Jim Button 50 Years Later

Children’s books don’t need to be without political content. Michael Ende aimed his first book Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver at grown-ups as much as children. Over 50 Years after its first publication in German, it’s time to have a closer look at a very political children's story.

by +Lucas Dié on Books

Michael Ende wrote his first children’s book Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver over 50 years ago. The book was more than a charming story; it contained messages aimed at grown-ups as well. Story-line and names included clever allusions and metaphors to the horrendous European and specifically German past.

Jim Button got his name from Jemmy Button who traveled with Charles Darwin on the Beagle. Like Jemmy, Jim was taken out of his natural context and transplanted into another country. Jemmy’s destination was Britain, Jim arrived at Morrowland. But Morrowland was a scaled down Britain; Mr Sleeve was the epitome of an English gentleman. Even his name pointed in that direction: In German, the Channel is called Ärmelkanal, and Ärmel translates to sleeve while Kanal stands for Channel.

Mr Tur Tur on the other hand was a giant and his name derived from French Tour or tower. He was not really a giant but only seemed so from a distance. When Jim and Luke (and Emma) got nearer to him, he dwindled until he was of normal human size once they were up close. Ende’s message was that even if people seemed to be giants from a distance, once you got close to them and got to know them, they were humans like you and me.

The half-dragon Nepomuk got his name from a saint. Saint Nepomuk was drowned by being thrown from a bridge; the name was a play on the dragon’s other half descent, the hippopotamus. But it was more than just that. Saint Nepomuk may be found on many bridges in Central Europe represented by a statue and there might even be a chapel dedicated to him. The half-dragon in the book became the bridge to understanding dragons.

Mrs Grindtooth’s school was Ende’s depiction of school as he knew it in Nazi Germany. In the first edition, there was also a picture of the entry to Dragon City showing a sign that stated: ‘Entry is forbidden to all non pure bred dragons under pain of death.’ Similar signs could be found on many city boundaries in Nazi Germany referring to pure-bred Arians rather than dragons, though.

These signs were the result of the twisted Darwinism as applied by scientists under Nazi rule. Euphemistically called eugenics and paid for by the American Rockefeller Foundation, Dr Mengele set out to eradicate Jews, gypsies, gays, and other undesirables. Ende’s writing was aimed at reclaiming Darwinism for everyday use. Accordingly, he denied the Nazi slogan of ‘survival of the fittest’ and told stories of friendship spanning ethnic and cultural differences that overcome all obstacles.

For Ende, the book became a cleansing process; he was getting rid of the Nazi childhood he had. He took the chance offered in his own invented world to free himself of the devils and reclaim life as his own. If you haven’t read Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, I advise you do. It is charming and chock-a-block full of funny inventions. It has lost nothing of its freshness, and it is riveting reading for your children, too.

Further reading
The Little Prince: 70 Years After Publication
Irmingard Princess of Bavaria (1923 to 2010)
Awkward: Gestapo Burial in Berlin Jewish Cemetery