Literature / The Phantom Tollbooth

There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

A classic children's novel by Norton Juster (and illustrated in most versions by Jules Feiffer) that has also become a favourite among adults for its intricate cleverness, rapid-fire wit and boundless imagination.

Milo is a bored little boy. Then one day he comes home from school (he's a latch-key kid) and discovers a very singular box in his room. Within are the pieces to construct a toy tollbooth. Having nothing better to do, he follows the included instructions, drives through the tollbooth in his toy car, and suddenly finds himself driving down a road under a distant sky.

Along his surprising journey he meets such colourful characters as King Azaz the Unabridged, King of Dictionopolis and the realm of words; the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis and everything number-related; Tock, the loyal watch dog (literally); the oversized Spelling Bee; the shifty-but-lovable Humbug; Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which; Chroma the Great, conductor of the sunrise; the Soundkeeper, who greedily keeps all sound to herself; and the sadly missing Princesses Rhyme and Reason, locked in the Castle in the Air and desperately in need of rescue from the demons of the Mountains of Ignorance.

There is also a movie version, produced and co-directed by the legendary Chuck Jones (his only non-compilation feature). Juster is on record as disliking the film intensely, possibly because a lot of his incidental wordplay and allusion is streamlined out in favor of some catchy but extremely Seventies songs about finding your dreams by following your heart. Nevertheless, there's a lot to be said for Jones' typically cute and energetic character designs, especially the ones that have Mel Blanc's voices.

In 2010 a new film version was announced to be in the early stages of pre-production, but as of 2013 appears to have fallen into Development Hell.

The book provides examples of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: The protesting people of the Valley of Sound have a cannon they wish to use to break down the walls of the Soundkeeper's fortress to release the sounds. Because of the nature of the fortress (and the Soundkeeper's sense of irony), the only weapon that will do this is a sound. So Milo is enlisted to bring one out...and in the end it turns out to be one little word of protest he didn't get to say: "But." It still does the trick, soundlessly.
  • Absurdly Long Stairway: Digitopolis's staircase to Infinity.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: "If we'd told you [the quest was impossible] might not have gone—and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."
  • Adult Fear: The foreword discusses, among other things, how monsters like the Terrible Trivium become this to adult readers or re-readers.
  • An Aesop: The page quote opens the book. At the end, the tollbooth vanishes, but on reflection, and looking around, Milo wonders how he would have found the time to go back even if it hadn't, when there was so much to do right there.
  • Affably Evil: The Terrible Trivium is a polite, refined gentleman — so polite and refined, you wouldn't mind doing a few minor, insignificant tasks for him. Heck, you can spare a few thousand years, right?
  • Agree to Disagree: How Milo gets the Mathemagician's permission to rescue the princesses, by realizing that agreeing to do this with Azaz is actually still agreement.
  • Alphabet Architecture: The buildings of Dictionopolis.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Each of the kingdom's characters represent a phrase of speech, Rhyme and Reason are obvious ones. The demons of Ignorance are also this.
  • The Atoner: King Azaz is contrite about the exile of his sisters and the continued decline of his realm, and he's eager to see Milo succeed. The Mathemagician eventually comes around as well, but he's rather stubborn at first due to the fact that Azaz is on board with the idea.
  • Backstory
  • Big Damn Heroes: Just when the terrible creatures of Ignorance are about to descend on Milo, Tock, the Humbug and the princesses, the cavalry comes in the form of damn near every single person our heroes came across on their journey.
  • The Blank: The Terrible Trivium.
  • A Boy and His X: A boy and his watchdog.
  • Cardboard Prison: The prison of Dictionopolis, which has a switch that opens up an entire wall to allow people to freely walk out. Lampshaded by Faintly Macabre, who notes that Shrift doesn't care about keeping people locked up.
  • The Cavalry: After rescuing the princesses from the Castle in the Air, Milo and his companions are chased down by all the demons of Ignorance, only to be saved at the last second by an army consisting of EVERYONE THEY'VE MET ON THEIR JOURNEY THUS FAR. Phantom Tollbooth could be considered the best example of this trope.
