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RS Reviews: Duke the Lost Engine - A Forgotten Magnum-Opus


Duke The Lost Engine

Reviewed by SiFox


This – the twenty-fifth book in the much-loved Railway Series is possibly the most obscure book of the series, as is its heroic yet modest titular character, the ancient narrow gauge engine “Duke”. They are both without a doubt among the least-known elements about from the Reverend Awdry’s legacy – yet like a hidden, legendary treasure the book holds some of the greatest worth in the Railway Series on a number of levels – from writing style, the themes prevalent in the book – of loss, realism, change, and most importantly of all, hope - its wonderfully matching illustrations – a mere though exhaustive list would not do this oft-lost book the justice it deserves.


It is emblematic of the title ‘Railway Series’ as it explores a railway as far away from ‘Thomas and Friends’ as is possible in many respects. Yet something it about it rewards, and endears, its saga as well as a near-forgotten way of life to those who seek the book out.


ABIDING MEMORY - LOST...

My own personal memory starts when I was six years old and I found this book, new in a bookshop in Walsall. I was able to wander in while my mother was shopping and would be able to snatch a few precious moments to scan this strange pink book – a “Thomas book” no doubt but with this sad, brown unusual-looking engine staring out from behind a train at me. How little I knew what lay behind that expression! Slowly reading it on repeated trips – refused it on the grounds it was ‘a Thomas book’ - but never fully coming to comprehend it, it none the less instilled an appreciation for what I call the ‘mysteries’ of narrow gauge to this very day – their uniqueness, their character, their difference from ‘the big railways’ I suppose. After these few months however, I drifted away as the issues of growing up, BMXs, big trains and moving intruded into my then halcyon life.

But like two other little engines....I never did quite forget about the little lost, dilapidated railway and its secret...


...and FOUND, LIKE THE OLD ENGINE

They say that something is more appreciable when one is older; as it may be that one has greater experience and dare I say, wisdom - and that fact rings true with Duke the Lost Engine. Only once I was at University and chanced across a copy of the Compendium, including this ever-elusive book, was I able to reconcile with the jumbled images and thread of story I had picked up as a child. From there on, I was able to piece together more of this fictional little railway’s ‘mystery’ and at long last, see that joyous last story where, through the trial and difficulty, eventually a happy ending is revealed.

Along with the then-flowering appreciation for ‘small engines’ and the narrow gauge that ironically this very book had planted in my mind, could I fully understand the research, background and ambience of the first half of the 20th Century and its narrow gauge railways that ‘Duke’ conveys to its readers, young and old alike.


A TALE FOR ALL GENERATIONS

Duke the Lost Engine can bring something for everyone; rather like a good film. It has a fatherly or perhaps moreso, a Merlin-like figure in the shape of Duke, the lost engine of differing times. He is the character from a bygone age, an erudite wizard or hermit whose wisdom may be ignored for his age, but soon proves why he remains the leader. It also has young, eager, mischievous characters that children can relate to in the forms of Stuart and Falcon. Within their respective ‘solo’ stories, each of their foibles were highlighted and shown how, with a responsible person’s guiding hand why they had been wrong – without severe punishment or unhappy consequences which in turn creates a positive role model within Duke – the responsible adult able to look after ‘his’ charges without extreme measures required and yet so modestly and assuredly assuming his responsibilities:-


’Oh, well!’ replied Duke. “You’d just had a new coat of paint. It would have been a pity if you’d rolled down the mountain and spoilt it. That would never have suited his Grace.”


It also shows that there were rules to be obeyed and that naughty engines were punished – a running theme in the Railway Series, of actions, consequences and lessons learnt. In the case of naughty engines, it was the vulgar and careless Number 2 of the first story, ‘Granpuff’ that became the object lesson and his incarceration ‘at the back of the Shed’ can be seen akin to being made to stay in one’s bedroom or in school at playtime.


For older readers, DTLE continued the more mature narrative that had slowly crept in since around Stepney the Bluebell Engine [18] and had become more prominent, perhaps darkened even, as a shadow cast itself over the Railway Series. This is notable in books such as Enterprising Engines and Oliver the Western Engine. This same maturity of dealing with events was perfectly brought to the fore in the very first story, ‘Granpuff’. This chapter starts off as an idyllic, dreamlike affair, right up to the child-friendly introduction...


Once upon a time, three little engines lived in their own little shed on their own little railway. Duke was brown, Falcon was blue and Stuart green.” , which is reminiscent of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and ‘Three Railway Engines’. Where this later book diverges from those first books drawn from more halcyon days is that here, life is not simple and happy. It is far more real. The story of Granpuff instead quickly strides through time to an ending drawn upon from sad historical basis, with the underlying fact that alas that all things must change. It tragically tears apart the dreamland of this little rural-mountain railway and ultimately ends in the three friends going their separate ways. To add to the sense of final loss, the ‘Kingly’ figure to Duke and the railway - His Grace – is no more.


