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Literature / The Railway Series

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The Railway Series, which began in the 1940s, is a series of books written by the Rev W Awdry. The books formed the basis for the Thomas the Tank Engine TV series. The Rev Awdry wrote 26 books, pretty much one a year, between 1945 and 1972. Later, additions were written by the Reverend's son, Christopher, bringing the total number of books to 42.

The books contain examples of :

  • Achilles in His Tent: The Sad Story of Henry. Gordon, James and Henry try to invoke it in Troublesome Engines, but it backfires on them.
  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: A few examples:
    • Thomas becomes a bit stuck-up after he gets his branchline.
    • Percy becomes arrogant after braving the stormy weather.
    • Oliver becomes flattered by the remarks of the other engines about his escape from scrap.
  • All of the Other Reindeer:
    • Edward often gets teased by the other engines (mainly Gordon, James, and Henry) for being old.
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    • Thomas initially gets this due to him being self-important and cheeky.
    • Duck gets this from the other engines, though he really brought it on himself with his constant harping on about the inherent superiority of the Great Western Railway above all others.
    • Peter Sam was subject of this due to his broken funnel.
    • Sir Handel gets this for his wheels, although these make him egotistical.
  • All There in the Manual: The books The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, Sodor: Reading Between the Lines and The Thomas the Tank Engine Man explain between them pretty much everything about the series. What's amazing is how much history there is, from the formation of Sudric kingdoms all the way up to the modern era.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Most of the troublesome trucks.
  • Always Female / Always Male: All of the coaches and trucks are females and males respectively.
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  • Arbitrary Skepticism: The big engines think the "verra wee engines" (Rex, Mike, and Bert) are some sort of magic, despite the fact they met small engines before (e.g., the Skarloey engines).
  • Art Evolution:
    • Across four different official illustrators. The style of C Reginald Dalby (1945-1956), the first, was rather sunny and miniature-like, though his disinterest in consistency and technical details led to disagreements with Awdry. John Kenney's (1957-1962) style was more realistic and dynamic, and often painted from life or photo-reference. Peter and Gunvor Edwards' (1963-1972) work resembled Kenny's, but with greater emphasis on landscape and weather, and an impressionist influence. Clive Spong's (1983-present) work features landscapes about as picturesque as Dalby's, but with Kenney's eye for accuracy and detail.
    • For one individual artist, Spong's illustrations for his first novel "Really Useful Engines" and some early tie-in books used a more cartoony style reminiscent of Dalby's and the TV adaptation, especially concerning the engine's facial expressions. Afterwards a more realistic, detailed design took over.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Welsh-sounding name of Ffarquhar (The town where Thomas' branch line terminates) is in fact derived from "Far-away quarry".
  • Author Avatar: The Thin Clergyman in the original book series was Awdry, with another railway buff friend, The Rev Teddy Boston, as the Fat Clergyman.
  • Barsetshire: The whole fictional setting of the Island of Sodor (which is supposed to be just west of the Cumbrian and Lancastrian coast and to the east of the Isle of Man).
  • Berserk Button: A few examples.
    • Don't make Gordon pull trucks. The same applies to Sir Handel.
    • Don't remind James of any of his accidents (e.g., the bootlace incident). Also, don't threaten to paint him blue (which, by the way, led to said bootlace incident).
    • Don't call Toby "electric".
    • Don't compare Duck's Motor Mouth to a quacking duck. Also, do NOT insult or belittle the Great Western Railway.
    • Don't make fun of Donald and Douglas' whistles as Gordon and Henry found out. And don't threaten Douglas in Donald's presence (or the other way round for that matter). Just ask The Spiteful Brake Van.
    • Don't refer to Daisy as "feeble".
    • While the troublesome trucks play tricks on you for their amusement, they'll also do it to you when you order them around or bump them.
    • Don't bump the coaches or they might bump you off the rails. Just ask Sir Handel.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Thomas started out as one in his Character Arc. The same goes for Percy. Bill and Ben are always this as BoCo points out how they can be maddening at times.
