modernity and globalization.

I find it terribly moving to encounter the survival of the older ways of seeing. They're not inferior ways at all and sometimes the people have handed that sense of the value of the past down very tenaciously. We know personal friends in South India who are really still part of that Hindu culture of the Tamils. Their inner clock is based on a different time really. I think most human beings would walk into that and be very moved.

In the UK, our spiritual festivals were cut off in the 16th century, we were a traditional society right up to the Reformation. And if it hadn't happened, we'd probably be more like the cultures in France, Italy, or Spain, a more traditional Catholic culture. But that went when those rituals and traditions were specifically barred by the government and the Protestant church and our path took a different direction.

They still had a lot of the farming festivals until the 19th century but our population very much left the land and went to the cities and only a vestige of festivals came through into the 20th century. These are big historical changes.

What you learn when you travel to countries like Ethiopia and Tibet is that changes can happen, very dramatically and swiftly, and they are doing now, across the world. What you learn is that 500 years isn't that long a time in history. It's perfectly possible, and indeed it does happen, that memories and traditions of events from that long ago are handed down very carefully by people.

I've become much more of a believer in the power of oral traditions after the years of filming out in those societies. When you're actually sat there in a university, the professors all say 'oh, it's only an oral tradition.' Because they work in universities, the written document is the thing for them. When you're out in the wilds, you realize that core of traditions can often closely reflect the things that happened a long time go.

Are we losing some of that past with out high speed societies?

Yeah, we're losing it at a fantastic rate. Even for us in our society, where we've got the means of retrieving the past on documents and everything else: the past is still receding from us. In other societies, three quarters of all the world's languages will die in this century and with all those languages will go oral poetry and myth and traditions and stories. It will all be lost if it's not been recorded and presumably most of it won't be recorded. So yes, we're in an era of the destruction of memory.

So do Wood's programs do anything to alleviate that situation?

They do a tiny bit. I think all my programs connect with that idea. They don't in themselves constitute much of a record because the scenes with these story tellers are very short and you're not recording the entire story. But, of course, what they do is draw the attention of the audience to these things. And heighten awareness of these things. So perhaps other people will make an effort to record them.

Wood has been raising awareness of these issues for over 20 years and he has always demonstrated an unflagging enthusiasm for his work.

It's because of curiosity! I've been incredibly lucky to see all these things and the world's a wonderful place. History is fascinating -- it's a philosophical and humanizing subject. You show people the world and the ancestors and what your predecessors have done, whether it's in your own culture or other cultures, and it humanizes people.

It shows that they're not so different in Iraq or China; shows you their great achievements and you understand something about their culture. In a little way, you can empathize with their culture and thinking. As a TV viewer you can feel a bit of what it's like to see things from their point of view. And I think that's a really big thing in today's world.

© Maya Vision International: Photographer Steve Razzetti
Mount Kailash, Wood's destination on his Tibet/Nepali travels
Mount Kailash, Michael Wood's destination on his Tibet/Nepali travels
You can also show people things that they would never dreamed existed. We go on journeys and you go to very difficult places -- it's quite a slog to get to Mount Kailash in Tibet -- but the images are so fantastic, you won't see more staggering pictures on TV this year and that's a wonderful thing to show people.

Our view of the past is changing all the time, because of what we discover, changes in the way we look at ourselves. The past isn't set in stone you see. It changes all the time as we do. The past isn't what's back there, it's here, it's what we make of it today.

Wood's next project with Maya Vision International, his independent film company, is a history of India, set for broadcast on BBC2 in 2007.

For a real photographic treat, visit the In Search of Myths and Heroes website. And for more information about Michael Wood and his production company Maya Vision International, check out the Maya Vision International website.

Copyright © 2005 by 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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