Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Heroic Journey ; A New PBS Special Uncovers the Origins of History's Famous Tales

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Heroic Journey ; A New PBS Special Uncovers the Origins of History's Famous Tales

Article excerpt

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. …

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