Gallant Old Engine
Reviewed by David Hanson
The Skarloey Railway as a whole always fascinated me because of how different it was, different controller, owner and more obviously, size. Literally, despite in how their basis railway, the Talyllyn Railway is 2ft. 3in., during the 150th celebration of the Railway they invited 'Russell' and 'Prince' (Duke and Freddie respectively), and despite both visitors having wheels that were smaller in width compared to the main attraction, they still made the Talyllyn engines look like dwarves! As a kid I never even knew that was a thing and reading their stories as one-of-a-kind locomotives was a treat for me before I even knew it.
Small banter about locomotive sizes aside - as a kid I always found myself amused and curious about how Skarloey was usually the only engine ever acknowledged as non-existent, only Talyllyn existed and that engine was the only one really of its kind to exist period and this fascinated me as a kid. This was revealed in The Little Old Engine, but the book I want to talk about more specifically is Gallant Old Engine, in other words, Rheneas finally came home! Rheneas always has been from a design stand point one of my favourite characters and this book's finale for me really cemented that in. Ever since he was introduced by image and name in The Four Little Engines we never knew much about him, and he was gone for a really long time at that too! And I think Awdry chose the perfect time to reveal his story.
The book itself follows a fairly simple plot in all four stories, the first two cover changes to two individual engines. Peter Sam gets a special funnel which shows up the other engines and overall is a nice simplistic story that is really enjoyable, the Television adaptation for me does the Reverend's work justice and the winter scenery is both bleak and beautiful all around, plus it shows that with a little help, you can always show up somebody else like the commercials use to say on Cartoon Network. Then Sir Handel gets broad wheels to help with gripping the track, here we are introduced to George who provides definitely a different point of view to hating on the engines, instead of a diesel simply think it is more modern and efficient; we get instead someone who just disapproves of railways in general and supports the roads through and through. Sir Handel in this story was on point and his short rivalry with George ended victoriously for him, only to receive his comeuppance through a third party lesson, beautiful! I just find it so funny and very Awdry-like, a testament to his writing style in getting engines to mature down.
Then there's the last two stories, these two form a two part story that can really stand alone as an arc of sorts. Basically Duncan even after getting use to Rusty is still a little rusty himself in the mood department, I think everyone can relate to this, we've all had moments when we were kids, and possibly even now where we just feel overworked and underappreciated, in this case he never got polished and is being sulky about it in addition to having to haul two extra trains and his regularly scheduled one. In a climax sort of way - much like a kid pouting and sticking to one spot in frustration when Mom or Dad doesn't buy, or do the thing the kid wants them to get or whatever - decides stay in the middle of the Rheneas Viaduct in protest of his work. This causes quite a lot of trouble obviously, an engine stopping for no reason in the middle of the line would spark an outcry any day from the passengers. And to add to that Skarloey had to come out of his way just to bring the train to the next station and the top station with no help to add to the slight frustrations one might feel when reading this story at how thick Duncan was, cause if the passengers who ride the Railway say it's bad, then no one will come, and then there's no more money to sustain themselves, all thanks to Duncan.
Not long after the events of the above, Skarloey tries to reason it out with Duncan in Gallant Old Engine, here is where we learn some things about this joyful little Railway. In addition to Peter Sam slightly hinting about knowing about Railways shutting down, we learn the almost tragic struggle of the Skarloey Railway, prior to the arrival of Sir Handel and Peter Sam the engines, both Skarloey and Rheneas were on their last legs so to speak. Despite having only been overhauled little less than a decade ago at Crovan's Gate (TIoS), Rheneas too had been ran into the ground by the hard work on the railway, to me this is nothing but true grit and determination, and a beautiful dedication to a friend via the line "it's my turn now. You've done more than your share of hard work." That, is beautiful... But then fate had plans for our little engine.... during an afternoon where the weather was typically British - I'm American so I'm just going off of what most British YouTubers are saying in regards to sudden drops of rain, but I digress - Rheneas struggles uphill and then runs a jammed valve gear out of nowhere. Rheneas knows that if he can't get the passengers to a station, it could mean trouble for the railway, but, with some small patch of hope, he can try to get to the next station on one cylinder, and with the whole fate of the line at stake he braves through an uphill battle like a Soldier in spite of the pain. Such loyalty to his Railway and his Passengers just really hits me in the heart, it's not really a story I can fully relate to but I just love it as someone who's seen metaphorical uphill battles, and read stories of such similar dedication. And he makes it to the station, he did it, he earned the passengers' trust for the railway! He succeeded, and repaired in time for the next day... and later on goes away to be overhauled at long last. Such a... Grand story, and it actually happened to real life Dolgoch during the 50s, in both stories both engines in spite of their condition braved through, that ought to be respected... At the end of the story being told Duncan realizes his error in think and the next day the engines of the SKR - and some of the NWR's - celebrate the Gallant Old Engines' return when no.2 returned at long last. I love this cause symbolically Rheneas is recognized as a hero and is respected by the whole island, and now all the SKR engines can be accounted for at their sheds. At least or now anyways...
In addition to a class act story, this book was a real nice 'Swan Song' in a way for John T. Kenney in illustrating for the RWS. His way of doing things really contrasted Dalby's before him but he showed how gritty, grimy and dirty things could get visually on a railway. The valley's were picturesque in his drawings and in this book he does such a nice job on them. I also enjoyed how expressive he made the engines in all of the books he drew for. In this book you can see the stress Peter Sam feels in regards to his funnel, the bleakness the winter weather is tolling on the railway around them, and in Steamroller the smugness of SH which you can really feel. Then in GOE you can see how tired, worn-out and worried Rheneas is as well. It may have been his last, but I feel he left a fantastic last impression on the readers of the time in this book. Overall, I'd say Gallant Old Engine is probably one of my overall favourites of the Skarloey Railway books written by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, and illustrated by John Kenney