'In Search of Myths & Heroes'

Michael Wood
Historian and Author
Thursday, November 17, 2005 12:00 PM

In the four-part PBS series "In Search of Myths & Heroes," historian and author Michael 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 examines not only why legends were created but how they have been used -- both politically and culturally -- over the years, and why we still need them today. It airs on PBS on Wednesdays, November 16-23, at 9 p.m. ET. (Check TV Schedule.)

The series' host Wood was online Thursday, Nov. 17, at noon ET to answer your questions about these famous myths and to discuss the series "In Search of Myths & Heroes."

As writer and presenter, Wood's television series include "Art of the Western World," "Legacy," "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great" (1998) and "Conquistadors" (2000). He is author of several best-selling books and of more than 70 TV films, which have been shown worldwide.

Woods 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, historian and filmmaker. His films include "Great Railway Journeys of the World" (1982), the BAFTA-winning "Great River Journeys" (1984), "The Sacred Way" (1990), "Saddam's Killing Fields" (1991), "Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail" (1999) and "Conquistadors" (2000), which followed four epic journeys during the Spanish Conquest of the New World.

The transcript follows.


Michael Wood: Hi everybody, it's a great pleasure to be back in the States with a new series on PBS. Pursuing our old track, of what I like to call travel adventure history. And if you've got any questions about last night's shows or any of our other shows on PBS, I'd be delighted to answer them as best I can.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Wood, how did you start learning and getting interested in all these myths? Would you say it's your true passion? And what's the greatest myth and legend that you know of to date? Thank you for your time.

Michael Wood: Fantastic question! I guess like everybody, I've been fascinated since I was a kid. But I trained as an academic historian in my early days. It's only more recently that I started to think about the life of these stories over time. And how that was just as important in history as historical fact. So it's a lifetime interest.

As for the greatest myth, that's a very difficult question. My favorites, I suppose, are the Greek myths, especially maybe the Odyssey. But I guess, if I had to say which was the greatest, I'd have to say the earliest, the epic Gilgamesh, composed in ancient Iraq between four and five thousand years ago. And I would have included that in this series had the situation in Iraq not made it impossible.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Fascinating series! So far I've seen the Queen of Sheba and King Arthur hours, and am looking forward to the rest. I've always enjoyed Arthurian stories, but not Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle - which has limited my reading somewhat. I'd really be interested in reading more of the earlier stories and sources (I've already read Monmouth). Can you recommend any particular texts and/or translators? Also, who would you suggest I read for general pre-1066 British history (I guess from about a century before the Roman withdrawal until then)?

Michael Wood: There are a lot of very good books on pre-1066 British history. But that period was my own academic area, and this is going to sound terrible plugging my own book, but I've written several books on this area, one of which is called In Search of the Dark Ages. But the latest, which is on the University of California press, is called In Search of England. And it's a series of stories about some of these myths, legends, and history, including King Arthur.

As for the question about books on King Arthur, if you go down to your book shop you'll find good translations of a lot of these early stories. The key story in the development of the legend was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, and you can pick that up in Penguin paperback. But the most fabulous Arthur stories I think come in the French romances, about Lancelot, the Holy Grail and so on. Especially Chretien de Troyes.


Anonymous: I'm not familiar with the epic Gilgamesh myth. Would you mind providing some insight into that one? Thanks.

Michael Wood: The epic of Gilgamesh is often called the first great work of world literature. There are several recensions of it. It's a hero's quest story. Of the young man who has to grow up, face death, overcome impossible odds, fight demons. But what makes it really great is the sense of human destiny which unfolds in the poem, leading up to the hero's search for everlasting life -- of course, a fruitless search. The poem was composed four or five thousand years ago, but its tales spread in different languages in the ancient near east, and find their way into Homer, into the Tales of the Arabian Nights in the middle ages, and according to Iraqi friends of mine, have even survived into out times in oral tradition in south Iraq. And you can get paperback versions of this epic in any good book shop.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Michael,

I have been a huge fan of your work, starting with your book and PBS series on the Trojan War, in the late 80's (btw- what did you think of the recent "Troy" movie? I thought it was a bit of a letdown compared to the real story that you covered). How are you able to do your travels? And what leads you to the different subjects that you cover? Keep up the great work!

