Through TV and books the Trojan War becomes a hot topic

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.

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.

``So you actually get a real context for the Trojan War. Real historical events, first-person letters: `Why are you being so difficult, my brother? We haven't had any problems since you sacked the city . . . .'

``The final program tries to bring all these things together and shows how it can be fitted into a precise moment in the collapse of the Bronze Age Aegean world. Nobody before has ever tried to put all of this in a real context -- that's what makes our program so fascinating.''

In England Wood is regarded as something of an ``egghead pinup.'' He was nominated as ``hunk of the month'' by a women's magazine. Sometimes he is criticized by those who would separate entertainment from education. A critic in The Times (London) described his approach as ``the Star Wars school of archaeology.''

But Wood is convinced of the entertainment as well as educational value of his series. His eyes sparkle with a kind of intellectual excitement as he describes the venture. He says he has been influenced more by series hosts like David Attenborough (``Life On Earth'') than Kenneth Clark (``Civilisation'').

``I think Clark was fine for his time, but, as we now look at him, his programs appear very elitist and out of touch historically. Also Clark's mode of presentation is terribly British, upper class, urbane . . . . I thought [Jacob] Bronowski [``Ascent of Man''] produced one of the most powerful series I've ever seen on television.''

How did Wood become interested in Greek history?

``As a child I read children's versions of ``The Iliad'' and ``The Odyssey'' and was really captivated by them. And I saw those old Compton Mackenzie films about Greece at school.

``Then, when I was 18 and for several years afterwards, I hitchhiked [around] Greece, sleeping on beaches, and visiting Mycenae and Knossos and all those places. So I knew the sites very well for the series.''

Schliemann was obsessed by a desire to find Troy -- and he did find what he considered to be Troy. Is Wood an obsessive character, too?

``No. I might be obsessive in search of history and things like that, but I just like to follow through on things I find interesting. Experts tend to feel that Schliemann has got to be either the father of archaeology or he's got to be a liar. Actually, I believe he was a bit of both -- a bluffer and a trickster and a braggart and a passionate romantic as well as a dedicated archaeologist.''

Is there another era on which Wood would like to concentrate in the future?

His eyes light up once again.

``Oh, yes. I have several plans. One is to follow the route of Alexander the Great from Asia Minor through Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the USSR. I also want to do a series about the great civilizations of the past -- how they arose in China, the Nile, Mesopotamia, Central America. And of course, there's my old love, the Anglo-Saxons -- you know, England and Europe in the Dark Ages.''

After spending several years making the series and traveling in Greece in search of the truth about the Trojan War, Wood now says that ``it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference whether Homer's stories are true or not. Obviously more information gives you added understanding of the various strata that lie behind Homer's text, and you start to understand how it might have been composed and transmitted. But it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of Homer as poetry or as a story. You can still enjoy Homer.

``I don't claim that Achilles and Hector and all those people actually existed -- that it is literal history. All I am saying is that the basic situation -- that a Greek expedition left Greece and sacked that city by the Dardanelles -- that is actually true. Beyond that, it's the word of a poet, isn't it?''

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