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The Really Useful Engine

You excitedly run into whichever room contains your TV. You take your VHS Tape out of the rewinder and stick it in the player. You see that Anchor Bay logo, and your excitement only builds. You see the logo on the screen of Britt Allcroft Studios and hear that faithful tune. Suddenly, you are taken to a windmill, and a little engine and two coaches puff past. You hear that famous song of "da-da-da-da-da-DA-daaaaa" and you can't help singing along. As the story begins, you can't help relaxing and being taken through the world of this little blue engine.

"Thomas was a tank engine who lived at a big station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler, and a short stumpy dome. He was a fussy little engine, always pulling coaches about. He pulled them to the station, ready for the big engines to take out on long journeys, and when trains came in, and the people went away, he would pull the empty coaches away so the big engines could go and rest. He was cheeky too. He used to play tricks on the other engines. He liked to come quietly beside them and make them jump." But all he wanted to do was get out of the yards and see the world.


One of my biggest childhood (and still current) obsessions was Thomas the Tank Engine. I loved anything and everything that had to do with the little blue train. I can name any character you put in front of me without batting an eye and I can proudly say that I have watched almost every episode (only skipping the abysmal Season 13, in which I briefly fell out of interest with the show, but I came back). I am an absolute Thomas nerd, and always will be. This year, Thomas and his friends celebrated their 70th birthday, which is a longer time to be around than any other children's character I've seen. It wasn't until recently that I wondered "why? Why am I so allured to a show about talking trains? What allures children (the target audience) to the show?" I began my research by looking into the origins of Thomas and his friends to try and figure out what exactly it is that makes Thomas so magical.

So what exactly makes Thomas so great? Although there are some out there who will simply dismiss it as a show made for preschoolers and nothing more, Thomas is much more than that; Thomas is a world; our world. Thomas is grounded in reality, never doing anything too crazy and therefore making it all that much easier to relate to. Any and all railway practices in most episodes are based on things one would do on a real railway, and you always learn a moral at the end of them. Unlike most children's TV shows where the morals are simple, Thomas' morals are inspiring and unique. A popular one is "never give up", and "don't let teasing get the better of you", and just recently "you can't please everybody". These morals allow the viewer to empathize with Thomas and his friends, and this isn't beginning to get into the stories themselves yet.

I know a big factor in Thomas' success and survival was his appearance in The Railway Series, the original books by The Reverend Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry, and the basis for the modern show. Wilbert Vere Awdry, born in 1911, was an Anglican cleric who grew up in Box, Wiltshire. He lived in a house called "Journey's End"' which was 200 yards from a tunnel that was used by the Great Western Railway (the railway that he would later make his characters Duck, Oliver, and Bear come from). Trains would often run by while Wilbert was lying in bed, and they would need to be banked (pushed up the hill) by another engine when the rails proved too slippery. Although to other people this may have just seemed like obnoxious noise, Wilbert thought differently. He thought the puffing of the two engines sounded like the one at the front saying "I can't do it! I can't do it!" and the one pushing would respond with "I will do it! I will do it!". This would later become the basis for one of the earliest stories in the books, Edward and Gordon, in which Edward, a kind hearted old engine, had to help Gordon, a big, proud engine who didn't like pulling trucks, up a hill with his goods train. Although Awdry's love of railways stuck with him into his adult life, the stories would not come to fruition until one faithful day in 1943.

Christopher, Wilbert's son, had the measles. He was bed-ridden, and very bored. His father felt sorry for him, so he decided to tell him a story. He told him a story about a little engine that hadn't been let out the sheds in a long time, and how he had a day out. When Christopher asked what the engine's name was, Wilbert hastily said...Edward. Yes, you have that right; the first stories about Thomas and his friends were not about Thomas himself! Rather they were about Edward, an old engine that was kind, and knew how to handle both coaches and trucks. Christopher was enthralled by the story his father christened Edward's Day Out, and asked for another story. Remembering his childhood near the tunnel, he told Christopher the story of Edward proving himself to a pompous big engine, named Gordon, after a rude boy who lived on the same street as them. Christopher loved these stories, and asked for models of the engines to play with. Wilbert made Christopher a model of Edward, some coaches, and some trucks. Christopher asked for a model of Gordon, but he couldn't get enough wood, so he made a tank engine instead. When asked what the tank engine's name was by Christopher, Awdry decided that "Thomas the Tank Engine" seemed like the most logical name. "Is then when the stories about Thomas show up?" You may be saying this, and I have an answer; no, not yet. There's one more character we need to meet.