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Through TV and books the Trojan War becomes a hot topic

By Arthur Unger / June 3, 1986



In London, Michael Wood is known as the man who caused a sellout of Homer's classics in the main bookshops. Now he'd like to start a literary stampede in America for ``The Iliad'' and ``The Odyssey.'' In Search of the Trojan War (PBS, now airing in some cities on Mondays, 8-9 p.m.; check local listings for days and times) is the title of the six-part series and also of a companion book in which host/writer Michael Wood attempts to discover whether the Trojan War, set nearly 3,000 years ago in Homer's epic poems, was real or mythical. Mr. Wood also attempts to pinpoint the location of Troy.

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In the TV series, Wood visits all of the key sites associated with the war, speculates on the varied scientific and nonscientific theories as to the accuracy of Homer's geography, and makes side trips into the world of storytelling and archaeologists' adventures.

For those not enchanted with Greece and Homer, ``In Search of the Trojan War'' may be a bit overextended; three or four hours might have done the job.

But for viewers who can involve themselves in the wonders of Bronze Age Greece, the series offers a tantalizing continuum of romantic explorations, seeded throughout with intellectual discovery.

It's a glorious archaeological armchair adventure.

Wood visited New York to tell Americans about the BBC-produced series, which is being presented on PBS by station KCET of Los Angeles. Enthusiasm for Greece permeates his conversation. This Oxford-educated, self-described ``popularizer'' calls the series ``a cross between historical journalism and detective work. I did actually train as an historian but as a medievalist. So, although I am not a professional in Homer's period, I did ask questions that the experts had failed to ask.''

Wood doesn't consider himself a crusader for Homer, even though the programs have sparked new interest in the poet.

``I'm delighted to learn from friends who teach history that more kids want to do that period,'' he says. ``And many students have said they were inspired by the films. But what would make the series a success for me in America would be if a reasonable number of people watched it and found it exciting and informative and were thrilled by the tale.

``After all, unless films like this are entertaining, they're nothing. Let's remember that these films were made for the minority channel in England [BBC-2], and they do take the audience into quite complicated areas of history. I am hoping that the pull of the Trojan War, and the wooden horse, and all that lingers in people's minds.''

The series first gives viewers the basics, ranging from the expeditions led by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) to a Gaelic-speaking tale-teller in Ireland who has a repertoire larger than ``The Iliad.''

``We take you to the border of Turkey,'' says Wood, ``where you actually see professional bards reciting Turkish medieval epics to musical instruments -- the last vestige of a culture where they actually do perform funerals and marriages. So the programs show you what epic poetry is all about and how it can pass an epic story down.

``Once we have the basics of the archaeology and the nature of epic poetry, we then start to journey through Greece to try to piece together the elements of the tale as modern archaeology sees it.

``We are able to use resources that only now we can understand -- the Greek tablets and the Hittite diplomatic archives found in Turkey.

``We actually have a set of diplomatic tablets, dispatches between rulers at that time -- letters addressed to the Greek king from the emperor who ruled Asia Minor about his military interference on the shores of Anatoli.