Michael Wood: Thank you very much for your kind words, which are much appreciated. I agree with you about the Troy movie. I thought they missed a trick by trying to make the heroes too much like modern people and not enough like the the ruthless, cruel universe of Homer. After our journeys it's always a difficult business juggling family life and work in this kind of job. And in recent years with the kids growing up, I've tried to make the journies as short as possible. And we did no reconnaissance trips this time.

As for the subject matter, I always tend to follow, if I'm lucky, the things I'm interested in. I'm a great believer that curiosity in life and can take you a long way, and you should never lose the passions that you started off with.


Ravena, N.Y.: What are some of the current myths that people have today? How do they compare to the ancient myths?

Michael Wood: We all create myths. Every society creates myths. And those myths can be about nations. Even the myth of the wild west that was the subject of so many cowboy movies when we were growing up. Myths can be about the force of nature. You've only got to look at the reaction to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean or hurricane Katrina here in the States, how we still sometimes struggle to explain these phenomenon. Myths can also be about essential human qualities - love, hate, bravery, cowardice, loyalty, betrayal. And in those cases what I think happens is that we simply recycle the old stories, because they still work. If you look at Hollywood, Star Wars for example, or the Lord of the Rings, you see how modern versions of the ancient myths still carry fanstastic power because they speak about basic human aspirations. In fact George Lucas has often said he deliberately went back to the ancient myths in writing Star Wars.


Philadelphia, Pa.: This may be too hot a topic, but have you ever explored the myths or realities of the stories of Appolonia? I am not too familiar with them, but I have read that some of these stories, with much debate, are close to or may have served as background to Biblical events. I am wondering what serious scholarship has found on these stories.

Michael Wood: That's not an area that I've really looked into. But what scholars have shown is that some of the ancient Babylonian myths, like the Epic of Gilgamesh which I mentioned earlier, lie behind some of the Bible stories. The tale of the great flood for example is in the Gilgamesh epic. The tale of the Garden of Eden clearly goes back to Babylonian myth. The Tower of Babel obviously is the same.


Baltimore, Md.: How did you decide which myths to include? Also, you visited some fairly dangerous places in your travels for this series. Did you ever feel unsafe?

Michael Wood: I drew up a list of about ten great myths from across the world to start off with. And in the end we chose one from the Bible, one from the ancient Greeks, one from India and one from the Celtic/British world, which I guess you could say were the four greatest myth making traditions in the world. The tales had a nice geographical spread, and also a nice spread in terms of their themes. But it's a series idea that could run and run!

Obviously, I'm not a war correspondent, and I have great admiration for reporters who put themselves in the front lines to inform us about what's going on in the world. I suppose you could say that some of the places we went to are kind of dangerous, and they're certainly not the kind of destinations you'd choose in your holiday brochure. But I find in our line of business you very rarely encounter any hostility, and if you go in with an open mind, an open heart and a smile on your face, things rarely go wrong. But of course, making these films, it would be foolish to do anything life threatening.


Baltimore, Md.: In what way have these legends impacted the creation of comic book heroes, in particular, Superman?

Michael Wood: I think, just like Hollywood movies, many of the great comic book heroes feel like projections of old Greek heroes. Perseus, who can fly through the air like Superman, he can make himself invisible, he fights terrible demons, monsters that can turn you into stone. Or take Bellerophon, who rides a magic horse, kills the monster and rescues the beautiful girl. You can take any number of these tales and with only a little adjustment see them as comic book heroes. They all deal in the same fantasies, the same projections, the same fears, and the same desires.


Baltimore, Md.: I am a fan of Joseph Campbell and his writings. How has his work influenced your work?

Michael Wood: Yeah, I'm a fan too. I much enjoyed the series that Joseph Campbell did with Bill Moyers on PBS a few years back, and actually when I was thinking about the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, I rooted out from my bookshelf, Campbell's interview with Bill about the hero's quest. What's so interesting is how you find this kind of tale in almost every culture in the world. The young boy who has to grow up, become a man, face death, overcome impossible odds, and achieve his appointed task, which of course he usually only manages to do with the help of the divine female, whose lover he becomes. As Campbell points out, times may change but young boys even in the 21st century still have to grow up, become a man, face difficulties in life including death, and hopefully they find the divine female who will help him do it!


