In literature, entryways into fantastic other worlds come in all shapes and sizes.
In The Chronicles of Narnia, the kids escape dreary old England through the back of a magical wardrobe. In H.G. Well’s classic, The Time Machine, the transporting device actually turns out to be … well, a time machine, a contraption put together, one guesses, with wheezing steampunk springs and gaskets. In Harry Potter books, a port key to a distant location might be some old pair of socks or a lost comb or Ron Weasley’s underwear—anything, really, that might be enchanted to allow fantastic passage from one place to another.
In 1961, a strange book came out telling of a normal, bored kid named Milo who gets home from school one day to find a box in his room. In a few paragraphs, Milo assembles from that box, like the world’s biggest origami, a cardboard tollbooth, complete with a fine little electric car—a preVolting development.
Milo drops a coin into the toll booth and drives through. He’s immediately in a place that many reviewers for many years have compared to Alice’s Wonderland—a world where logic is logical but nonsensical, and where what you actually know in your head and heart matters more than spells and wands.
The architect of all this fun and foolishness actually worked as … an architect. Norton Juster came home to Brooklyn from the U.S. Navy and immersed himself in the grown-up workaday world, designing buildings and dwellings. Bored to the bones by it all, he wrote a children’s book.
It happens, as good stories do, that in his Brooklyn apartment house, an upstairs neighbor named Jules Feiffer had just gotten papers from the Navy. Feiffer got a look at Juster’s story in progress and spontaneously produced a few illustrations for the book, and they nicely fit the fanciful text. The book found a publisher. When The Phantom Tollbooth came out, it drew children like a magnet—surely one of the most curious books to ever captivate the juvenile mind.
The Phantom Tollbooth, like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, gives us the story of a naïf, this boy Milo, and his quest of discovery and self-reliance. The world beyond the toll booth has no wizards and dragons, at least in the traditional sense. Milo’s car takes him into a completely metaphorical land called The Kingdom of Wisdom, a place in turmoil because two beautiful princesses of the kingdom, called Rhyme and Reason, have been taken away, leaving discombobulation and bumfuzzlement.
In the Kingdom, rival potentates—King Azaz the Unabridged and The Mathemagician—preside over Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively. In Dictionopolis, letters spell power and are believed to be the most important things on earth. In Digitopolis, numbers, of course, add up to influence. Without the sisters, Rhyme and Reason, the two kingdoms have no harmony, the center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, etc. Milo, as good quests will have it, finds himself tasked with bringing these princesses back from the Land of Ignorance to restore peace, love, understanding, and other nicklowian virtues to the world.
Milo’s companions, introduced in clever chapters, turn out to be Tock, a watchdog—literally, a sober, voice-of-reason canine with a clock for a belly—and a Humbug, a wheedling, blustering, all-too-human gasbag … or gasbug. These three heroes set off to rescue princesses, and readers settle back for a good old-fashioned morality play … not about religion, but the great good that learning can bring.
The hero’s quest leads to adventures Thick and Fast. Milo and his retinue meet memorably imaginative characters, such as a maestro named Chroma the Great who conducts all the colors of the world instead of musical notes. They meet a boy named Alex Bing, or most of a boy, anyway—he’s .58 of a boy, to be precise, because the average household has 2.58 kids and Alex’s family already had two kids when he came along, so he’s a .58 child. The travelers encounter a perfectly ordinary-looking chap who introduces himself as the thinnest fat man in the world AND the fattest thin man in the world. Things, as Alice says in her own book, get curiouser and curiouser.
In time, Milo, Tock and Humbug reach the Land of Ignorance, their party happily made wiser through lessons learned en route. But as you might expect, Ignorance presents some real problems—a faceless man, for instance, who announces himself thus: “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Our trio meets the Senses Taker, who distracts them from their quest with inane and trivial questions. As Odyssey found with the narcotic lethargy of the Lotus Eaters, apathetic distraction can cost lives. Almost, anyway.
You get the idea by now. The Phantom Tollbooth is a primer on the worth of pure knowledge, of learning just for learning’s sake. Listen to this exchange between the beautiful princesses and Milo, when the heroes of our story have finally made their way against long odds (and no doubt by odd longs, if Punster Juster were writing it) to Rhyme and Reason.
“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”
“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
“And remember, also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
Bingo, good Paste reader. There’s your moral, and it’s a very moral book, this, an old-fashioned, didactic, sermonizing, no-smile-left-behind lecture of a fable. Don’t let that make you think it isn’t whopping good fun. Any reader who cares a fig for words will find delight here.
Ever wonder how to reach the Island of Conclusions? You jump to it, of course. Or consider this string of nonsensical delight, courtesy of The Dodecahedron, a 12-faced character our travelers encounter on first entering the number kingdom, Digitopolis.
“…perhaps you can help us decide which road to take,” said Milo.
“By all means,” the Dodecahedron 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.”
If that last bit sounds a lot like the nonsensical Catch-22isms of Alice through that other kind of tollbooth—that looking-glass—in Lewis Carroll’s tale, there’s a reason. Consider this exchange between the Queen and Alice in the second chapter of Through the Looking Glass:
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
The sense of whimsy and the playful logic of The Phantom Tollbooth have delighted grandparents and their children and then their children now for a half century. What’s the secret behind all the literary legerdemain?
It’s a surprise to learn of a huge influence on both Juster and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, later a celebrity in his own right for his cartoons and plays.
Here’s part of an interview with the two artists led by writer Adam Gopnik and published in the October 17, 2011, issue of New Yorker:
The other shaping experience was listening to the radio. As both artists stress, having a pure stream of sound as your major source of entertainment meant that your mind was already working imaginatively, without your necessarily realizing it. “It’s impossible today!” Feiffer said. “Everything is visual. We had thought balloons in our heads that played jazz riffs off what we read and what we heard, and that’s what led to the imaginative restructuring of reality.”
Juster agreed: “Sometimes I go into schools now and say, Let me start a story. And what you get from the kids is almost exactly what comes out of the TV set. The kids have very few images of their own. We came home from school, listened to hours of fifteen-minute serials, Jack Armstrong and Don Winslow, and it was great.”
Reader, this clearly means you have two choices to build your kids a better brain. One: Tune in a good radio station. Put your kids in front of the speakers. Turn up the volume.
Two: Open a good book.
Who needs a looking glass or a wardrobe or a paper tollbooth to escape to another reality? You can travel anyplace you want, whether it exists or doesn’t, simply by opening the pages.
Charles McNair is the author of the novel Land O’ Goshen and is Books Editor at Paste Magazine.