Heroic journey

A new PBS special uncovers the origins of history's famous tales.

The Queen of Sheba, hearing of Solomon's great wisdom, came to Jerusalem to honor and test the king. She found him more than wise and fell in love, bearing him a son who became the first of many Ethiopian kings, down to modern times.

So say the Ethiopians.

Pursuing such stories, ones that embody the heart and the history of great civilizations, is the goal of a new PBS series, "In Search of Myths and Heroes." Starting next Wednesday, the show explores four of what British documentarian Michael Wood calls the world's most compelling and culture-crossing tales: the Queen of Sheba, King Arthur, Shangri-La, and Jason and the Golden Fleece. As he did in previous PBS exploits - "Conquistadors" and "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great" - Wood travels to some of the globe's most remote spots to penetrate the sources and continued vitality of these accounts.

The series opens with a haunting mission into Africa and Arabia, following the trails of the Sheba story. For the most part, Wood doesn't rely on the reenactment style of storytelling that has become de rigueur in historical documentaries. Instead, he utilizes the voices of locals to bring the past to life and reveal how much meaning the stories still have today.

There are exceptions. Four actresses recant the myths at various moments. In the Sheba segment, a black British actress, Adjoa Andoh, recites the encounters between Sheba and Solomon from Ethiopian holy works, underlining Wood's conviction that Sheba was a black African, not the white woman familiar from Hollywood movies.

"We toyed with the idea of actually picking up the storytellers on location," he says, "but we wanted them to be plain, straight, clear, and in the English language."

The show's informal approach was often born of necessity. Wood's team didn't have permission to film in Tibet or China for the episode about Shangri-La, for example, so they proceeded under the guise of being tourists. But the style works well, inviting viewers to share the excitement of discovery as when Wood visits Ethiopia and finds the oldest copy of the story of Solomon, as read by an African in an ancient tongue.

Wood says this series is focused on the underlying potency of the themes in each tale and their resonance across the ages. "There is a kind of search for the possible history behind the story," he says, but what really matters "is the power of a story that has been told over thousands of years."

Wood may not have selected the four most important stories in mythical history, but he says his choices represent what he calls the four pillars of mythical storytelling. "Jason is the story of a hero's quest, the young man who goes on the mission impossible," he says. The Shangri-La tale is a paradise myth, while the Arthurian legends and the accounts of Sheba and Solomon make up the foundation myths of such nations as Great Britain, Ethiopia, and Israel.

"You realize that history can become myth," he says. "We all depend on myths in the modern world today. These myths are used to give a kind of focus to history and identity."

Most Westerners will find themselves pondering this truth during the Sheba sequence as Wood tries, without success, to visit a humble - but well-protected - dwelling in Ethiopia that is reputed to house the Ark of the Covenant. Nevermind Hollywood's own mythmaking in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," says Wood. The story is different here. No Ethiopian believes that the Ark of the Covenant isn't inside that building, he says.

"In Search of Myths and Heroes" airs on PBS stations in two parts, Nov. 16 and 23.

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