“Duke was alone, locked up in the Shed. ‘Where’s His Grace?’ he wondered. ‘It’s not like him to forget me’. But His Grace had been killed in the War, and the new Duke, a boy, hadn’t heard of his Little Engine.”


The railway’s tragedy, with this singular sentence, is connected to the tragedy of the real world and reflects how sorrow can strike at two distinctly separate strata of society. Duke’s railway is left as a ruin, a trackless shadow, to linger on as the spirit of all those little narrow gauge railways of the United Kingdom and Ireland that sadly never made it to the 1950s or preservation. This only adds a sense of pathos to the story – a sense of ‘what could have been’.


A HISTORICAL APPRECIATION

On a less morbid note for older readers was the fact that the fictional railway made for the three little engines, the ‘Mid Sodor Railway,’ can be seen to be the ‘Spirit of British Narrow Gauge” within the Reverend Awdry’s scope. After all, any traveller with keen eyes would note the bogie coaches and Duke’s unique saddle-tank-tender type to be based on those of the Ffestiniog, but the locomotive prototypes for Stuart and Falcon clearly being those of the Corris in its own ‘dying days’ [from the time the GWR took it over, the CR was worked by one Falcon and a Kerr Stuart ‘Tattoo’]. The ‘lower station’ with the bridge featured in ‘You Can’t Win’ is identical to that of the ‘The Green’ at the Ravenglass and Eskdale in every aspect! To add to this, the arched steel shed as seen in ‘Granpuff’ is the same as seen in photographs of the Snailbeach District Railway (one also suspects more Snailbeach involvement judging from the loco rosters...)


Not just in geographic but also in historic atmosphere does Duke The Lost Engine do justice to railway history; from the early Edwardian zenith of the line [and railways in general] as seen in ‘Bulldog’ - portrayed by named trains and the mention of ‘holiday trains’ - an instant way to conjure up a carefree, summery scene - to the 1930s ‘mend and make do’ of the Depression era with ‘You Can’t Win’, brought to mind by Duke’s own infirm state and malady -which in turns suggests resources are sparse - and finally with the death of steam narrow gauge in the late 1940s – portrayed by a falling-down shed, rusted rails, overgrown stations and the sorry ending to the railway itself within ‘Granpuff’s finale .


BETTER THAN A DREAM

The Edwards’ art style is less ‘defined’ as Kenney and Dalby but with their Impressionist take on the artwork, omitting rigid lines as opposed to Dalby, their art adds a flowing, ethereal air to the stories. It is almost dreamlike – yet intensely detailed as can be seen by the dress styles of the people in the various periods; - in ‘Granpuff’ - on page 7 leaning from Duke’s cab the gent wearing a bowler hat is reminiscent of engine drivers as they dressed in the 1870s to the early 1920s. ‘Bulldog’ shows a fancily-donned man with top hat handling a bucket of water and You Can’t Win’s final picture has children in school uniforms and people in blazers and dresses straight from the tail-end of the Art Deco period.


It is also seen in the detail of coaching stock and the locomotives – who up close knew that Falcon was lined in red save for page 23 – Falcon in the tunnel? Such attention to tiny details only elevates this book, especially in comparison to the bright, bold – and dare I say, simplistic - style of Dalby’s earlier works. Each time you look at a picture you spot something new. Without being dismissive of the other artists; had Spong or Kenney illustrated this with their respective styles, something would have been missed – something which the Edwards have captured masterfully to add to this story.


Not only is their detailing of the mythical Mid-Sodor a series of masterpieces – period, technical, emotive – but their landscape work is simply breathtaking. Portraying high tunnels atop steep valleys reminiscent of the green grass of Wales, or towering mountain peaks as seen in the tapestry-like background of ‘Granpuff’ – greys and browns and whites, depicting grim slate mountains only add to the unworldly, subtle feeling of this book. Their ability to make a scene real and retain continuity comes in ‘Granpuff’ – page 7 shows a railway in fine condition, shining rails and well kept buildings. Page 9 shows the last rites of the Mid Sodor – rusted rails, a decrepit shed entrance, run-down station and the hive of activity that goes on surrounding the closure of a railway. Page 11 is a landscape, with no railway influence – or is there? You can see the ghosts of Mid Sodor if you look carefully...


Their work in the Railway Series is unique; but for this one great story which transports its audience back to a history set in a more innocent time – perhaps with misty eyes – as well as the triumphant, dream ending of a happy reunion and a new home for all concerned, the Edwards’ organic art is the art style best suited for this treasure of a tale. Without this misty, dreamlike quality to their pictures which casts the spell of the little railway over its readers, this book would be sorely missing a small but crucial element indeed.


