The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was first published in 1961, but I have known of its existence for less than two weeks as I begin to write this review. There may be a few reasons for this. I had to order the book from America, its ‘home’, since Juster is from New York and lives in Massachusetts, while I can wander down to my small local bookstore and buy various versions of Alice in Wonderland, a book The Phantom Tollbooth recalls to many readers. Also, Alice and Wonderland has received numerous cinema and television treatments, not all good but well known, while Chuck Jones’s 1970 version of Juster’s book seems somewhat obscure. Apparently, there has been plans slowly formulating for another version of The Phantom Tollbooth since 2010, and one internet page I visited suggested that Matt Shakman, a director of Game of Thrones, might be involved, but there is no detail on IMBD unless you pay for the pro version of the website.
The Phantom Tollbooth is a story about Milo, a young boy bored with school and life in general. He returns home from school to find a large package awaiting him, the Phantom Tollbooth, including coins for travel and a map. Milo constructs the tollbooth according to instructions, and then drives through it in his toy car.
It’s at this point the similarities to other stories should be obvious enough. The tollbooth is a gateway into another world where the protagonist will face challenges and learn something. Milo is a surrogate for the reader, and the world he enters represents problems that must be overcome in the world that has been left behind. So, when you think of the tollbooth, think of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, the tree in The Magic Faraway Tree, the wardrobe in the Narnia stories, or the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.
The world Milo enters is represented by a map drawn by Jules Feiffer, the book’s illustrator. I always loved a map in a book when I was a kid. It helped me imaginatively enter that world. In this map you will find Dictionopolis, a city ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged, in which words are most valued and Digitopolis, a city ruled by the Mathemagician, where numbers are prised over words. However, it would be wrong to think Juster favours one over the other, the Arts, say, over Mathematics and Science, or visa versa. The rulers of each city have been separated by a long running dispute and never talk to or agree with one another. But Juster’s intention is that a wholistic approach to knowledge and learning is important, not a narrow affiliation with one branch. The real problem, it turns out, is that the two daughters of the kingdom, Rhyme and Reason, who were once called upon to arbitrate over the question of which was more important, words or numbers, have been banished for their failure to favour either, and are now held prisoners in the Castle in the Air. You can sense where this quest is leading.
What I can’t access when I read this book is that sense of wonder a child might experience upon first reading it. My own experience of reading classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series when I was a child have to be my guide here. Those books were magical to me and it is not hard to imagine that a child reading this book would be left with a deep impression. I think The Phantom Tollbooth has all the hallmarks of a classic book for children. It follows a simple premise like many other classic children’s tales and it describes a world that is surprising and whose characters are strange, amusing and daft. In the world of the Tollbooth Milo meets Tock, a dog with a clock as a body, who takes things very literally and hates wasting time, the Spelling Bee, whose conversation is littered with words proudly spelled correctly and the Humbug, a cynical bug who shouts HUMBUG! and appears to be curmudgeonly but turns out to be a good friend as the story progresses.
The story is also meant to provide something to think about.
Apparently, when the book was first published, many thought it too difficult for children, both for its concepts and the level of language. It seems to me that those concerns are normally the province of publishers, worried that they will not see a return on their investment. When a book like this gets published, it is another thing. Then it belongs to the reading public, and experience has shown that children like to be challenged, like wordplay and can identify strongly with the characters they read about. Milo is bored with school and his world: surely this is someone the reader knows within themselves.
To understand what Juster has achieved, I think it’s useful to imagine that The Phantom Tollbooth is a satirical work written for adults. Essentially, the book is an allegory. If you look again at that map you’d see other places of note: the Mountains of Ignorance, the Doldrums, the Foothills of Confusion, and the island of Conclusions, to which you jump. Norton has something to say about attitudes to learning and lazy thinking which leads to easy assumptions, not necessarily correct. Norton Juster was primarily an architect in his career and The Phantom Tollbooth came into existence as a result of his frustrations with trying to produce a book for children about urban planning. I don’t know how that book could possibly have worked – Juster won a scholarship to produce it – and neither, it seems, did he. But it seems to me that his interest in architecture and the problems he no doubt had to grapple with in that other planned book also informed The Phantom Tollbooth. Because The Phantom Tollbooth doesn’t just offer up witty wordplay or fantastical places, but it also offers a reimagined vision of our own world. When Milo enters the realm of Reality with his friends, he enters a city which cannot be seen. Like Marcie, the girl who turns invisible in Buffy the Vampire Slayer because no-one pays her any attention, the city has literally turned invisible, representing a place of alienation where people walk with their heads to the ground, always rushing, always going somewhere else, always too busy to care and never paying attention to their world, until the city can no longer be seen. Surely, this is describing adult alienation. It’s a remarkable scene for a children’s book that is just as relevant now as it must have been in 1961. It was this moment in the story that convinced me that The Phantom Tollbooth had more going for it than just its wittiness. The book is also a reaction against modernity: the city, the diminishing freedom of the individual in the urban environment and the disconnection with wonder and curiosity.