Oak Creek, Wis.: I really enjoyed your presentation of Alexander the Great. Do you think you might do something like that with Julius Caesar?

Michael Wood: Thanks very much. We enjoyed doing that journey. It was a really incredible experience. I find Julius Caeser a fascinating character too, but with this new epic TV series that's just out, ten hours on the Romans, starring Julius Caeser, I guess anybody who wants to do a documentary on him may have to wait a little bit until the dust has settled.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dear Michael, I haven't missed one of your films yet. They have all been fascinating and this one certainly didn't disappoint. Can you fill us in on some anecdotes from your travels while making In Search of Myths and Heroes? Thank you for contributing to some of the finest that Television has to offer. Best wishes.

Michael Wood: That's very kind of you. It's really great to get feedback from the viewers who of course are the only people that really count! In these last four journeys that we did, we had some wonderful experiences. I'll never forget the old Muslim scholar in Yemen in last night's show who invited us into his house, made us tea and then sang the verses of the Koran about the story of Solomon and Sheeba. But I guess if I had to choose one journey in these films that was truly extraordinary as a personal experience, I'd have to choose the journey we made into Tibet searching for the ancient legend which lies behind the modern tale of Shangri-la. As you'll see next week, we got dropped off by a supply helicopter in an isolated valley in the far northwest of Nepal out of touch with any modern communications. And over the course of the next few days we walked into Tibet. We went to the sacred mountain Kailash which all Hindus believe is the center of the Earth. And we traveled 400 kilometers beyond on dirt track roads behind the Himalayas to reach the lost city which I think played a part in the creation of the legend. I had dreamed of going to Kailash and that part of Tibet for more than twenty years but the opportunity had never arisen. So for me it was a particularly moving experience to stand in sight of the holy mountain on a crystal clear late November day with a dazzling blue sky and this great ice pyramid which has been the focus of so much devotion over so many centuries.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Wood,

I enjoyed the first two episodes of your series last night on PBS. You mentioned that you couldn't include Gilgamesh in your series due to the situation in Iraq. Just out of curiosity, are there other countries/regions with interesting legends that cannot be investigated due to political instability/restrictions? If you could travel anywhere in the world safely, what would you add to the series?

Michael Wood: You could certainly make a series of 20 films on great myths of the world without any difficulty. And most of the places you'd want to film would be easy to manage. There are few more dangerous places than Iraq at the moment. Another story I was interested in was the legend of El Dorado which comes from Columbia. I actually spoke to the Columbian ambassador in London about this and it's possibly something we might try to do in the future. Obviously when we did our PBS series a few years ago on the Spanish conquest of the New World it was a tale that we touched on when we followed the root of the Spanish expedition from Quito in Equador over the Andes and down the Amazon. But it's certainly an area I'd like to return to -- in fact, only this Easter we took our kids to the Andes and to Cuzco. It's a part of the world I really love.


Anonymous: Michael, are you presently working on another book or film? How long do you spend researching and filming the programs? What a wonderful life you must have, a sort of literary Indiana Jones!

Michael Wood: That's a great description! Yes, I've been very lucky to be able to make a career out of pursuing my interests, and to show these things to a worldwide audience. It's a very great privilege to be able to spend time in another culture. Often these projects have lodged in the mind over a long period of time, sometimes many years. You think I'd like to do a film on this subject. I first wrote a script for a documentary about the Journey to Mount Kailash twenty years ago for example. So you gather ideas on subjects and sometimes you see a book and you get it thinking that maybe one day that would be an interesting area to look at. So it's all part of a long process.

The next series that we're working on for PBS is another case in point. I think we first suggested to PBS doing a series on the history of India about 15 years ago. And now, with the huge interest in India and China across the world, as they are both developing into economic and cultural giants, the time is suddenly right to do it. But obviously it's something I've been thinking about for nearly 20 years, traveling in India and writing various things, including the Indian episode of the series we did for PBS back in 1991 called LEGACY.


Michael Wood: Well, thank you very much for sending in your thoughtful comments. And I really appreciate your interest, and hope very much that we can continue our dialogue as filmmaker and audience, because I always feel that without that contact as filmmakers it's easy to lose our way. So thanks very much!


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