In the story Thomas Comes to Breakfast, from Branch Line Engines by the Rev. W Awdry, Thomas's driver tells him:

"You know just where to stop, Thomas! You could almost manage without me!"

Thomas, conceited, thinks this is literally true and that he does not need his driver anymore. So he decides to surprise the other engines by coming out of his shed by himself.

However according to the narrator:

Thomas thought he was being clever, but really he was only moving because a careless cleaner had meddled with his controls.

He is unable to stop, and crashes through the the buffers in a siding and into the stationmaster's house.

Here Thomas seems to think that he is moving of his own volition, but in fact his coming out of the shed is caused by something external to him that he is unaware of. It appears that he is mistaken about, or at least overestimates, the degree of free will that he he has.

There is a philosophical school of thought that what seems like free will is a post-hoc explanation our mind creates to explain what has actually been caused by unconscious or external forces. In this episode it seems something like that may be happening with Thomas, although it would be surprising for a conservative clergyman such as the Rev. W Awdry to be associated with a viewpoint such as this, especially since so many of the plots of these stories revolve around moral questions. And the Fat Controller and other railway staff certainly do hold him morally accountable: "You're a very naughty engine, you will stay in the shed until you are wanted" etc.

So, does Thomas the Tank Engine in fact have free will or not?

By free will, I mean that Thomas can realistically choose between alternatives and cause events to take a different course than they otherwise would have. In other words, if Thomas had not been so conceited could he have been expected to stay in the shed?

  • 1
    Are you looking for an answer based on the text, or a "Word of God/Author"-type answer?
    – bobble
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 4:15
  • Welcome to Literature! Glad to see you transferred your question over here :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 6:43
  • @bobble Author would be ideal, text would be acceptable.
    – Batperson
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 9:34
  • Here's a good Reddit thread reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/ln5d7/…
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 12:24
  • Would such philosophical inconsistency be unusual or even matter? Children's literature from Lewis Carol to J.K.Rowling is full of the most fantastical imaginings. And surely the mere proposition that railway engines can speak challenges credulity long before that of ascribing a human sense of free will. Moreover I don't think the average Anglican clergyman of Awdry's ilk would see dogmatic rigidity in quite the stark terms you suggest - that characteristic would seem to me more likely found among modern evangelicals.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 23:06

1 Answer 1


The Thomas the Tank Engine stories were originally stories about a toy engine made for Awdry’s son Christopher. So, the question really is, do toys have free will?

This is perhaps a more profound question than it appears on the surface. Toys are metaphors. Like toys, are we automata? Are we programmed by nature and nurture to perform in predictable ways?

This predestination view of toys was humorously but elegantly expressed in “The Mouse and his Child”, 1967, by Russell Hoban, the adventures of two wind-up toy mice. Hoban writes “Toys must do what they are wound to do.” However, later in the book these toys make choices that seem to change their future. The book is an exploration of exactly this question: do toys have free will?

Do our decisions have real effects, changing the outcome of events? New discoveries in non-linear mathematics and quantum physics suggest that our decisions create new realities that come into existence as a result.

For example, we cannot accurately predict weather far into the future because it results from infinitesimally small beginnings that blow up into radically different outcomes. This suggests that the mechanistic metaphor represented by toys is too simplistic. Yet, this mechanistic metaphor still dominates our thinking and shapes our world-view.

  • 3
    How is this relevant to Thomas the Tank Engine, though? It appears to be an entirely separate book, so what's the connection?
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 18:53
  • 1
    This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 17:29
  • The OP says they're ideally looking for a statement from Audrey, or if not that, then from textual evidence. This philosophical speculation doesn't seem to match requirements.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:04
  • 2
    Silly me, I thought a philosophical answer to a philosophical question was exactly what the query required. I see now that Stack exchange is of no further interest to me. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 19:37
  • 2
    I think this answer is a valid approach to the question. At literature.se, we don't insist on any particular theory of literature, so even if the OP wanted an answer based on the author's intention, it is still valid to provide an answer based on a comparative analysis. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 20:48

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