There is a scene illustrated by four almost identical drawings by Jules Feiffer. Milo, convinced that they are lost, is advised by Alec, a boy who floats above the ground – he is growing down, not up – to ask the giant. The giant turns out to be an ordinary looking man who claims to be the world’s smallest giant. When asked whether they are lost, the giant suggests going to ask the midget, instead, who suggests asking the fat man, who suggests asking the thin man. All four are evidently the same average looking man, but each in turn claims to either be the world’s tallest midget, the world’s thinnest fat man or the world’s fattest thin man. Not only is Juster playing with words here but he is making a serious point. The man who is neither, a giant, a midget, neither thin nor fat, explains,
I can hold four jobs at once. To exist, the man lives disconnected from his own reality and his relationship with the world is predicated upon its perspective of him. It’s a point Juster has already made with the introduction of Alec, the boy who has floated at the same height above the ground since his birth, whose feet will one day touch the ground when he is fully grown. As such, Alec always sees with the perspective on an adult, while Milo’s perspective is constantly changing:
Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things different? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.
It’s one of those moments that Maurice Sendak describes when he talks of the book
[abounding] in right notes all over the place. Because if The Phantom Tollbooth is about anything, it is about challenging perspectives: forcing its reader to see the world anew; about questioning what we think we know and being alive to what is around us.
To this end we a have scene with the orchestra which plays the rising of the sun and the transmutation of darkness into the colours of the world. Juster, who experienced synaesthesia in his younger life – the condition which results in one form of sense input stimulating other sensory experiences – describes this how Chroma the Great, the conductor of this orchestra of a thousand musicians, conjures a silent symphony from his musicians to evoke the colours of the world into existence. Juster’s fantasy provokes a sense of wonder from the daily but wondrous workings of the universe.
Apart from the obvious comparisons to Alice in Wonderland – The Phantom Tollbooth’s twists of logic and wordplay – it has also been compared to other works like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Bunyan’s The Pilgrims Progress. It seems a stretch for a slight children’s book, but Gulliver’s journeys to remote lands were meant to be darkly satirical (despite Fleischer’s cute 1939 animated feature) and Bunyan’s world, featuring places like the Hill of Difficulty and the Slough of Despond, mean the allegorical comparison is an obvious one to make. The Phantom Tollbooth is both a witty kid book that has something to say about the importance of learning and the danger of making assumptions, but I think it is also a satirical work that considers our modern world’s disconnect with things that matter.
In the end, the only way to appreciate a book like this is to read it. To have the puns explained and the twists of logic and allegorical allusions examined in a review would only drain the life from the book. This is a fantasy, a quest, an affirmation of the worth of knowledge and ultimately of the self. I could go so far to say that this book is a product of the Enlightenment, which would sound overly grand, yet it is true. I’m not sure how big a following this book has in America, but it has remained in print for nearly sixty years. My own feeling is that it is not as popular in Australia. Perhaps if that new movie ever gets made the book might find a whole new generation of readers. I hope so.
Then perhaps you can help us decide which road to take, said Milo.
By all means, he replied happily.
There’s nothing to it. If a small car carrying three people at thirty miles an hour for ten minutes along a road five miles long at 11:35 in the morning starts at the same time as three people who have been traveling in a little automobile at twenty miles an hour for fifteen minutes on another road exactly twice as long as one half the distance of the other, while a dog, a bug, and a boy travel an equal distance in the same time or the same distance in an equal time along a third road in mid-October, then which one arrives first and which is the best way to go?
Seventeen! shouted the Humbug, scribbling furiously on a piece of paper.
Well, I’m not sure, but – Milo stammered after several minutes of frantic figuring.
You’ll have to do better than that, scolded the Dodecahedron,
or you’ll never know how far you’ve gone or whether or not you’ve ever gotten there.
I’m not very good at problems, admitted Milo.
What a shame, sighed the Dodecahedron.
They’re so very useful. Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build Boulder Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?
Where would you find a beaver that big? grumbled the Humbug as his pencil point snapped.
I’m sure I don’t know, he replied,
but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.
That’s absurd, objected Milo, whose head was spinning from all the numbers and questions.
That may be true, he acknowledged,
but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.
All three roads arrive at the same place at the same time, interrupted Tock, who had patiently been doing the first problem.
Correct! shouted the Dodecahedron.
And I’ll take you there myself. Now you can see how important problems are. If you hadn’t done this one properly, you might have gone the wrong way.
I can’t see where I made my mistake, said the Humbug, frantically rechecking his figures.
But if all the roads arrive at the same place at the same time, then aren’t they all the right way? asked Milo.
Certainly not! he shouted, glaring from his most upset face.
They’re all the wrong way. Just because you have a choice, it doesn’t mean that any of them has to be right.