  • Breakout Character: Thomas was a popular character after Book 2, but was only the focus of a few books before the TV series.
  • Break the Haughty: Happens to a lot of engines. Gordon, James, and Thomas are common examples.
  • Bully Hunter: Duck and Percy stood up against the trio of Gordon, Henry, and James who were heckling the little engines in "Duck Takes Charge".
  • Bullying the Dragon: The troublesome trucks will often find out that messing with engines like Duck, Donald, and Douglas is a big mistake.
  • Cast Herd: the standard gauge and branch lines, Skarloey engines, the Culdee Fell engines, the Small railway engines etc.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: A few background characters in the earlier books.
  • Circus Episode: In "Henry and the Elephant", the circus comes to the Island of Sodor. The engines have a wonderful time pulling the train, until it is time for the circus to leave. It is later revealed that an elephant escaped from the circus and is hiding in Henry's Tunnel, and it's up to Henry, his crew, and the elephant's keeper to get the elephant back.
  • Comically Lopsided Rivalry: Common in the series. Smart, hardworking engines such as Edward, Toby and Duck always have the last laugh on arrogant, reckless ones such as Henry, Gordon and James.
  • Continuity Snarl: The story of Godred, an arrogant mountain engine who violently derailed and was subsequently cannibalized for parts (based off of the real world story of Ladas), is a rather confusing affair. The original book, Mountain Engines states that Culdee made the entire story up to scare Sir Handel and Duncan. Yet the various companion books treat the entire incident as a fact, as evidenced by the lack of a No. 1 engine on the CFR. It's further confounded by some of the tie-in magazine stories, which have Godred alive and well, completely recovered from the accident.
  • Cool Train: Need we explain this?
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Oliver in "Toad Stands By."
  • Darker and Edgier: Book 13, Duck and the Diesel Engine, began to introduce the concept of Diesels and their takeover of steam, symbolizing that all was not well on Sodor. Further books such as The Twin Engines and Stepney the Bluebell Engine continued this story by introducing scrapping. Enterprising Engines, considered the darkest of all the stories, brought to light the end of Steam elsewhere but on Sodor. Following books, however, got back to the happy adventures, except for Duke The Lost Engine which has some darker elements thrown in.
  • A Day in the Limelight: All of the main engines got a book to themselves at some point.
  • Defector from Decadence: The nice diesels are often this, but the most notable example is Bear (né D7101) in Enterprising Engines.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Many examples, most famously in "Thomas and Gordon:"
    "He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome."
  • Determinator: A popular plot thread. Skarloey in Old Faithful, Rheneas in Gallant Old Engine, Edward in Edward's Exploit, Bertie in Bertie's Chase, Percy in Percy's Promise...
    • Used by the steam engines in arguments with diesels: they may not be efficient or modern, but they get the job done.
  • Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Gordon tells the others in "Domeless Engines" to "never trust domeless engines; they're not respectable." Guess what happens to Gordon.
    • This also happens many a times with the steam engines and diesels after their first encounter with one in Duck and the Diesel Engine
  • Dress Code: Unlike the TV series. The NWR livery is blue, with red lining. Edward, Gordon and Thomas remained this colour, but the other characters were repainted into their trademark unique colours shortly into the series. The Skarloey railway is red (with the exceptions of Rusty, Duke and presumably Fred), and the Culdee Fell engines purple.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: In later editions of The Three Railway Engines, the engine who tries to push Henry out of the tunnel bears a striking likeness to James.
    • The engine was actually intended to be James, but when fans pointed out the Series Continuity Error (James' first day was in "Thomas The Tank Engine" where he was painted black), Awdry retconned the engine into a separate character (given several names by fans, including Eagle, Simon, David, and Winston).
  • Emergency Transformation: Henry in The Flying Kipper.
  • Enemy Mine: The trucks cooperate with Percy when it means shutting up Bulstrode the barge.
