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The Phantom Tollbooth

From Academic Kids

Written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961, Knopf) is a children's book, a modern-day fairy tale full of wordplay and insight into the human condition.

The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of a bored boy named Milo who drives through a magic tollbooth into the warring kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, which quarrel endlessly about the advantages of words versus numbers. His pun-rich travels include trips to Conclusions (you jump there, of course) and the silence-filled Valley of Sound, culminating in an attempt to rescue the princesses named Rhyme and Reason, who are guarded by horrible beasts like the Gross Exaggeration and the Threadbare Excuse.

The Phantom Tollbooth has been compared to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Journey to the West, and the works of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Juster claims his father's fondness for puns and The Marx Brothers' movies as a major influence.

Contents

The book's creation

Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth (ISBN 0394815009) while he was living in Brooklyn, New York. He had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children's book about urban perception—how people experience cities. After several months of work, he realized he was bored with that project and wrote The Phantom Tollbooth instead, primarily to amuse himself.

Feiffer was a neighbor of Juster's who lived in the same building in Brooklyn Heights. He started contributing illustrations while Juster worked on the novel. Feiffer's illustrations have been part of the book since the first edition.

The first edition of The Phantom Tollbooth was published in September, 1961. It hasn't been out of print since.

Plot outline

Milo, a young boy bored with school and just about everything else, is sent by the titular Phantom Tollbooth to the Lands Beyond. Milo discovers that the Kingdom of Wisdom has fallen into disarray because of a feud between King Azaz the Unabridged of Dictionopolis, who considers words the apex of education, and his brother the Mathemagician, monarch of Digitopolis, a monomaniacal supporter of numbers.

Because of the ongoing words vs. numbers feud, the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason have been banished from the kingdom into the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo, with the help of two companions -- the steadfast watchdog Tock and the blustering Humbug -- must reunite words and numbers by returning the princesses to the kingdom.

As he travels throughout the Lands Beyond, Milo meets a number of characters. Each of them represents a particular branch of knowledge or point of view. Most of them give Milo something new to think about and a gift that comes in handy later on his quest.

Milo's quest concludes when he rescues the exiled princesses from the Castle in the Air and escapes from the Foothills of Ignorance. He and the rest of the kingdom realize that words and numbers are equally important subjects of learning. And Milo himself realizes that learning is not a waste of time—in fact, it's a joy.

As Milo prepares to return home, Azaz and the Mathemagician seem to be renewing their quarrel.

Characters

  • Milo, the protagonist
  • Tock, a watchdog and loyal companion of Milo
  • The Lethargarians, whose regular schedule consists of dawdling and dillydallying
  • The Humbug, a large, talking insect that acts as the anti-hero
  • King Azaz the Unabridged, ruler of Dictionopolis
  • The Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis
  • The princesses Rhyme and Reason
  • The Whether Man
  • Faintly Macabre, the Not-So-Wicked Which
  • The Spelling Bee
  • Officer Shrift, apparently Dictionopolis' entire police force, who enjoys arresting and imprisoning people, but isn't concerned with keeping them incarcerated (as the name would lead you to guess, he's very short)
  • Alec Bings, who sees through things
  • Canby (who is both as short as can be and as tall as can be)
  • Chroma the Great, conductor of the dawn
  • Kakofonous A. Dischord (a fan of noise: the "A" stands for "AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE!")
  • The Dynne
  • The Soundkeeper
  • The Dodecahedron
  • The Terrible Trivium, a demon who seduces passers-by with pointless tasks

Other versions

In 1969, animator Chuck Jones adapted The Phantom Tollbooth into a full-length feature film for MGM that combined live action and animation. (Milo's life before traveling to the Kingdom of Wisdom is live action; after he passes through the tollbooth gate, the movie becomes animated.) It features the voices of Butch Patrick, Mel Blanc, Cliff Norton and Patti Gilbert. Juster had no input into the film adaptation, and has stated that he's not particularly fond of it.

In 1995, Juster adapted Tollbooth into a libretto for an opera version.

Various stage adaptations have been created and performed since The Phantom Tollbooth was first published.

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