Monday, 20 February 2012

On Thomas, the Little Red Train and the Suspension of Disbelief

Thomas the Tank Engine
Fils cadet has an undying love for Thomas the Tank Engine at the moment. The fact that he's only prepared to be read one particular Thomas story is neither here nor there, though a little frustrating when we have shelves of them... However, we have also recently discovered the Little Red Train by Benedict Blathwayt. These books are beautifully illustrated with amazing detail, and obviously less dated than the proper original Thomas stories. I can see their appeal and why many people seem to prefer them.

Green Light for the Little Red TrainWhat interests me, though, is the differences in my own response to these books, and the one that set me off was Green Light, which we read at Toddlers the other day. The plot is pretty basic: Duffy Driver is told that there are works on the line so they'll be diverted, but to keep going as long as the lights are green. Somehow, they get into a tunnel that takes them under the Channel to France. The lights being green, they keep going and end up in Spain, and then Italy, before heading north again, finding themselves on a ferry and getting back to the station (very late).

Now, Thomas and his friends are steam trains with faces. They talk, they have minds of their own and act up, disobeying their drivers and the Fat Controller. Does that bother me? Not in the slightest. It comes under the genre of anthropomorphic children's fiction, possibly even magical reaslism, and I willingly suspend my disbelief. The Little Red Train, on the other hand, is a perfectly normal steam train. Duffy Driver is a perfectly normal (if rather dim) driver. So when he ends up in continental Europe without noticing, alarm bells go off in my head.

Hang on a moment - why are there no problems with the different guages of international railways? Why aren't the French, Spanish or Italian railway authorities even the slighest bit perturbed by this bit of outdated British rolling stock lumbering along their tracks, getting in the way of their express trains? Don't the passengers mind this rather lengthy detour? (Perhaps that bit's not so implausible - they're just glad they're not on a rail replacement bus service, but I digress.) Somewhere in France they run out of water and have to fill up from a lake. Somewhere in Italy they run out of coal and all the passengers help gather olive twigs to fill the fire box. And don't get me started on the likelihood of a roll-on-roll-off ferry for trains!

Action Chugger
As you can tell, I've been thinking about this. A lot. It annoys me.  I would evidently rather have talking trains than ridiculously implausible ordinary ones and that set me wondering why. The Revd W. Awdry's railway obeys its own rules. The anthropomorphised trains are a consistent part of the set-up from the start and, once you've accepted that, in general they behave like trains and don't, say, suddenly learn to fly (Yes, Action Chugger I'm looking at you!). They have to have enough steam to be able to move and their network is bounded by the Isle of Sodor. This means that we are free to accept their idiosyncrasies without some slightly duff note shattering the illusion. The Little Red Train, on the other hand, is meant to be real so getting halfway through France without running out of water isn't fantasy, it's inaccuracy. Perhaps I'm just too pedantic and I should accept that it's just a funny story for children but for me that kind of suspension of disbelief just doesn't work.


  1. For me, what I find hard to believe in Green Light for the Little Red Train is Duffy's lack of observational skills! I do think the engine on the train is slightly anthropomorphized, given that it whistles in response to things that Duffy Driver says.

    Train ferrys, however, apparently do exist, down to the roll on/roll off part:

    I'm glad to see someone else thinking so hard about these train books as I do. I had a long think on what the moral of the story in Green Light was...follow instructions blindly and you'll come out okay, never even knowing you got it wrong? I do love the illustrations of the different countries, though, which makes reading it fun for me in the end.

    1. I'm glad it struck a chord! I've not noticed the train whistling in response to Duffy Driver, but I've only read two of the books. Interesting about the train ferries though.

      By the way, for new posts, head over to my new address which you'll find on the "I've moved" page.