In Defense of Thomas the Tank Engine

by Charles C. W. Cooke
The series is aimed at children, who need to rebel and to play but who also need, and crave, rules.

Those among us who were worried that we had finally reached Peak Nonsense were thrilled last week when a trailblazer named Tracy Van Slyke pioneered a newfangled extraction method and wrote up her findings in the Guardian. In one of the corners of silliness that had hitherto been unreachable to the rest of us, Van Slyke uncovered the contention that Thomas the Tank Engine was not a sweet and benign television show, beloved worldwide by parents and their offspring alike, but instead a dangerous source of “subversive messages” from which “children everywhere” must be “saved.”  Thomas and his friends, Van Slyke griped, “toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor — which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times”; they are overwhelmingly male, which sets “a bad example for girl wannabe train engineers”; and they are ruled by a fat, “imperious, little white” man called Sir Topham Hatt, who acts as the “Monopoly dictator of their funky little island.” All in all, she deduced, the program is a hive of “classism,” “sexism,” and “anti-environmentalism bordering on racism,” and “the constant bent of messages about friendship, work, class, gender and race” are all but guaranteed to send her “kid the absolute wrong message.” “Look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks,” Van Slyke opined, and you quickly “realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages.” Okay then.

Thomas the Tank Engine is based on a series of books by the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, an ordained minister and amateur railway enthusiast who crafted the stories as entertainment for his measles-stricken son, Christopher. Awdry was born in England in 1911, at which point the British Empire covered pretty much the entirety of the world’s oceans, ruled one quarter of all the land, had a good deal of informal control over the economies of China and South America, and looked to be impregnable as the cornerstone of the global order. Awdry lived in various parts of Britain throughout his life, but he preferred to spend his time in small, rural English towns of precisely the sort one imagines would be found on Sodor. Of course the books are “British” and “colonial”; their author was of that world. One might as well write a column decrying that Jane Austen’s characters are “too Georgian.”

Listening to the eccentric sounds of the Great Western Railway engines that ran through his little Wiltshire village, Awdry began to ascribe human characteristics to the trains. “I would hear them snorting up the grade,” he recalled, “and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another: ‘I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I can’t do it!’ ‘Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!’” Thus was born a magical world: of talking locomotives, playful rivalries, and naïve mischief. Or, in Van Slyke’s telling, thus did Awdry pen a thinly veiled recruitment call for dictatorship, patriarchy, and despotism.

Sodor’s portly railway master, Sir Topham Hatt, Van Slyke writes, is “a controlling autocrat,” who “orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done” — and who does so “regardless of their pre-existing schedules.” Worse still, Hatt is “white,” and his “attire” consists of “a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly.” Really, she proposes, it’s all just “a little too obvious.”

For the sake of time, we might dispense with what is actually “obvious” at the outset: that the characters in Thomas the Tank Engine don’t have “pre-existing schedules,” because they’re trains, and even anthropomorphized locomotives are ultimately at the mercy of those driving them; that Hatt “orders” them about because he’s the controller of the railway, and . . . again, because they’re trains; and that Hatt is “white” because the show in which he stars is set in the 1940s on a British island that is nestled in the middle of the Irish Sea somewhere between western England and the Isle of Man. Today, the Isle of Man is almost exclusively white; in 1945, when the first Railway Series book was published, the Isle of Man was actually 100 percent white. Likewise, in 2014, England is 85.4 percent white, and western England much more so than that; in 1945, England was almost completely white. It would have been extraordinarily odd if the Fat Controller — a man in charge of a transportation system on a fictional island squeezed in between the two places — had been from Nigeria.

Still, what seems to vex Van Slyke more than anything else is that the trains’ sense of self-worth is in some way contingent on the Fat Controller’s opinion of them. “Inevitably,” she writes, “the trains get in a fight with or pick on one another (or generally mess up whatever job they are supposed to be doing) until Hatt has to scold one of them about being a ‘really useful engine.’” This is problematic, she suggests, “because their sole utility in life is their ability to satisfy his whims.” One wonders how well she understands children. Hatt is intended to be not the hero within the books but instead a facilitator for the other characters’ antics. In consequence, his being reasonably strict serves not as propaganda but as a useful and extremely common literary means by which the characters with whom the children identify — the trains, invariably — might get into mischief. Van Slyke is correct when she intuits that the trains are pleased when they are praised by Hatt. But she misses that they also derive pleasure from being a little naughty — from rebelling against his master. Thomas, Awdry explains in the second book, is “a cheeky little engine” — one prone to push at the rules. Without those rules, there is no rebellion.

As someone who watched every single episode of the original BBC series, I can assure Van Slyke that I did not primarily sympathize with a “controlling autocrat” — and nor did anybody else. Instead, Hatt’s arbitration served to strike a keen balance between the values of duty and disobedience — both of which are vital ideals for any child to internalize. This is not adult literature, and nor is it a lecture at Berkeley. It is a series of stories aimed at young children, who need to rebel and to play, but who also need – indeed, who crave rules. Hatt is not capricious or mean or violent. He doesn’t cheat or steal, or abuse his engines. He’s just in charge of the railway, as parents are in charge of their kids. If there is any lesson to be taken from his personality, it is that those in a position of responsibility can often be inadvertently amusing. Awdry himself considered the character to be something of a parody of “‘pompous railway officials” who “gave out plenty of orders, but never actually did anything.”

Later, Van Slyke heard a dog whistle that would have left even MSNBC’s seasoned team of clowns scrambling for an ear trumpet. “For the record,” she wrote,

all the ‘villains’ on Thomas and Friends are the dirty diesel engines. I’d like to think there was a good environmental message in there, but when the good engines pump out white smoke and the bad engines pump out black smoke — and they are all pumping out smoke — it’s not hard to make the leap into the race territory.

Is it not? Oddly, I leaped nowhere near it. More than anything, the distinction that Awdry drew between the old steam locomotives and the new diesel models was indicative of a reaction against modernity that was typical among writers of his generation. He lacked their literary flair, but there is nonetheless something of both Evelyn Waugh and J. R. R. Tolkien in Awdry — namely, a reflexive dislike of the new and an appreciation of both the rural and the established. The modern trains in the Railway Series — Diesel, Daisy, BoCo, and the rest — are portrayed as being physically ugly, uncommonly dirty, and unappealingly self-assured in large part because the British public at the time greeted them as such. The charge that the newer engines are unreliable, obstinate, and “highly sprung” was one that British Railways, tired of the trouble it was having with the new stock, made itself. Racism doesn’t enter into it.

And yet, when your role on earth is to “research and write about the intersection of social justice and pop culture,” racism always enters into it. Then, everything enters into everything else. Intersections abound. Dancing is a power play; French fries a collection of pointy micro-aggressions. Paper is a slur. Photography is appropriation. Lentils are embryonic dictators. And Thomas the Tank Engine, a lovely little story put together by a village clergyman with a wide-eyed imagination and a son in need of comfort, becomes a brutal allegory for all that is wrong with the world.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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