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Filmmaker seeks truth behind King Arthur and other legends

He's traveled In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great and gone on a voyage to trace the paths of The Conquistadors, but for his latest history-travel adventure, British filmmaker Michael Wood goes In Search of Myths & Heroes.

His latest PBS special airs in four one-hour segments - two from 9-11 p.m. Nov. 16 and two at the same times on Nov. 23 - that explore the legends of The Queen of Sheba and Arthur: The Once and Future King this week and Shangri-La and Jason and the Golden Fleece next week.

Wood explores these four enduring myths while searching for possible history behind each story.

"It doesn't matter whether there is history behind the story," Wood acknowledged at a PBS press conference in July. "What matters is the power of a story that has been told over thousands of years."

"Everybody is really interested in this idea of myths and mysteries," he said. "You can see the success of books like The Da Vinci Code. People are fascinated by the mystery: Was it real? Did it really happen?" Wood generated a list of 10 myths worth exploring and came up with four, balanced by their cultural and geographic diversity. One is Indian, one is Celtic-British, one is Greek, and one is from the Bible.

He did have to throw out one idea. "I was very keen to do the Epic of Gilgamesh in Iraq, had things in Iraq turned out differently," he said.

Wood begins with The Queen of Sheba, explaining the importance of the tale in the cultures of Ethiopia and Israel, and how they remain a part of those country's cultures today.

"What we always try to do is seek those living connections in the culture that make that link with the past," Wood said.

That's easily done in Jason and the Golden Fleece. "It's the story of a hero's quest, the young man who goes on the mission impossible," he said, noting traces of it can be found in modern movies, including Star Wars. "The young man's quest is one of the fundamental myths in all the stories of the world.

"Shangri-La is a paradise myth. ... Behind it lies the idea that somewhere on the Earth is a place that escapes all the destructions of time and history and war."

Wood and his crew traveled to 19 countries for the series, and he said his sense of adventure and discovery never wanes.

"We often go to places that you would never dream of getting to in your life," he said. "I always remember that letter from when we did Legacy for PBS years ago where a woman wrote to us from Lubbock, Texas, saying, 'I've just watched this film, and you showed us things that we never even dreamed existed.' And I still get that kick, actually, when you go to these places.

It's always, it seems to me, a great privilege to spend any time in a foreign culture."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

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