  • Chekhov's Gun: All of the gifts given to Milo by the people he meets in his journey end up being used to free them from the demons and make it to the Castle in the Air—and each in a way perfectly suited to the barrier it overcomes. (The time-consuming task is overcome by an item that can calculate anything; a monster frightened by ideas is driven off by the book of words; a demon which lies about its appearance is overcome by a telescope that sees the truth; and the Senses Taker is beaten by the package of sounds since it provides laughter and the sense of humor, the one sense he can't take.)
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: The cities of Reality and Illusions, in a way.
  • Damsels in Distress: Princesses Rhyme and Reason.
  • Darkest Hour: Yes, Milo and his friends have finally found the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. However, all of the demons that they've bested to get there have called their friends in revenge, and they make a collective assault on all of them, intent to prevent Rhyme and Reason from ever leaving. King Azaz and The Mathemagician then arrive and lead The Cavalry of all the people that Milo and friends met and helped along the way.
  • Divided We Fall
  • Drunk with Power: The backstory of Faintly Macabre, the Not-So-Wicked Which. She used to be in charge of selecting words for everyone to use. However, as the power went more to her head, she hoarded more words for herself, until everyone was forced into silence but her. She was imprisoned, and she willingly stays in the Cardboard Prison until the return of Princesses Rhyme and Reason.
  • Everything's Better with Princesses: Quite literal with the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, of the Kingdom of Wisdom. They are apparently high enough in authority that their brothers King Azaz and the Mathemagician, rulers of their own respective countries, appeal to them when there's a dispute... and once they're banished, Wisdom goes to Hell in a handbasket. It's only after they're rescued in The Quest that the Kingdom becomes sane again... everything is, in fact, better with them in charge.
  • Exact Words: When Milo asks the Mathemagician to show him the biggest number there is, the Mathemagician shows him a number 3 that's twice his own height. Milo corrects himself and asks for the longest number there is, and the Mathemagician shows him a number 8 that's as wide as the 3 was high.
    • Earlier, when Milo is asked what kind of meal he'd like, he asks for "something light" and gets platters filled with literal light. Then he asks for "a square meal" and gets blocks of food that taste awful.
    • He also starts a long windy speech, when asked to by a waiter, then finds he has to "eat his words", as a pile of his own (no doubt rather dry) words are placed before him.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: This is basically the Mathemagician's reaction to Milo pointing out that he has technically been agreeing with his brother King Azaz for over 20 years.
  • The Faceless: The Terrible Trivium, demon of pointless tasks, has no face whatsoever.
  • Fantasy World Map: "The only trouble was that Milo had never heard of any of the places indicated, and even the names sounded most peculiar. 'I don't think there really is such a country.'"
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Terrible Trivium.
  • Forbidden Zone: The Mountains of Ignorance.
  • Foreign Queasine: Played with. In Dictionopolis meals consist of literally eating one's own words, so whether your meal is delicious or horrible depends entirely on what you say. In Digitopolis the food itself tastes good but is hazardous—subtraction stew leaves you hungrier than when you began (because everyone there only eats when they are full until they are empty again).
  • Fun with Acronyms: Inverted. Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord's middle initial stands for "AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE"
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: Embodied by the Triple Demons of Compromise: one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third "exactly like the other two".
  • Got Volunteered: The Humbug basically goads Milo and Tock to undertake the quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason. Turned back on him when King Azaz then notes at how good it is of The Humbug to accompany the two.
  • Grows on Trees: Words do because money doesn't.
  • Here We Go Again: As Milo drives off he hears Azaz and the Mathemagician arguing about the relative value of words and numbers once more and thinks, "Oh dear, I do hope they don't start it all again." One wonders if the entire quest does have to be repeated again and again for every boy or girl who uses the tollbooth...
    • It's probably different each time. Notice all the roads that go off the edge of the map? There's no doubt stuff to do there. Of course, it could be All Just a Dream as well.
  • The Hero's Journey: For a book so light in tone, it's surprising how well it fits: The Call to Adventure (with Refusal of the Call), the quest through an adventurous land with traveling companions, the Mathemagician playing the role of a late-stage Guardian, then a visit to the land of Ignorance (death), and the reluctant Return to normal life, in which he has permanently grown as a result of his journey.
  • Impossible Task:
    • Getting to the land of Infinity. "Just follow that line forever, and when you get to the end, turn left." Or alternately, you can go up a staircase that never ends.
