Michael Wood, In Search of
Myths & Heroes: Exploring Four Epic Legends of the World. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. 272. $39.98 (paper).
probably the only reader of World History Connected who, when asked
to review Michael Wood's latest book, did not automatically think, "Great,
he's a renowned documentary maker; this should have some great pictures
in it!'. When asked to review In Search of Myths & Heroes I
was expecting something along the lines of Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology.
In fact, I leafed through for fifteen or twenty minutes thinking, "This
has some great pictures!" before I realized this was the companion book
to a PBS series and Michael Wood was its producer. The book surveys four
legends in as many chapters, following Wood as he travels the modern world
"in search of" the ancient.
begins with Shangri-La. The original Shangri-la appeared in James Hilton's
1932 novel Lost Horizon. Influenced by extraordinary photographs
of Tibet recently published in the west, Hilton's novel also echoed Father
Andrade's 17th century report of his journey to a strange land beyond the
Himalayas, a kingdom whose people lived in peace and harmony: Shambala.
Wood recreates Andrede's journey to Shambala, a place half fairy tale and
half real, a place that, according to the Dalai Lama, "…Begins as
an outer journey that becomes a journey of inner exploration and discovery."
comes Jason and the Argonauts, a story set in the generation before the
Trojan War. Much as Schliemann used Homer to find the site of the city of
Troy, Wood uses ancient descriptions of sites the Argonauts visited to reconstruct
their journey. His first task was to assemble a complete telling of the
story. Jason's tale, although well known to Greeks in 1300 BCE, was not
completed in its final form until the time of Alexander, 300 BCE. In its
barest form, Wood argues, the story of the Argonauts is probably the story
of the Greek colonization of the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea area.
Descendents of this early colonization, the Pontic Greeks, lived in Anatolia
from 700 BCE until they were violently expelled as a consequence of the
1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war. In the Black Sea area, a few communities, their
villagers speaking the Greek dialect of Rumja still survive (109).
turns next to the Bible. As a little girl in Sunday School, I always loved
the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Wood's account surprised
me. Scholars disagree about every detail: when Soloman lived, what kind
of "kingdom" he really ruled and where in the ancient world Sheba actually
was. Drawing from recent research, Wood places Solomon at the head of a
small 10th century BCE chiefdom in the Judean hills. But the story itself
is of later vintage, he writes, dating to the 8th century BCE: the Assyrian
Century, the first age of globalization. To flesh out his account, Wood
follows the likely trade route along the Red Sea from Axum (the Ethiopian
highlands) and Saba (in present-day Yemen) to Judea. Along the way Wood
has much to say about the political significance of the story to modern
final chapter focuses on a myth whose origins can be dated very precisely.
In 1129, an Oxford cleric who called himself Geoffrey of Monmouth began
writing The History of the Kings of Briton, source for one of the
world's greatest romances, the story of King Arthur. Drawing from the The
History of the Britons and the Annals of Wales, both published
in the 9th century, Monmouth's History of the Kings of Briton was
a Celtic response to the Norman invasion; it was a foundational myth around
which Britons could rally. So great was its power that, though invented
nearly out of whole cloth, King Henry II went to the trouble (so he claimed)
of recovering the bones from a grave whose tombstone read: "Here lies buried
the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of
Avalon"! (233). From this beginning, Wood traces the Arthurian cycle as
each generation has reshaped it to fit their own needs.
teach AP World History to tenth graders at a traditional high school. My
students (who are really into fantasy) love the chapter on Arthur and find
it very readable. This book has been a very hot item on my check-out list
for the last two months. It's not a terribly scholarly book, but it's a
well-written blend of travelogue and research which certainly taught me
things I didn't know. My only real complaint is its integration of text
and graphics. As Wood painstakingly described a scene or detail, I would
be dying to see it (the photographs are plentiful and lushly reproduced).
Wood describes ruined temples and burial mounds; the photos depict contemporary
children, boats, and towns he and his crew visited on their journeys.
and Heroes will probably
be useful to teachers looking for background reading and brief excerpts
that can jump start a topic for students. One four-paragraph passage for
example (20-21) describes Mughal Emperor Akbar's court and how Father Andrade
came to be there. Reading this short piece to students can serve as an introduction
the Mughals, to Akbar's policy of religious tolerance, and to Jesuit missionary
activism. Next year I plan to use the material in the Argonauts chapter
to extend discussion of Greek influence in the Mediterranean. Myths
and Heroes is a worthy addition to any classroom library.
Mandarin High School, Jacksonville