The Curmudgeon


Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is the story of Milo, a bored child who "because nobody bothered to explain otherwise ... regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all." So depressed is Milo with his lot that on the very first page he heaves a sigh which causes a passing house sparrow such distress that he stops singing and rushes home to be with his family.

Milo is rescued by a peculiar package from a mysterious benefactor. When unpacked and assembled, the contents of the package turn out to be ONE GENUINE (and purple) TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH. Milo, who has a small electric car, drives through the booth and finds himself in a very strange land indeed. The first person he meets is the Whether Man ("I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it's much more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be"), and then he gets stuck in the Doldrums, where "laughter is frowned upon and smiling is permitted only on alternate Thursdays." The Doldrums are inhabited by small, transparent and devastatingly lazy creatures called Lethargarians, whose rigorous daily routine involves dawdling, delaying, lingering, loitering and taking naps, all strictly according to timetable.

Juster brilliantly evokes his fantasy world out of words, numbers, cliches and puns. The tollbooth has led Milo into the former kingdom of Wisdom, on the shores of the Sea of Knowledge. The country's rulership is split between two rival cities run by a pair of quarrelsome brothers. Dictionopolis, the city of words, is the realm of King Azaz the Unabridged. Words grow on trees and the king's five identical ministers talk like a thesaurus running out of control and travel in a carriage in which you have to be very quiet, "for it goes without saying". Digitopolis, the city of numbers, is ruled by Azaz' brother, the Mathemagician, who mines digits from the earth and serves Milo and his friends "subtraction stew", which makes you hungrier the more you eat. The brothers have imprisoned their adoptive sisters, the Princess of Pure Reason and the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, in a Castle in the Air surrounded by evil demons, because they refused to take sides in an idiotic squabble over whether words or numbers are superior.

On his way to rescue the princesses, Milo runs into all sorts of interesting people. There is a very short policeman called Shrift; a perfectly sane doctor named Discord who specialises in unpleasant noises; a conductor named Chroma whose orchestra makes visual music; and approximately half of a child (0.58 to be exact) who is part of the average family: two parents and 2.58 children. This is better than it sounds, apparently, since the average family also has 1.27 automobiles, "and since I'm the only one who can drive three tenths of a car, I have the sole use of it." Milo and his friends also take an unscheduled trip to the island of Conclusions, which looks very pleasant from a distance but less so once one has involuntarily jumped there. If you do jump to Conclusions, you have to face a long hard swim in the Sea of Knowledge to get back to where you were.

The demons surrounding the Castle in the Air are an intimidating lot. There is the Official Senses Taker, an ink-spattered bureaucrat who delays the heroes with form-filling; the Terrible Trivium, a monster of habit; the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, a large and extremely soiled bird who twists everything said to it ("I come from a place called Context, but it's so unpleasant there I spend all my time out of it"); the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, who doesn't care where he's going as long as he knows why he shouldn't have been where he was; and the Triple Demons of Compromise: one short and fat, one tall and thin, and the third just like the other two.

If you have never read The Phantom Tollbooth, you are deprived and poverty-stricken. If your children have never read it, you are guilty of neglect.


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