    • Filling out the Senses Taker's questionnaire, which includes such questions as "why you were born", "the schools you haven't attended", "the number of books you read each year", "the number of books you don't read each year", every clothing size you can think of, and then the names and addresses of six people who can verify this information. And it should go without saying that these forms need to be filled out in triplicate and a single mistake means you have to write them all over again.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Oh, so, so much.
    Dodecahedron: 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 Hoover Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one-foot tail?
    Humbug: Where would you find a beaver that big?
    Dodecahedron: I'm sure I don't know, but if you did, you'd certainly know what to do with him.
  • Intangible Theft: The Senses Taker is an Obstructive Bureaucrat who takes away the main character's senses. The one sense he can't take away, however, is their sense of humor.
  • In the Doldrums: Trope Namer (kind of) and possibly the Trope Codifier. It's home to the anthropomorphic personifications of boredom, and you get there by not thinking.
  • It Was a Gift: Several people Milo meets give him gifts that prove useful against the demons.
  • Judge, Jury and Jailer: Officer Shrift. Fortunately for Milo, he only cares about throwing people in prison, not about keeping them there.
  • Kangaroo Court: Unsurprisingly given the above, Officer Shrift runs one of these.
  • The Kingdom: More than one; the kingdom as a whole is ruled by Rhyme and Reason, but there are several other places beyond the tollbooth watched over by someone else.
  • Literal Metaphor: Lots, mainly in Digitopolis. Tock is a watchdog, a dog who's also a watch. The Spelling Bee is a large bee that likes to spell. Half-baked ideas are cakes with debunked proverbs on the frosting. The Senses Taker is a demon who actually takes senses. And many, many more.
  • Logic Bomb: King Azaz and the Mathemagician always disagree with each other on everything, and as a result, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis can't cooperate or even make amends with each other. Milo makes peace by telling the Mathemagician that if this is true, then the two of them are in an agreement — to disagree with each other on everything!
  • Longer-Than-Life Sentence: Officer Shrift regularly sentences offenders to prison terms of millions of years, merely because he can. Subverted in that he's not good at keeping track of time and thus assumes that anyone who escapes his city's Cardboard Prison has already served out his or her sentence.
    "Six million years already? My, how time flies!"
  • Lovable Coward: The Humbug.
  • Never Tell Me the Odds: The quest was literally impossiblebut since nobody told Milo, it became possible.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason finally came in to mediate between their brothers, and they tried to assuage them by declaring them equally important. Azaz and the Mathemagician, each wanting to win the argument, banished their sisters to the Mountains of Ignorance for refusing to declare one better than the other.
  • Non-Action Guy: The Humbug, occasionally bordering on The Load.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Tock and the Humbug.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Tock — his watch makes a ticking sound. It's a sensitive subject for him, and apparently his whole family (his brother Tick makes a tocking sound).
  • Not Quite Flight: Alec Bings has one of the stranger versions of this — he (and his family) are born with their heads at their adult height, and they grow down until they reach the ground. Alec isn't an adult yet, so he appears to be hovering a couple feet off the air. He casually mentions that some people in his family never quite finish growing, and they end up constantly hovering an inch or two from the ground.
  • Not That Kind of Mage: Mathemagician, or so he claims. He does seem able to perform some powerful feats of magic, however.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Senses Taker, who asks incredibly obscure questions.
  • Oxymoronic Being: A few, most obviously Canby — he physically transforms to represent whichever trait he's currently representing. For example, when he's "as tall as can be," he shoots up to a prodigious height; he then shows he's "as short as can be" and immediately shrinks down to nearly nothing.
  • Painting the Frost on Windows: At one point, Milo meets Chroma, a conductor whose orchestra provides color to the world, with each instrument providing a specific color. Upon stopping at Milo's request, everything turns white with black outlines. He also meets the Soundkeeper, whose fortress contains a workshop where sounds are made.
  • Parental Bonus:
    • If you're under the age of 12, it's a given that you're not getting about a fifth of the jokes.
    • The conflict between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis was Juster's jab at the "Two Cultures" mentality described by C. P. Snow; the position taken by Rhyme and Reason is much like that of Snow himself (who was both a physicist and a novelist).
  • Personal Raincloud: The Whether Man has one of these as Milo is leaving Expectations.
  • Princess Classic: Rhyme and Reason.
  • Punny Name: Pretty much everybody. Milo's two greatest companions are a watchdog, which is a dog with a literal clock inside of him, and the Humbug, who is a bug.