    • In a more positive example, writing "Edward, Gordon, and Henry" (the story that establishes said engines as all being on the same railway and gets Henry out of the tunnel) was the condition the publishers set before the Reverend for getting the original book, "The Three Railway Engines" published.
  • Ensemble Cast: The series gave individual novels to many engines and even different railways, and while many appeared more so than others, there was never a definite lead character
  • Fantastic Racism: The steam and diesel engines began resembling this, but it died down after some friendly diesels joined the railway. Taken to its extreme in James and the Diesel Engines, in which James is the only engine to still hold a grudge until in the last story "Deep Freeze".
  • Fantasy World Map: The Reverend and his brother spent a good ten years mapping out the Island of Sodor.
  • Feud Episode: The quarrel between Thomas and Percy in the book More About Thomas The Tank Engine. Also Skarloey and Rheneas in their younger years in "Stick-in-the-Mud".
  • Five-Man Band: The engines on Thomas' branch line: Thomas, Percy, Toby, Mavis, and Daisy.
  • The Freelance Shame Squad: The engines are often shown laughing or smirking whenever another has an accident or other humiliating incidents, no matter how dire.
  • The Gadfly: Most of the Fat Controller's engines have gadfly tendencies. Thomas during his Bratty Half-Pint days was particularly so, with a hobby of quietly creeping up on dozing big engines, waking them up suddenly, and then running off laughing. And in general, they all love pushing other engines' buttons and winding them up.
  • Generation Xerox: The Hatt family. The "Fat Controller" is actually three generations of controller with the name "Topham Hatt". The youngest, Stephen, appears in Toby the Tram Engine as that Fat Controller's grandson.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • In "Thomas and the Breakdown Train", the Breakdown Train contains "two queer things his Driver called cranes."
    • The opening message for Toby's debut states that he is a "funny little engine with a queer shape".
    • In "Ballast", Duck passes under a chute, on top of which stand "some queer-looking trucks".
  • Iconic Sequel Character: See Breakout Character. Thomas The Tank Engine didn't appear until the second book of The Railway Series. James, Percy and Toby also appeared in later books.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each of the first 31 installments included the word "engine(s)" in the title. The tradition was finally broken with Toby, Trucks and Trouble, although it does show up again a few times afterwards.
  • I Have Many Names: The Fat Controller in particular has also been called "The Fat Director," "Sir Topham Hatt" and "The Stout Gentleman." Sir Handel and Peter Sam, being called Falcon and Stuart in their Mid Sodor days respectively, also fall into this category.
  • Jerkass:
    • As their name implies, the troublesome trucks. The ballast trucks are said to be the worst behaved trucks on the line.
    • There's also the diesels who are haughty and prejudiced against steam engines.
    • Even engines like Sir Handel and Duncan can be this at their worst.
  • Jerk Jock: Gordon, James, and Henry have this sort of personality. They are the main line engines, but often bully and heckle the other engines whom they think aren't as good as them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: A number of engines are this. Gordon, Henry, Thomas, and James. Also Duncan after his Character Development. Christopher Awdry wrote one stand-alone story where he brings Diesel back as one of these.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: The troublesome trucks often play tricks on an engine who was being mean or arrogant to others (e.g., James in "Dirty Objects" and Diesel in "Pop Goes The Diesel"). Either way, it doesn't matter which engine they play tricks on as long as they enjoy it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: This occurs almost every single time. Whenever there's an engine who is being either rude, haughty, or stubborn, they will get themselves into an unfortunate mishap or accident, not to mention they will receive ridicule from the other engines. This often causes the engine to become nicer and wise enough to not make the same mistakes again.
  • Lazy Artist: C. Reginald Dalby. He could have easily gone down to the station near his house to see real engines to base his illustrations on, or he could have looked at photographs, but he didn't. He couldn't be bothered to be keep engines' proportions consistent (resulting in Percy eventually looking like, as Awdry put it, "a green caterpillar with red stripes") or even keep track of how many wheels he drew Henry with. This was the reason for Henry's rebuild — Awdry had to have him rebuilt as a specific real class of locomotive so that he could send Dalby reference photos.
