Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Really Useful Stories

“I’m covered in dust!” the Pie announces as we drive home from the park.

“Like Percy?” I inquire.

“Yes,” Pie replies decidedly. “I am Percy.”

“And Bub is a Troublesome Truck!” I add.

Bub is unimpressed. “No! I’m Bub! And you are Mama!”

Undeterred by his dogged realism, I push the issue. “Nope. I’m Emily!”

“No,” replies Bub more calmly. “That is not a favourite train. How about James?”

We are agreed: I am James, Daddy is Donald, Pie is Percy, and Bub is Bub. As we’re getting out of the car a few minutes later, I urge Pie (by name) to hurry up.

“I’m Percy!” she says in a wounded tone.

“Oh, sorry Percy,” I apologize.

“That’s okay, James” she responds.


Here's why Thomas the Tank Engine is so popular: everything about the Island of Sodor and its inhabitants is simple and straightforward. Fancy names like Percy and Skarloey are merely window-dressing – the trains remain firmly identifiable by size, colour, and number. The system, once mastered, is capable of infinite variations, a superstructure of complexity built on a very simple system of identifying characteristics. Bumbling grown-ups may confuse Gordon with Thomas, but no two-year-old would make so fundamental a mistake.

Emotions in Thomas’s world are as easily identifiable as the trains themselves. The only moving parts of the trains’ faces are the eyebrows and the mouths, yet they can convey not only happiness, sadness and anger but also a whole roster of subtler emotions: frustration, worry, over-confidence.

The moral vision of the Rev. Awdry has this same combination of simplicity and complexity. The ideal of Real Usefulness is charmingly straightforward, but it also involves a kind of balancing of opposites. James, for instance, is a strong, shiny engine, attention-grabbing with his bold red (toxic) paint: he’s fast and powerful, but inclined towards arrogance. Thomas, on the other hand, has the frailties of youth: impulsivity, playfulness, undisciplined energy. The ideal towards which both trains strive is industrious self-control: to be Really Useful they must subordinate not only their mischief but also their ambition to the greater task of serving Sir Topham Hatt (the Fat Controller) and the corporate machine he represents.

I’ve skewered this inculcation of the Protestant work ethic before. What’s not so easy to explain is the inherent charm of this earnestly Victorian ideal. Recently, I ordered a review copy of this book, a collection of four Thomas tales:

It’s not entirely clear to me who wrote the stories for this collection: Rev. Awdry is credited for creating the series, but the copyright for these particular tales is only a couple of years old. Nevertheless, the first two stories have that familiar blend of simplicity and didacticism: they are about submitting to the unreasonable dictates of authority figures like the local constable and earning one’s place by exchanging mutinous trickery for a humble acceptance of apparently inglorious tasks. The third story is a bit different: the trains tell ghost stories in the station at night. In Scooby-Doo fashion, however, there is a rational explanation for the goings-on at the haunted castle, and Thomas's willingness to keep working despite his fears earns some well-deserved words of approbation from Sir Topham Hatt.

The final story, however, is a kind of Sodor-meets-Hogwarts blend of fantasy and realism: there is a hidden Magical Railway; there is gold dust that appears, uncharacteristically, to be magical rather than financial; there is a prophesy, and a mysterious Lady, and a hidden portal. There’s even a villain, the evil plotter Diesel 10. Everything about this story is just so, so wrong.

On the Island of Sodor the trains can talk, but the world of Thomas the Tank Engine is not about fantasy or even about fun. It is about working hard and occupying one’s place in the world with cheerful obedience. Both my children and I enjoy the simplicity of the early stories, not for their morals perhaps, but for their familiarity, their predictability. Thomas is beloved precisely because it nurtures a sense of mastery: it is not about mystery or suspense but rather about knowing ahead of time exactly what will happen and why. The target audience is preschoolers who relish repetition because it gives them a foothold of understanding in a confusing world.


Beck said...

The Boy LOVES everything about the Island of Sodor, while The Girl treats it with the type of dismissive scorn that only the worldliness of 8 is capable of.
I think that as funny as we find the Protestant Work Ethic, it is still a good thing in many ways - Thomas is a nice little role model, with his failings and his flaws and his earnest good-hearted attempts.

Janet said...

My kids never really got into Thomas.