  • The Quest: Milo has to find the princesses of Rhyme and Reason before he can go home.
  • Reading Is Cool Aesop: More like "knowledge is cool," but the work applies it to books, and it was first made in book form.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • Feiffer drew the book's pictures because he happened to be living in the same apartment building as Juster at the time of the book's writing.
    • And the origin of the book was that Juster had gotten a grant to write a nonfiction book on architecture but he had an idea for a story that he had to get out of his head. The text describing the cities of Reality and Illusion are the only surviving bits of what he wrote before he got sidetracked (and sidetracking you from what you're supposed to be doing is what the Terrible Trivium does). He reportedly has tried to pay back the grant several times, but can't find anyone who will acknowledge it.
    • In the book, Pfeiffer's sketch of the Whether Man is a portrait/caricature of Juster; evidently revenge for including the Triple Demons of Compromise.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The tollbooth package; "for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he'd ever seen."
  • Shout-Out: Doctor Dischord's personality was a deliberate shout out to Groucho Marx's stage and screen persona.
  • Sibling Rivalry: The conflict between the two brothers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, started with each asserting their preferred discipline's greatness and escalated until they banished their sisters and swore to never agree again.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The Humbug's character in a nutshell.
  • Spiritual Successor: A child who is bored with their surroundings chances upon something unusual and follows it into a world where nonsense reigns supreme...
  • Stealth Pun: Among other examples, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, a bird that lives to misinterpret what others say, is actually native to the land of Context, "but it's such a nasty place, I prefer to spend all my time out of it."
  • Tastes Like Purple/ Shaped Like Itself: While in the Word Market, Milo eats a few letters. The letter A apparently tastes "sweet and juicy, exactly how you'd expect an A to taste like." A similar effect is in place for the visual sounds in the Soundkeeper's vault.
  • Tempting Fate: The Humbug casually remarks, "Nothing could possibly go wrong now", and immediately jumps to Conclusions. Literally.
  • Trapped in Another World: After going through the tollbooth, Milo can only escape if the princesses are rescued.
  • Unfortunate Name: Tock was named by his parents before he was first wound - he actually ticks. It's a sensitive subject for him.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: It's a fun read for kids, despite the fact that a good chunk of the wordplay and references will inevitably go over their heads.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Faintly Macabre isn't mentioned at the end. Neither is the Whether Man, for that matter. Hopefully, Faintly Macabre was let out of prison upon Rhyme and Reason's return.
  • Wonder Child: The princesses were foundlings.
  • World of Pun: There's a "watchdog" called Tock who is a dog with a clock in his abdomen. In the city of Dictionopolis people literally "eat their words" off plates. In order to start a taxi you have to be very very quiet, for it 'goes without saying'. People literally jump to an island called Conclusions. It goes on and on like this.
  • World of Silence: Enforced by the Soundkeeper when she has all the sounds in the Valley Of Sound muted. However, it doesn't stop the people there from protesting.
  • World of Symbolism: With the tollbooth itself guarding the entrance.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: They keep cluttering up the Numbers Mine, along with lots of gemstones of every variety.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: An In-Universe example. Of course, the point was that there is no greatest possible number, but when Milo is for asked the highest number he can think of, he replies, "nine trillion, nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine". Even if he hadn't known that "quadrillion" comes after "trillion" (and not everyone does), with the "999s" he's doing, it should be obvious to him that the next number is ten trillion. It's also implied to be the case with Officer Shrift - as the kingdom of Dictionopolis disdains the use of numbers, Shrift has no idea just how long six million years (Milo's jail sentence) really is.
  • X-Ray Vision: In effect, the main power of Alec Bings - he sees through things. This combines with Power Incontinence and Blessed with Suck - because he always sees through things that are right in front of him, he'll sometimes walk right into trees that he doesn't realize are there.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Despite the grandiose nature of Milo's adventure, he's only gone in the real world for five minutes in the movie. In the book, he's gone for an hour.

The movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: the Lethargians in the book are merely unhelpful small creatures and suggest that Milo rest and not go anywhere - frankly, they were too lethargic to do anything so difficult as trying to stop him physically. The movie Lethargians can liquefy their bodies, and then combine or separate from one another, and use the suggestion of rest only as a ruse, to allow them to either kill Milo or make him one of them. After all, breathing is doing something.
