What I've been reading
This book was published in conjunction with a film documentary that was broadcast on the BBC. It's an interesting book, but it's fairly superficial, and I wish Wood had gone into some more detail about these myths. He examines four myths: Shangri-La, Jason and the Argonauts, the Queen of Sheba, and King Arthur. But he never goes into them too deeply, and the book suffers a bit for it. The best part of the book is the fantastic photographs that Wood takes as he travels around the world seeking these myths. As a documentary introducing people to these myths, this is probably fine. As a book that goes deeper, it fails.
That's not to say it's not entertaining. Wood wants to examine the historical bases behind myths, and so he travels to where their origins are and tries to trace the folklore back in time. This works rather well in the first two chapters, especially the first one, in which he heads to Tibet to find Shangri-La. This is a marvelous chapter, because he does a fine job of not only tracing the legend but making an actual pilgrimage. For many of the same reasons, his chapter on Jason and the Argonauts and the Queen of Sheba is fine too, but as the book progresses, he seems to spend less time on the actual folklore. With something like Shangri-La, it's easier to focus on the legend, because there's very few new stories being generated. With Jason and the Argonauts, the legend is also somewhat calcified, and therefore Wood can simply track the story along the Black Sea coast. It's more difficult for him to trace the Queen of Sheba, simply because there's less literature. His trek across Yemen, however, is fascinating, and, like the journey into Nepal and Tibet, makes me want to visit there (my cousin recently spent some time in Yemen, and I hope I can talk to her about it soon). It's far easier for Wood to travel with those three myths, as they are rooted in specific places.
When he reaches Arthur, however, the book becomes less interesting. The biggest problem is that King Arthur still commands so much of our attention, so the story is still being written, plus the geography is quite sketchy. Wood takes a much more generic approach to the Arthur chapter, basically surveying the literature. It's unfortunate that he chooses to end the book with it (not surprising, given that this was produced for a British audience), but it's not completely awful. If you've never read anything about King Arthur, it's not a bad chapter, but it's not as inspired as the first three chapters. With Shangri-La, Jason, and the Queen of Sheba, we get adventure stories in exotic lands. With Arthur, we get recitations of medieval literature. Wood even seems a bit bored by it.
As a primer on these myths, this is an interesting book. The photographs are spectacular, and Wood does make comments about what myths mean, but he never goes to far into that aspect of the legends. What he does best is make these places that many people are unfamiliar with - Tibet, Georgia, Yemen - and make them more real. That's a very cool part of the book, and it would have been nice to see the documentaries, just to see the scenery. I didn't learn much about legends from this book, but I did get to see some cool places and learn a little about modern cultures where the myths occurred. There's nothing wrong with that.