But I do find it amusing that George Carlin does the voice over in some of the television shows.

nomotherearth said...

The Boy loves Thomas, but it's the dexterous manipulation of small trains and tracks that reels him in.

We haven't really gotten into the books, but the TV show is quite boring, don't you think?

Aliki2006 said...

At the flea market last year I bought an old book about an engine named Tootle. Tootle didn't want to stay on the tracks, like all the other useful engines. Instead, he liked to jump ther ails and frolic in the meadow with the butterflies. The whole town came up with a strategy to brainwash Tootle into realizing that he MUST stay on the tracks and work dutifully. His spirit was squashed, but he became a great worker.

There's Protestant Work Ethic for you!

niobe said...

While I remember that (at least in the tv version) the bad, bad diesels were my favorite characters, I can't remember exactly why they were the villains of the piece. Well, besides the fact that diesel almost rhymes with evil. Perhaps they hindered the others in their efforts to earn pots and pots of money for Sir Topham Hatt?

danigirl said...

"Thomas and the Magic Railroad" is the title of the very strange Thomas "live action" movie staring Alec Baldwin (snicker) as the conductor. That's where the gold dust and whatnot come from - I assume, anyway, that the movie predates the story because I've noticed the incongruity between it and the other Thomas TV shows.

(I know from Thomas. Tristan was genuinely obsessed for at least three years. In fact, I thought we were over Thomas at our house, then we went to see Thomas live in Ottawa this past weekend and out came all the old engines again.)

All things considered, even though the stories themselves get under my skin with their overt pedanticism, I love to see the boys building railways and animating the trains together. There are worse toys out there!

bubandpie said...

Niobe - I was wondering the same thing, and my profound ignorance of railway history impedes my ability to speculate. Were diesels a modern-day innovation encroaching upon the traditional lifestyle of the steam engines?

slouching mom said...

This is just right, B&P.

Ben was obsessed with Thomas for the longest time. Jack, not so much.

But I was well inculcated into the ways of the Island of Sodor, and this rings absolutely true for me.

And you're also correct that the final story is completely out of place. That was true of the one feature-length movie made about Thomas and his friends, and it's why it bombed in theatres. Children didn't buy it. It was just so wrong.

Veronica Mitchell said...

My favorite example EVER of the protestant work ethic is from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?
...marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings...

You gotta love that diligent labor.

Momish said...

I can easily see that. It seems all the shows my daughter actually engages with on TV are the formula type with completely predicatble timelines.

She sits and tells me what is going to happen next and waits patiently for it to happen. To her, the show is a series of predictable events she has mastered easily. (She's just gonna love Law & Order in a few years!)

That said, she has not discovered the Thomas show or books yet.

kgirl said...

Bee likes the Thomas trains when we go to the toy store, but is just as happy with the (cheaper) ikea train we have at home.
Chris hates Thomas because of most of the things that you touch upon, so he'll probably never make an appearance at our place.

painted maypole said...

The Nanny Diaries is showing up in your library sidebar today, which I think is funny re: your comments yesterday on my Mary Poppins post. :)

I have never thought that hard about Thomas, but you make excellent points.

Lawyer Mama said...

Hollis adores Thomas. I think that last story would confuse the hell out of him.

Karen said...

I've just sent an urgent email to my steam-punk genre obsessed husband, it reads:

Why in the intricate world of the island of Sodor are the diesel engines the enemy of the steam engines? Is this a Tolkien- esque echo? Are steam engines the older model and diesel the modern ugly substitute? Is there a cult of steam engine out there wondering what the world would be like without diesels, or with fewer diesels and wouldn't that world be ruled by Sir Topham Hat? Please respond asap.
He loves it when I email him at work. I will keep you up to date on urgent replies from the world of steam punk...

Alpha DogMa said...

Ooh, that last story must be the retelling of the very bad Alec Baldwin movie from a few years ago. Horrible. Just horrible.

I love Emily. She is just so pretty.

Diesel engines have supplanted steam engines in popularity. It irks my engineer (not of the train variety) husband that on Sodor steam engines are heralded as better when in truth they were shockingly inefficient compared to diesel locomotives. He is a big fan of technological progress.