MEMORABLE PERSONALITIES

This one small book fleshed out the three engine protagonists – the centre of this legend, within the Railway Series context - to a new level of understanding. With Falcon – the fated Sir Handel – it illuminates just where he got his awkward and snobbish temperament from and the fact that he was pretty much built with it. Bogie coaches and being painted royal blue explains a lot for this old engine’s mood swings. Stuart – the erstwhile Peter Sam is younger, more childlike in his mischief and some may say naive but unlike Sir Handel, he had more respect for Duke like a child does a loved adult figure; this translates in Peter Sam’s growth across the Series into a healthy camaraderie and eagerness to be a’ Useful Engine’.


As for Duke having only one book of real worth to be developed in, some might speculate that this has limited his character development. Yet we see at the start a perhaps sleepy-seeming, wisened old engine - the erudite wizard as previously mentioned. But as we explore the myth of the Mid Sodor, we see wisdom, tenacity, courage and dare I say a certain mischievous, if not [benevolently] sly streak of his own coming to the fore throughout the stories. Nor is he a two-dimensional ‘adult’ or goody two shoes engine character – in ‘Bulldog’, his sharp scolding of Falcon on two occasions, best illuminated at the cliffhanger as quoted; “’Young idiot!’ he hissed. “Stop it! I can’t hold you if you shake’” shows a personality with ire – reminiscent of a Victorian figure perhaps a professor or a judge or some such senior establishment figure. It is this depiction of both flaws and virtues which make Duke a character that many can relate to as they can to his whole book – for an engine, he is somewhat human. Not only this, but he is shown to have great will and determination – that scene in ‘You Can’t Win’ where he is absolutely bent on making sure his passengers reach their Boat Train, no matter what, is resonant if on a less epic scale, of Edward’s battle with his own malady in Edward’s Exploit.


This all-round spectrum of qualities, seen in so little reading time is what makes him worthy to rank up there among the likes of Edward, Gordon, Duck and Thomas in terms of memorable characterisation.


LORD OF THE RAILS

Lastly, this books fills in so many gaps within the small seams of Sudrian mythology that previous books had suggested. For example; engine histories. Skarloey and Rheneas are explored within my second choice for this, Very Old Engines. But of what of Peter Sam and Sir Handel, the engines that brought the little quarry railway into the fifties and swinging Sixties? This book answers that question.

What of the very genesis of the ‘Small Engines?’ Their debut mentions “leadmines up in the hills that have long closed long closed...spoil a lovely valley” – this book gives existence to that history – by being the railway that served those very mines and thus complements the earlier book. It is even paid tribute to by dint of ‘The Green’ – the relevant illustrations, minus the railways are near perfect copies.


Duck’s Branchline, itself stated in the first story of Enterprising Engines as being ‘reopened’– reopening implying that ince upon a time, it had been a railway in use, then slowly closed down - again, its root cause now brought to the spotlight by the mapping of this seemingly fairy-tale railway.


It is this Tolkienesque mythology; of time and cause and effect which interweaves and links the three main railways of Sodor – the Big Railway, the Skarloey and the Small Railway. It is in so many ways an important ‘link’ within the Sodor mythology that suddenly makes the Island of Sodor’s railway history all that much more believable; both in a literary and historical sense. This one small book brings a new level, a legend to the Railway Series and does not fail to disappoint.


It is a book of ages; its sunny early-20th Century atmosphere, with brightly coloured engines and a new hero appealed to me as a child; yet it was only when I had become a young adult that I could come to appreciate its historical context and the masterfully told underlying story - not just of Duke, but of Britain’s narrow gauge history as a whole and how not everything in life can end so simply and happily.


Yet it also mirrors the hard work of preservationists and those who have struggled on for a long time in order to restore their goal. It depicts how with determination, resource and planning, preservationists have fought on to preserve, rescue and restore aspects of railways they love. Be it an old locomotive with a worthy story (as with Duke), a train (such as having a whole train of matching carriages from a certain period) or an entire railway as in some cases, the fruits of preservationists through the decades is paid tribute to in this book. Thus not only the ghosts of railways past are portrayed, but the spirit of railways future is seen too in their actions. Grown up and now a preservationist myself, this angle strikes me keenly – true, the Skarloey Railway is a historical concern but there in the later era, it was simply a case of ‘trains running’ – Duke's rescue, with the Clergymen and the Controllers however represents the hard work, the backroom work, the human effort away from the rails that goes into keeping railway preservation alive.


It is a time travelling journey for both the reader and for the Island of Sodor’s rich fictional history, something unique within the Series and never since repeated. It is the combination of all these factors – good stories which mix humour and drama, tragedy and triumph, ruin and restoration as well as fleshed out characters, attention to detail, a new addition of ethereal fantasy to the mixture of usual fiction and the hard railway history [happy ending included] and the creation of a legend, both within the Railway Series world and of a memorable character within Duke, the sleeping engine evocative of the Once and Future King, King Arthur, asleep but fated to return again when his time calls him, which has made this stand out from the other Railway Series books for me. It does not surprise me, being both a Preservationist, and a dreamer-and-swords-and-sorcery fantasy-fan outside of my passion for railways, that this is the case for what is a somewhat unique book in the proceedings of the Railway Series.


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