I stumbled on a review of Thomas the Tank Engine on the Guardian today, and was truly horrified. I haven’t ever really paid attention to the little-blue-train-that-could, but I didn’t realise the underlying politics was so horrid (or so sarcastic?) The review describes an episode where a train is walled up inside a tunnel simply for refusing to work in the rain! I was suspicious of the interpretation of this, so I checked at the Thomas-wiki, and it’s true. Henry gets walled up in a tunnel “for always and always and always” for refusing to work in the rain! And in another episode, some truck gets torn apart by wild steam trains for being incompetent at his job.

I have a suspicion that this is all an Orwellian piss-take: the fat controller’s real name is “Topham Hatt,” which is too much of a caricature to be true, and all the horrors visited on the trains are so obviously straight from the communist playbook that it makes me think the books are an ironic take on capitalism. But this could just be my better nature refusing to believe that someone would seriously write such a book for children. But look at the narrator’s opinion of Henry: “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?”

It’s also interesting to compare the British and American versions of the story of Henry the Walled-in Tanker Engine (aka the Countess Bathory of Steam). They have different names (The Sad Story of Henry vs. Come Out, Henry) implying in the latter version that Henry’s fate is not inevitable, and he can rescue himself by cooperating and moving forward. Also, various crucial ideas get changed: in the British version Henry is walled in forever, running out of steam, while in the American version he is only walled in until he “is ready to come out of the tunnel”; while in the British version we are asked whether he deserved his fate, in the American version we are asked “How long do you think Henry will stay in the tunnel before he overcomes his fear of the rain and decides to journey out again?” I think those differences speak volumes about the cultural differences between two apparently very similar nations. But either way, that is a cruel and horrible story that children do not need to hear!

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