  • Aside Glance
    Humbug: If there's one thing I can't abide, it's a hypocrite.
  • The Blank: In addition to the Terrible Trivium, Rhyme and Reason.
  • The Cameo: When Milo is in class and many people are speaking at once, the voice of Bugs Bunny can be heard. In fact, nearly every famous voice artist of the day, from Daws Butler to June Foray to Candy Candido gets a bit part somewhere in the film.
  • Character Tics: Milo very frequently brushes his hair out of his face.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Instead of returning as The Cavalry, most of Milo's encounters result in his getting a Chekhov's Gun — and all of them get fired to defeat the Demons of Ignorance. He combines all words and all numbers in the Mathemagician's Wand to create a Spear of Truth, which destroys the combined Demon of Ignorance.
  • Comic Trio: While they are actually meant to be taken seriously, the three main protagonists could actually be considered this.
  • Deranged Animation: The Demons of Ignorance truly look insane and sketchy compared to Chuck Jones's usually smooth works.
    • When Milo messes with the sky, it results in this.
  • Disney Death: Tock, of all people, has one before he's revived by the princesses through world healing wave.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: Dr. Dischord insists on explaining - repeatedly! - exactly why The Awful Dynne is named that.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Occurs whenever Milo announces that he's going to the "Castle in the Air." - that is the Demons of Ignorance Berserk Button.
  • Evil Slinks: True for the denizens of the Doldrums.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tock, against the combined Demon of Ignorance. He gets better, though, with the help of Rhyme and Reason.
  • Instant Costume Change: Humbug gets a new outfit while the land gets healed.
  • In the Doldrums: The Doldrums of the Kingdom of Wisdom.
  • Medium Blending: Starts out in live-action San Francisco.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: To get out of Chroma's request to wake him up in the morning, Milo tries to conduct the sunrise himself. As a result, the sky becomes just as chaotic as the rest of the kingdom.
  • Non-Standard Character Design: The Demons of Ignorance are drawn grotesquely and sketchy compared to the smooth and cartoony style of the cast.
  • Not So Harmless: The Lethargians look and act innocuous, until Milo starts to fall fully under the spell of the Doldrums. Then they suddenly start breaking out the Slasher Smiles...
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Officer Shrift does this during his first encounter with Milo.
  • One-Wheeled Wonder: In the animated version, Officer Shrift gets around on a wheel that resembles that of a rolling chair, connected to something that looks like a car jack that can be raised to compensate for his height. It's unclear whether this is a vehicle that he is seated on under his long jacket or a part of him or what.
  • Only Sane Man: After Rhyme and Reason depart, Chroma the Great remains to conduct the sky - but even he must sleep, and since Milo is in a hurry for the next day to come....
  • Our Demons Are Different: The demons here are the Demons of Ignorance - embodiments of every negative trait imaginable.
  • Pain-Powered Leap: King Azaz is asking if there are any volunteers to help Milo on his quest, and at first no one comes forth. However, the Spelling Bee sneaks up and stings the Humbug in the butt, causing the Humbug to stand up suddenly and making everyone think he was volunteering. Later on, in Milo's car Humbug exhibits a delayed reaction and finally leaps up in the air with a scream (and apparently lands right back in the car).
  • Red Herring: Milo gets a bag of "happy"s and "good"s from a vendor in Dictionopolis, and later steals Chroma the Great's conductor's baton after his botched attempt at making a sunrise. Neither sees any use.
  • Tempting Fate: They meet the Demon of Insincerity, a small Chuzzle with a very big mouth. The Humbug declares that the worst is over...and then they run into the far more dangerous Gelatinous Giant.
    Giant: And what have we here? I see...Breakfast!
  • Victorious Chorus: "Rhyme and Reason Reign."
  • Villain Song: "Don't Say There's Nothing to Do in the Doldrums" performed by The Lethargians, a group of sinister lazy slimy creatures (voiced by Mel Blanc and Thurl Ravenscroft).
  • Weaksauce Weakness:All the Demons of Ignorance have a simple weakness which Milo quickly finds - except for the combined Demon. His weakness is Truth...which Milo has, in the form of Azaz's words and the Mathemagician's numbers, which when combined, form the Spear of Truth.
  • World-Healing Wave: Done by Rhyme and Reason after being set free.