Like Janet, I love the subversive feeling of George Carlin being the narrator for these quaint tales. Plus he was great as Fillmore in Disney's Cars.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Both my kids, especially my son, love train tracks but are not interested in the trains themselves. In fact the trains only come out when other children visit. What does this mean?

I'm with Beck, actually: there are worse ethics than the Protestant Work Ethic. I don't believe it requires subservience to The Man -- it means, to me, doing what must be done before what one wants to do. (The trick, of course, is determining "must.")

Mimi said...

Nice breakdown. Exactly right: Thomas and friends are very workaday, and it is all very Victorian ... but so so appealing to both of my nephews that even though one of them is now twelve, I am still tripping over toxic wooden trains.

I find the TV show very soothing, very earnest. It's a kind of literalness and consequence that 2 year olds can really get into

Kit said...

The narrator on our series of Thomas the Tank Engine was Ringo Starr, which was all that supported me through at least a year of my son watching nothing else but those two videos of five minute stories with the theme music cheerily blaring out in between.

Our daughter was born to the sound of that theme tune, as the video was put on to distract our toddler son from the whole proceedings.

Diesel engines were the beginning of the end for steam engines, which is why they are the baddies - the Rev Awdry suffering from nostalgia for the picturesque old days of steam engines, which were relegated to branch lines and tourist entertainment by the faster, cleaner?! new technology.

Blog Antagonist said...

What an interesting and insightful review!! I loved Thomas as much as my boys did, and you summed up why in a much more articulate manner than I ever could.

Karen said...

in response to my plea, my husband basically sent a link to the great dorset steam fair, including this image:

and pretty much figured it would be obvious that this is a conversation about beauty, though Awdry made the more beautiful engines also the more dutiful, and then he rambled a bit about planned obsolence and steam trains being asked to train their own replacements, til I was forced to ask in soap opera type dialogue, "hold in it a minute, are we talking about Percy, or you?"

bubandpie said...

Jennifer - I like your definition. It's like the marshmallow study - the one where children were allowed to choose between one marshmallow now or three after they completed an exercise. Apparently the children who were able to hold out for more marshmallows later did much better in life than the kids who gobbled down that single marshmallow as soon as they could. (I just made those numbers up, of course - but that's roughly how I remember it.)

The Thomas version, though, is not nearly so individualistic as that - it really IS about subordinating individual goals in order to promote the smooth functioning of the railway as a whole.

kittenpie said...

It has been my understanding that some of the newer stories were in fact by his son, Christopher, but of late I think some faceless corporate drones have taken over.

The explicit and simple social situations and accompanying emotions expressed in words and in facial cues have even led this to be considered as one aspect of teaching autistic children about these types of responses and how to read them. Funny, because while I often think the engines are kind of jerks to each other, the interactions have a lot to do with how kids relate on the schoolyard, too.

ewe are here said...

MF enjoys Thomas, so we have a DVD of about 20 train stories. He doesn't really 'watch' watch it, no, he just likes to have it on in the background.

The Isle of Sodor makes me laugh: such a little island, so many tracks!

And no PC cleansing here, it's definitely the Fat Controller. ;-)

Christine said...

if you found that last story kind of wrong or weird don't see thomas and the magic railroad movie. super weird with alec baldwin and a very annoying Australian actor. bad, bad, bad.

Joy, of course said...

Oh wow see, silly me thought it was just about some trains. I find the television show as dull as dirt so I don't turn it on much, but Ben does love it the few times he has seen as he is, like most boys, smitten with trains.

I do agree that simple stories with simple, repetitive messages are best for the Thomas age group though.

Mouse said...

We were talking about different trains and their colors and numbers the other day and I made a grave error. "Scooter," I asked, "Who is number 5?" In my head, I was thinking it was Henry; usually I can keep them straight. But alas, it's James and that reminded him of the fact that he "can't find James. He's lost." In other words, James is in the mail due to that lovely, but toxic, red paint.

Sober Briquette said...

Surprises, surprises, they come all shapes and sizes.

When my daughter was 2 1/2, she decided she was Percy and would only answer to that name for quite a while. She wanted us to read "she" for "he" in her stories about Percy.

We only had engines during her phase, because she was ALL about the personalities and not so much about the trains themselves. Once Lorenzo came along, we had to buy some freight cars and Troublesome Trucks, because the trains were going to DO things now.

