"Ancient Sorceries" and New: Wales, Witchcraft, and the Wireless

I can’t say that I knew much about Wales before I moved here from New York City. Undoubtedly, I still do not know as much as I ought to by now, well over two years later. Yet, however much I remain attached to America and its 20th-century popular culture, there is no getting away from what is now becoming home. On this day, 15 February, in 1948, for instance, the East Coast edition of the US radio series Escape presented “Ancient Sorceries,” a fantastic tale set in a remote town on the Welsh border, a town “between two worlds.” Having felt torn between two (or more) worlds myself, I felt compelled to listen in . . .

“Ancient Sorceries” was adapted by the aforementioned Les Crutchfield from a short story by Algernon Blackwood. It opens with what has been called the most romantic of radio sounds, the whistle of a locomotive. Aboard the train is Arthur Llewellyn, a Londoner who relates the strange occurrences during a weeklong—and unexpected—visit to a stay on the border to that wild country west of England.

He describes the countryside as “singularly empty, deserted of life.” There is a haze hanging over “the soft hills and the valleys between,” giving the “whole landscape a feeling of enchantment and unreality.” It is a haze I have often seen from our living room window, as illustrated by the above photograph of that very view, a scene that initially filled a staunch urbanite like myself with sensations not altogether pleasant.

Captivated nonetheless by this air of mystery, the Englishman alights, deciding to spend a night in “this peaceful spot,” despite the advice from a fellow passenger not to linger—not, that is, if he places “any value” on his soul. Heedless of this warning, Llewellyn leaves the train and, inquiring about a room for the night, is welcomed by the local innkeeper. Indeed, he appears to have been expected, as if returned to the village rather than visiting it for the first time.

Nor are the innkeeper and his wife the only ones to treat him like this. Who is the beautiful woman who asks him to come back to her? “You belonged to us once,” she insists. Is it a case of mistaken identity? Or loss of memory, perhaps? Can this mystery be explained away by science? However terrified, Llewellyn is determined to find out . . .

Aside from mentions of Swansea and the English town of Hereford near the Welsh border, there is little Welsh spirit in this dramatization of “Ancient Sorceries.” Dramatized in a perfunctory manner and delivered without accents to lend it character and authenticity, this is one of Escape’s lesser efforts. It is peculiar, however, that Crutchfield should have chosen to impose this relocation, considering that the original story was set in France. Was there, perhaps, more mystery to him in the wild of Wales, so little of which he managed to capture. Indeed, the strength of his play lies in what it suggests, rather than tells or enacts.

The awareness that the narrator has yet to find out—to live out—the end of his own story encourages the listener to become seer. The limitations of the storyteller turn us into tellers of his fortune. Having been conducted by a slight sketch and a few aural signposts, our trains of thought are railroaded to that place “between two worlds,” a misty and indistinct border region in which to conjure and scheme like the fates of the ancients. Such are the sorceries of radio.

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