  • Legacy Character: The Fat Controller.
  • Long Runner: Book 1 was published in 1945, Book 42 was published in 2011.
  • MacGyvering: "James and the Bootlace" sees James' Driver and Fireman mending a leak in the brake line with newspapers secured in place with a leather bootlace borrowed from a reluctant passenger.
  • Malicious Slander: Diesel uses this to try and get rid of Duck. Gordon, Henry and James are fooled, but not the Fat Controller, and Diesel ends up exposed and sent packing when he tries to slander Henry.
  • Magic Realism: The minimalist fantasy elements (anthropromorphic engine and other transportation vehicles) are often overshadowed by mundane events. Based on real life history recorded during Awdry's lifetime.
  • Men Act, Women Are: A common criticism of the books was that most of the female characters were coaches, while all of the male characters were engines (meaning that the females were incapable of doing anything unless they were being towed along by a male). Awdry senior began rectifying this later in the series with the introduction of Daisy and Mavis, an effort continued by Christopher with Pip and Emma.
  • Never My Fault: The Engines are being blamed for Human error. A common example includes Thomas being blamed for crashing into the stationmaster's house even though it was a cleaner that carelessly fiddled with his controls. Awdry wrote the stories like this because he was afraid that if the human characters did get blamed for their mistakes, it would make real railway personnel look bad. It gives the uncomfortable implication that the engines are slaves who are scapegoated for the mistakes of the railwaymen simply because the engines can't object under threat of death.
  • Never Say "Die": Averted, big time. Starting as early as Henry The Green Engine, Sir Topham nearly replaced Henry with another engine. More blatant examples come up further in the series. Trevor was saved from scrap by Edward, Donald had to smuggle Douglas from Scotland to save his life, Stepney was rescued along with his other friends, and Oliver, Isabel and Toad were later saved by Douglas, along with three other coaches, Alice, Mirabel and Dulcie, and Victoria was restored from scrapyard condition. Sir Handel and Peter Sam also got a bad image that Duke was scrapped too, (luckily, that wasn't the case, and he was restored as well). Godred and Stanley weren't so lucky however, and Fred was built from two old diesels. And various background characters are scrapped as well.
  • Nice Guy: Some examples include Edward, Toby, and BoCo.
  • Nice Mean And Inbetween:
    • Thomas, Percy, and Toby. Toby is nice and respectful, Thomas is cheeky and arrogant, (although he has become nicer and kind-hearted later on), and Percy mediates between the two where he can be nice, but has moments of being cheeky like Thomas.
    • Gordon, James, and Henry. Henry is nicer and more sympathetic than the other two while James is more vain and arrogant than Gordon, who occasionally shows his soft and humble side more than James does.
    • Before James came along, there was the trio of Edward, Henry, and Gordon from The Three Railway Engines. Edward is nice and friendly, Gordon is pompous and haughty, and Henry is in between where he was remorseful of his selfish behavior of not wanting to come out of the tunnel.
    • On the Mid Sodor Line, Falcon/Sir Handel Duke and Stuart/Peter Sam. Peter Sam is very bubbly, cheerful and near impossible not to get along with. Sir Handel has quite a temper and you have to have a lot of patience to get along with him. Duke however, may be wise and kind, but is also a bit grumpy. Quite the contrast to Skarloey and Rheanes.
  • No Sympathy: This happens quite a lot. Whenever an engine gets in unpleasant situation, this will lead them to get teased or scoffed at. However, this mistreatment of the engine depends on whether the engine receiving this treatment had brought it upon themselves due to their misbehavior, or whether the engine expressing their lack of sympathy to another was being rude for its own sake, in which case something will likely lead them to get A Taste of Their Own Medicine shortly afterwards.
    • Henry received this treatment from the engines following his increasing illness. Other engines usually ignored his moaning until he started affecting their own work schedule (Thomas in particular chewed out Henry for making him late, and only saw his ill bout as an opportunity to pull his train in his place), and even began believing he was faking it to get out of work. Only his crew and Sir Topham Hatt showed concern for his health and took measures to repair him, leading him to get the last laugh on some of the apathetic engines from before when he starts to outclass them.