I still tell the kids to "Slow down, and puff with care."

We all love Thomas in this household. Before Thomas, we only watched Kipper, another quiet, slow-paced show.

Catherine said...

Hmm. We're still too young at my house, so I know not the smallest thing about Thomas. But I look forward to learning!

bubandpie said...

SoB - Yes, I noticed that the Pie is far better at "code-switching" than I am: she sees no obstacle to being Percy, while I opt for Emily or Mavis.

Mouse - LOL! Yes, any mention of James is anxiety-producing around here too. I'm still amazed at how philosophically Bub has accepted my deliberately-casual explanation of "Oh, James had to go away..."

Julie Pippert said...

1. If you happen to be a publisher of any sort and don't exclude anything not fresh material, there are watchlists of material about to go out of copyright. You can "adopt" the copyright. As such, "Jane Smith" might be author but "Publishers Unlimited" might be the copyright holders. Original publication might be 1892, and current copyright 2007 KWIM? Copyrights, like milk, run out of date.

2. My kids and I want so badly to be Thomas fans. It looks so neat and it's about CHOO CHOOs! But we can't stand it. Can't stand it. I can't say why.

3. You are right that a 2-5 year old would never mistake Thomas for Gordon much less a tyrannosaurus rex for a brontosaurus, but then again, they aren't juggling work schedules with shopping lists and doctor's appointments and the complete poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, either.

She says, lovingly.


Julie Pippert said...

SB, We ADORE Kipper. I am known as the BIGGEST fan of Kipper, particularly the theme song. Patience will fetch me from any room to do our song and dance to Kipper.

Love Kipper.

Now that's a frog.


iz said...

I love your style. It's one of the most unusual I have come across.

mamakie said...

Great deep thoughts on Thomas and Friends. Baby Boy is a huge Thomas fan and has been into trains since he was two. We recently got some hand-me-down tracks and a couple extra trains and that's all he wants to do.

It does amaze me at such a young age that they KNOW all the trains, despite some of them being the same colour. I love getting him to replicate the faces from the story books (scared, surprised, etc.)

Baby Girl, who is 4, has enjoyed being part of the Thomas world as well but didn't get into it until Baby Boy did. I don't think we'll see the end of Thomas here for a while - although McQueen and friends do give him a run for his money (and are much, much cheaper).

Great post!

Emily said...

Seriously? YOU enjoy the stories, as well? And you voluntarily bought the books? We have about 20 different Thomas books, but it sure was not at my instigation. Those books are so dull; but Zach loves them. Now, I am in the process of trying to find a freaking Percy cake for his birthday party, which will feature THomas themes art activities. He sits at dinner and tells me stories about the trains. Now he's gotten his one year old brother into them. When will it stop?!

That said, I think you hit the nail on the head as to WHY it is so appealing to kids. Which is why I allow it to continue, even as I do restrict other types of toys (weapons, gender stereotyping, etc.) I think it is great for his imagination as he builds the tracks and makes up stories and it teaches wonderful messages, but I am about ready to throw myself off one of the crossings that seems to get washed out at every rain storm on that island.

Angela said...

Oh, my. I think you've helped me realize why I can't stand Thomas, though my children and my nephews always adored him. The stories are quite predictable, and everything does turn out okay in the end...and while this is wonderful for children...it just ain't doin' it for me. I can finally release the guilt I've always felt over the fact that I just don't get the happy hysteria over Thomas. Personally, my favorite children's book is the Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, which is not at all a "typical" story line. I was always disappointed that my girls didn't like it...and now I know why. This was a great entry!

KAL said...

I love this analysis of Thomas. In our house he rules over the Island of Sam — morning, noon and night. The favorites, by far: Thomas, Percy, Annie and Clarabel — because they are the four that begin almost every video. I really believe that he has learned about emotions — a tricky thing for an autistic child — from watching Thomas' simple, predictable world.

Luisa Perkins said...

When we told three-year-old Christian what we were naming his tiny new brother, he scoffed, "That's not a baby name. 'James' is the name of an engine."

Oh, well.

Angela said...

choo-choo is all my son says when thomas is on.

Patois said...

I love that Bub couldn't possibly allow you to be a train that was not among his favourites. What a sweetie.

winslow1204 said...

My son loved Thomas the TRain when he was little!