Lukas, and Jim, their steam locomotive Emma, and their shared adventures fascinated me a lot. I remember being read these stories (and drawing in the book) when I was three, and I loved them to pieces. Later at the mature age of five I found out about the marionette theatre version – a four part musical by the wonderful Augsburger Puppenkiste, and I … fanboyed.
The adventures of Jim are fun for kids and for adults. For kids, everything is imaginative (Michael Ende also wrote the Neverending Story, after all!) and intriguing and fun. For adults, there is subtext everywhere. Jim and Luke come from a tiny island that has only two mountains, one train track, and the inhabitants Jim and Luke, Mrs Whaat (store-owner, mother figure), Mr Sleeve (wears bowlers, carries umbrellas, extremely polite and well-educated, named after the English Channel), and of course: Alfred the Quarter-to-Twelfth. Wonder what that island could be an allusion to. 🤔
Then there are the dragons. Oh boy. Jim and Luke have to go to the dragons, to rescue the young princess who is imprisoned in an evil dragon’s school. Jim, who steadfastly refuses to learn to read or write, is horrified – and so are the kids reading the book, because the dragon is cruel and arbitrary and terrible. As an adult though – the dragon city is guarded heavily, and at its entry there is a sign, “Attention! Entry by racially impure dragons forbidden on pain of death.” The city is a smoking collection of volcanoes, a hellish place, and its entrance looks like a smoking oven. The pure half-dragon Nepomuk is not allowed inside the city because of his birth. The dragons are so very much the Nazis it’s kind of stunning to see them in a book for children like this.
All of this, though, I only noticed when I re-read the book in ~2018. Until then, I only remembered the amazing adventures, that involved a lot of danger, but also integrity and strength and curiosity and honesty.
Michael Ende is best known for the Neverending Story, which I also liked a lot (though a decade later). I got a similar feeling from Erich Kästner, particularly from The Flying Classroom.