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Book Review


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).

      I'm 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. 1
    Wood 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." (Wood, 23). 2
    Next 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). 3
     Wood 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 Ethiopia. 4
     Wood's 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.  5
     I 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. 6
     Myths 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.  7
Devona Rowe
Mandarin High School, Jacksonville

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