    • Thomas often displays this treatment towards engines who were late for his passenger trains, much like the example with Henry as mentioned above.
  • Offscreen Karma:
    • In "Old Iron", two boys were fiddling with James' controls. After this, they have been "soundly walloped" by their fathers.
    • Also in "A Close Shave", The Fat Controller informed Duck that he realized Diesel's lies and sent him packing to the other railway.
  • Pint-Sized Kid: Rex, Mike and Bert.
  • Recurring Extra: The Works Diesel, a BR Class 47 who has appeared, unnamed, since Book 28, but is described by the other engines as friendly.
  • Recycled Premise:
    • "Edward and Gordon" is strikingly similar to The Little Engine That Could. Both engines are even blue.
    • Mrs. Kyndley's Christmas is likewise similar to the passage in The Railway Children in which the children save a train from a landslide by waving flags made of red petticoats. Mrs. Kyndley even faints, just like Bobbie did.
  • Refuse to Rescue the Disliked:
    • In "Rock 'n' Roll" from The Little Old Engine, Rusty is called to help Duncan back on the rails, but refuses to do it because Duncan was rude to him and called him a "smelly old diesel". Skarloey then scolds Rusty for this and reminds him of the passengers, and soon Rusty does so. In the end, Rusty and Duncan became good friends.
    • In "Mavis" from Tramway Engines, after the title character gets stuck on the line after ignoring Toby's warnings about the trucks, he refuses to help her. When his driver points out that the trucks are technically his responsibility, however, he "thoughtfully" decides to go after all.
    • In "Drip Tank" from More About Thomas The Tank Engine, Percy refuses to help Thomas out of an accident with his water tank because he called him a "drip", but his driver reminds him of the passengers' safety. He soon comes to Thomas' rescue, thus ending their bitter falling out throughout the whole book.
  • Rightly Self-Righteous: Some of the competent hard-working engines like Duck, Donald, Douglas, and Skarloey can often be smug and heckling to the other arrogant or badly-behaved engines. Usually, any attempts to ignore or belittle them only lead to a karmic accident or humiliation.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The stories were mostly based on real life railway events. This also became the series' undoing in the 90s and 00s, thanks to both Awdrys' insistence on portraying realistic railway operations: with no revenue steam services left in the UK and revenue and heritage railways alike subject to strict safety regulations, they began to run out of stories to adapt.
  • Sequel Hook: The Fat Controller says in Wilbert the Forest Engine that if Wilbert performs well, he knows where to find another engine like him.
  • Shout-Out: The Non-Standard-Gauge railways on Sodor are based on real life ones. The Skarloey railway is based on the Talyllyn railway, the small railway is based on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and the Culdee Fell is based on the Snowdon mountain railway.
    • Most of the standard gauge engines are based on real-life prototypes. Toby's former branch line, in particular, was based on the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, where his prototype operated until the 1950s.
    • The title for Thomas And His Friends was most likely a shout out to the television series.
  • Shown Their Work: Both the Reverend and his son are devoted Trainspotters, and it shows.
  • Skewed Priorities: Happens a lot on Sodor.
    • The fireman who got annoyed at Henry for spilling his hot chocolate instead of crashing into the back of the Brake Van and almost killing him.
    • The Painter that got angry at Henry for spilling his paint rather than making him lose his balance on the ladder.
    • The Barber that got angry with Duck for frightening his customers rather than crashing into the Barber shop which may have endangered the lives of said customers.
    • The Signalman that got annoyed with Donald for jamming his points and not endangering his life.
    • The Station Master's wife who chewed out Thomas for ruining her and her family's breakfast instead of crashing into the house and endangering the life of her family.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: A recurring character trait for several engines, but particularly Gordon, James and Sir Handel. Thomas also became one though was eventually toned down a little under Christopher Awdry's pen.
