Notes on the Phantom Tollbooth

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by Taylor Manigoult

My literary childhood just started this summer when I read The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis for the first time. After that, I felt whimsical, intrigued, and also resentful of my mother for keeping me away from these fantasy worlds. When I was a child she fed me the folktales of African slaves in America, among other socially heavy readings.

The best book I read this summer was a children’s novel called The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. This book didn’t mention post-revolution southern manumission, but was ridiculously didactic by exploring the imaginary world, Lands Beyond.

Before I even explain the fanciful and essentially genius plot, the clever rhetoric must be applauded. If the title of a place or person is not a pun, it’s an idiom, and a profound symbol that speaks not just for the situation it is relevant to, but for the overall themes of the novel. The protagonist is a bored, spoiled (but not bratty) boy. He enters the Lands Beyond by a magical tollbooth, and from then on he is assisted by a dog, a watchdog, named Tock.

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Milo represents the tragic boredom that exists in all of us. It existed in myself as a child. There is a definite message stressing the value of education; all throughout the book Milo thrives by using the lessons he’s learned. The climax of his epic voyage to save the princesses, Rhyme & Reason, is completed only after he survives the treacherous Mountains of Ignorance. He survives this using is recently gained knowledge and sense. These are lessons of common sense, appreciation, and generosity. Tock is the reminder that time is passing by, by continuously making a ticking noise. His whole existence, following his name, symbolizes time, and he, unlike every other character, never gives Milo a gift. His presence is a gift in itself, a crucial lesson that the characters (and many people) were oblivious to.

I read chapter 10 around three times, where Milo enters The City of Reality. While it is said that the city used to be as beautiful as The City of Illusions, when Milo visits, this city has disappeared into oblivion because the citizens were so involved in living their lives in the fastest and most efficient ways possible, they started to only look down while walking as they learned they moved quicker this way. Of course, when the city stopped being appreciated, it withered away.

Check out this map of the lands that Milo traveled through:

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