Simple stories of little engines on the Island of Sodor. Could there be a political subtext? Or have I just read them aloud once too often?
Few people in the English-speaking world will be unaware of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, where a fictional island based loosely on the Isle of Man is populated almost entirely by talking steam trains with human-like faces. This series, which began in 1946 as a series of whimsical tales for children written by a country vicar, has mushroomed over the years into a huge franchise that the reverend could hardly have imagined (and apparently disliked). The talking steam engine has featured in a television programme, been relocated to an Appalachian village for a Hollywood film, and been the subject of a huge spin-off series of books featuring tractors, barges and diggers. There have been studies showing that the “cheeky little tank engine” is a comforting focus for children on the autism spectrum. But as I settled down to read yet another book from the modern series to the mini-brioche, my inner academic surfaced once again, and the totalitarian subtext became disturbingly clear…
We begin with the first page of the book “Thomas” and the introduction of a concept which is prevalent throughout the series – the desire to be a Really Useful Engine (sic).
While the phraseology appears innocuous enough, a glance at the context reveals an underlying reinforcement of post-Thatcherite societal norms. Thomas surmises that only with “his very own branch line” can he be valued as making a true contribution to society – without this sense of individual ownership, Thomas feels invisible in the social structure of the Island of Sodor. Was this subliminal propaganda for the Right To Buy policy? Perhaps. And yet, Thomas is no oppressed hero for the masses. The property owning (or kulak) class, represented here by Gordon the Express Engine, is relentlessly mocked by Thomas without apparent provocation – or punishment from the real power, the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt in the – ostensibly – more politically correct US version). We shall examine his role in more detail later.
Furthermore, if Thomas is supposed to represent the proletariat striving to make good, we see no solidarity with the truly oppressed – the Trucks.
These anonymous figures function as a universal scapegoat, to an extent that draws chilling parallels with the Cultural Revolution. The Trucks are rarely even mentioned without the disapproving epithet ‘Troublesome’ – an echo of Mao’s ‘class enemies’? – and are blamed automatically for every mishap on the line. Once again, “Thomas” sets the tone here. On hearing the news that another engine has derailed and that a breakdown train is required, his first reaction is to blame the trucks – “Bother those trucks and their tricks!” This is reinforced by the ‘official’-style figure of the Driver, who states that the accident was the fault of the Trucks without seeking a fair hearing from their side. Outright victimisation of the Trucks is the norm in this series – in the later story “Gordon” , we see Edward the steam engine behaving aggressively towards the Trucks, and although their obvious distress is noted – “’Oh!’ they cried, “Whatever is happening?’” this is not only dismissed as harmless horseplay but is positively encouraged between the engines. When they attempt revolutionary activities (pushing Emily into a pond) we hear nothing of any subsequent attempts by the governing powers to find the root of the issue – we can only assume that a depressing cycle of arbitrary arrest, show trial and punishment ensues.
Yet ‘Thomas And Friends’ also casts a critical eye on the Tender Engines – sending the message that over-achievers must be cut down to size, and that total conformity must be adhered to at all costs. Gordon the Express Engine is shown as ‘a proud engine’ that is mocked by the others.
Notably, it is Gordon who is the only engine to express any degree of recognition of the trucks’ plight, albeit with a dubious moral disclaimer – “Don’t play around with the trucks, Edward. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it”. Admittedly Gordon displays snobbish behaviour in other areas – he pours scorn on engines who shunt trucks based on their position in the class system, and defends outmoded convention (again echoing the ‘Olds’ of the Cultural Revolution) by declaring that Henry should stop whistling at stations. However, Gordon’s supposed redemption by suffering the mockery of others after a humiliating accident is one which cannot withstand any degree of liberal scrutiny. Humiliation is used as a tool of the State to ensure conformity.
The Fat Controller wields absolute power on the Island of Sodor, though satellite regimes are alluded to at the Quarry (Miss Jenny) and the Mountain Pass (the Thin Controller).
It is the Fat Controller who dispenses bounty or punishment as he sees fit; it is the Fat Controller who determines the function of each of the engines; and it is the Fat Controller who ensures that the engines maintain absolute obedience to the regime – or, as he himself puts it, “Engines on my railway do as they are told!” The ‘Thomas and Friends’ series can show the Fat Controller in the Benevolent Dictator role– sourcing ‘special Welsh coal’ for the ailing Henry, or accommodating the refugee engine Oliver – but his absolutist style of government is apparent throughout the series. His own story (“The Fat Controller”) tells of his suppression of a strike – the striking union of Tender Engines are replaced by smaller engines who pledge total obedience to the regime:
“’If I choose you, will you work hard?’ he said.
‘Oh Sir! Yes Sir!’ peeped the little green engine.”
The tender engines, meanwhile, are imprisoned and basic utilities withheld – “There was no coal for them, no washdown and they missed their passengers.” The eventual collapse of the strike, along with the subsequent “re-education” of the strikers, is achieved by humiliation and deprivation of basic rights –illustration of a state ruled by fear. The Fat Controller states again and again throughout the series that non-conformity will result in exile, at the very least – “Only Really Useful Engines can work on my railway!” We can only speculate at what form of gulag-like ‘education’ programmes might be employed for habitual dissenters.
Nowhere is the totalitarian ethic more apparent than in the stories of Jack the Front-Loader and Alfie the Excavator, two Stakhanov-like figures with a near-obsessive devotion to manual labour.
These propagandist tales go even further than the utilitarianism demonstrated in earlier ‘Thomas and Friends’ stories: demonstrating to workers that work must be an ideal in itself, without reference to personal reward or to the purpose of the work done.
“Jack and Alfie were loading the dump truck, Max. Dust and dirt were flying everywhere. Work had never been such fun!”
In each story, the absolute work ethic is augmented by a theme of self-sacrifice – Alfie risks himself in a building declared unsafe by the Foreman to rescue a family of kittens, while Jack endures significant injury in holding up a damaged bridge to save Thomas. It is made clear that while his peers admire him for his heroic act, and while the State is prepared to cover his medical care, he must expect no reward or special recognition – indeed, his only reward is to stay with the Pack and be allowed to continue his labour. Consistent with the ‘idealised worker’ model used by many totalitarian regimes, Jack is keen to be part of the collective, work as hard as possible without question for the good of the State, and provide unthinking devotion to the State’s ideals. The workers of the Pack are all shown as productive, but Jack and Alfie’s preparedness to sacrifice themselves unquestioningly for the good of the State is presented as the ideal to which all workers must strive – even as Really Useful Engines.
So amid this propaganda, what subliminal messages are being fed to impressionable minds? Will they latch on to the Thatcherite theory of property ownership, the class struggle against the Tender engines, the systematic legalised oppression of the Trucks or the unquestioning ethic of the Pack under the totalitarian regime of the Fat Controller?
I posed this question to the mini-brioche.
After some thought, she sighed. “It’s just a story. Trains don’t actually talk in real life, you know.”
Oh well. It’s still better than Barbie.