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: Percy The Small Engine, and even more so in Thomas the Tank Engine. While occasionally insightful, Percy is naive and childishly innocent, so often plays the Likeable Moron to several more experienced but arrogant engines such as James or Gordon (Thomas was also his most frequent Smart Jerk until having Took a Level in Kindness, and gaining enough Cloud Cuckoo Lander points to border him as a Likable Moron himself).
  • Space Whale Aesop: Don't be reckless or put yourself into dangerous situations or you might have your body parts used to heal your sick friends.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Due to pressure from publishers to tie in with the TV series, many later books were rotated around Thomas and his branch line.
  • Steam Never Dies: Not on Sodor, at any rate. Due to the degree of operating independence given to the North Western Railway under British Rail the mass-dieselization order did not apply, and since the railway is still turning a decent profit after Privatization the Fat Controller sees no reason to change things — especially given the years of hard work the engines have all put in.
  • Stupid Crooks: The thieves from "Stop Thief!".
  • Take That!
    • In one story, Thomas refers to Percy as a "green caterpillar with red stripes". This was the exact wording that the Reverend used when he reacted poorly to earlier illustrations of Percy by Reginald Dalby. Dalby didn't take it too well.
    • The Fat Director, aka the Fat Controller, aka Sir Topham Hatt, was written as an insult to pompous railway directors. Notice how his first appearance has him doing nothing but telling people what to do and/or making them miserable.
    • The Fat Controller's decision to lock Gordon, Henry, and James in their sheds after the three went on strike seems to combine this with Author Tract. Likewise Bulgy the bus and his talk of communist-esque "Revolution" against the railways.
  • Team Dad: Edward is this to Bill and Ben. Duck comments that he is the only engine to keep the mischievous twins in order.
  • Terrible Trio: Gordon, James, and Henry are a lighter example. Though not really villains, they are rather arrogant peers. Duck even advised Donald and Douglas in "The Missing Coach" to watch out for the three engines for they'll start some nonsense.
  • Time Skip: According to the Awdry family, all the books from The Three Railway Engines to Henry the Green Engine are set in the 1920s and 1930s, twenty years before they were published; starting with Toby the Tram Engine, the books are set within about a year of the publication date.
  • Trauma Button:
    • Whatever you do, don't mention 'scrap' to Donald and Douglas.
    • Don't mention the possibility of being sold to Sir Handel (Falcon) or Peter Sam (Stuart).
  • Twin Switch: Donald and Douglas in The Missing Coach (and it's implied they did it before those events to get to Sodor to start with) and Bill and Ben in The Diseasel.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: A number of engines are arrogant and rude, and prone to getting some sort of Humiliation Conga at the end of each story as a result of their delusions of grandeur. Gordon, James and Sir Handel are arguably the most notable (though occasional redeeming moments keep them in check).
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Many people's reactions to engines causing destruction and havoc are extremely tranquil. Take this underwhelming reaction from a barber after Duck crashes into his shop:
    Barber: It's only an engine.
  • Violent Glaswegian: Donald and Douglas provide a child-friendly version of this one.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: All of the engines are good friends, but have a lot of moments of teasing each other.
    • The trio of Gordon, Henry, and James run into this. Individually, James has this relationship with the other engines as well such as nice-hearted engines like Edward and Toby.
    • Similar to above, it's the trio of Rex, Mike, and Bert.
    • Thomas and Percy have their moments of teasing each other on occasion.
  • Writers Have No Sense Of Scale: Awdry places his fictional railway, on the fictional Isle of Sodor, sandwiched between the Isle of Man, and Barrow-in-Furness on the English mainland. With good reason, he assumed this would give him "flexibility" to have a setting that was not too big or small, just the right size to tell a story revolving around the characters. Problem is, Sodor would be too small to function. It would be a branchline of the network and nothing more. Gordon, Henry or any other express engine, running non-stop could never go fast on such a short length to justify having the fast passenger train - AND they have to make several scheduled stops along the way!

Alternative Title(s): Thomas The Tank Engine


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