Fantasy Reads – `The Phantom Tollbooth’

Timeless Classic is an overused phrase but it genuinely applies to this week’s choice – “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. This American children’s story was first published in 1961 with quirky black and white illustrations by Jules Feiffer. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. “The Phantom Tollbooth” is available as an ebook but I’d particularly recommend the HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics paperback which has a lovely introduction by the much-missed Diana Wynne Jones.

This is a story about a bored boy called Milo. Nothing really interests him and he regards “the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” One day an unexpected package is delivered. It contains a purple tollbooth, some coins to put in it, a rule book and a map of places that Milo has never heard of. Milo decides that he might as well play at driving his small electric car past the tollbooth. When he does, Milo finds himself on an unfamiliar country road which takes him to a place called Expectations. After a baffling chat with the Whether Man, Milo plans to reach the city of Dictionopolis but gets lost in the Doldrums.

Milo is rescued by a Watchdog called Tock (who goes tick) and reaches Dictionopolis, the city of words, where he meets a loud-mouthed insect-man known as the Humbug. During a stay in the palace dungeons, Milo learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom is ruled by two brothers: Azaz the Unabridged, who founded Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician who founded Digitopolis. The brothers keep quarreling about whether words or numbers are more important and little has gone right since they banished their twin sisters, the peacemaking Princesses of Pure Reason and Sweet Rhyme.

Milo volunteers to retrieve the princesses from the Castle in the Air, which hovers over the Mountains of Ignorance. He sets out on his quest with brave Tock and the Humbug, who rarely does or says the right thing. Milo meets some extraordinary people during his journey, including Alec Bings who “sees through things”, the smallest giant in the world, Chroma, the conductor of colour, the Awful Dynne and .58 of a boy. He faces obstacles such as an unexpected detour to the barren Island of Conclusions, the Silent Valley and, worst of all, the terrible demons who haunt the Mountains of Ignorance. Can Milo and his friends defeat the “Unwelcoming Committee” and restore Rhyme and Reason to the Kingdom of Wisdom?

If you’re American, you can skip this recommendation because you probably already love “The Phantom Tollbooth” but it isn’t as well known as it should be in the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy as a child by an American aunt. It made me laugh and think and became one of my favourite books. Now I often give “The Phantom Tollbooth” to parents to read aloud to their children. A chapter per night is just perfect because this deceptively simple story is packed with complex ideas. Architect Norton Juster apparently wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth” when he should have been working on a book about Urban planning and it was illustrated by his flatmate. As a child, I preferred more colourful and detailed types of illustration but now I can appreciate the brilliance of Feiffer’s minimalist style. He could draw even the most grotesque (e.g. a mountain-sized Gelatinous Giant) or extraordinary (e.g. a twelve-faced Dodecahedron) creatures of Juster’s imagination.

I’m sure it’s clear from my synopsis that “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a Fable rather than a realist novel.  I could use the term Allegory but that might imply something archaic and worthy and there is nothing stuffy about this fast-paced and often hilarious story. Milo is accompanied by two archetypal figures: the steadfast companion (Tock), who makes young readers feel safe, and the unreliable adult (the Humbug), who makes young readers feel superior. Milo himself is an every-child figure. A child of any age, gender or race could easily identify with Milo because what Juster is mainly depicting is a state of mind. Milo is someone who isn’t fully engaged with the world he lives in. He doesn’t notice the marvels all around him, he doesn’t give much thought to anything (which is why he ends up in the Doldrums) and he’s reluctant to try anything difficult. Milo is far from alone in these faults. During his journey he passes through a whole city which has become invisible because its inhabitants are too busy to see its “wonders and beauties”.  And this is fifty years before smart-phone addiction… “The Phantom Tollbooth” seems even more relevant today than when it was first written.

At this point I must issue a heath warning – this novel might do you good. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Both Alice and Milo endure a series of encounters with bizarre beings but only Milo is transformed by his journey. Carroll refused to make Alice’s adventures into the kind of morality tale his Victorian readers expected. “The Phantom Tollbooth” reads like a story written for fun but it does have things to say about the pains and joys of getting an education. Juster never seems preachy, just warm and wise. When Milo complains that everything in Digitopolis is too difficult for him, he’s gently told by the Mathemagician “that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” Colourful characters and startling events provoke Milo into using his brains and senses to their full capacity.

Juster is a wonderful teacher. I learned more about arithmetic from Milo’s problems with Subtraction Stew (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and Division Dumplings than I ever did at school. The Mathemagician is my husband’s favourite Fantasy character but then he did grow up to be a mathematician.  I always preferred Dictionopolis where you can buy “fancy, best-quality words” such as “quagmire, flabbergast and upholstery” and letters have distinct tastes – Cs are crisp and crunchy but Zs are “very dry and sawdusty”.  Like Milo, I need to be reminded not to leap to Conclusions (it’s a difficult place to get back from) and I’m still sometimes ensnared by Juster’s demons of modern life. If you spend way too much time filling in endless forms or doing pointless repetitive tasks, then you’ve already met the Senses Taker and the Terrible Trivium. Don’t worry. Reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” will help you to escape them and get excited all over again about the possibilities life offers. Until next time….





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Geraldine Pinch