The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 12. The Silent Valley Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Milo, Tock, and the Humbug think the valley is lovely and have no idea what Dr. Dischord was so upset about. But just then, something imperceptible changes. Milo opens his mouth to ask what happened—but no sound comes out. Now, Tock’s clock isn’t ticking and the Humbug isn’t singing. There’s no sound anywhere. The Humbug panics as Milo slows down. Suddenly, the three find themselves in the middle of a silent protest march. People are (silently) singing and shouting, and holding signs that say things like, “It’s laudable to be audible.” The protesters are pulling a cannon behind them. Aside from the protestors, and the silence, the valley looks very normal.
Where Dr. Dischord presented one end of a spectrum (where all noises are loud and obnoxious), the Valley of Sound presents the other end, where there’s no sound at all. And given Milo and his friends’ reactions, this is perhaps even more unsettling than Dr. Dischord’s sounds. Given that they end up in the middle of this silent protest, it becomes clear that people in the valley aren’t pleased with the state of affairs. Sound, the novel suggests, is necessary—but perhaps not in the way that Dr. Dischord would like it to be.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
As the protestors reach the car, several people hold up placards welcoming Milo to the Valley of Sound and begging him to help them. Milo, of course, can’t respond, but placards announce that someone is going to tell the terrible story of the valley. Someone writes on a blackboard to tell the story.
It's worth noting that without sound, people here struggle to communicate. Milo can’t really consent to hear the story, or ask to hear it. But it does show how important words are when the valley’s residents use the blackboard to tell the story using the written word.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
The person writes that someone called the Soundkeeper lives in this valley. The king of Wisdom appointed her the guardian of all noises years ago. She ruled well for a long time and generously gave people the sounds they needed, such as creaking for hinges and bubbling for stew pots. After the sounds were used, the Soundkeeper would catalogue them in her fortress. But then, things began to change. People arrived with sounds that weren’t so nice, and people got too busy to listen. People stopped laughing and singing, which worried the Soundkeeper. This started happening when Rhyme and Reason were banished.
This person’s story begins in much the same way that Faintly Macabre’s did when she told Milo about her downfall. However, while Faintly Macabre was the one to blame for taking away people’s words, here, the storyteller suggests that the problem arose with people being unable to appreciate nice sounds, like laughing and singing. This aligns those in this valley more with the people in Reality, whose city disappeared when they stopped noticing it. But again, Rhyme and Reason’s absence is the culprit here.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
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The person continues and writes that then, Dr. Dischord and the DYNNE came to the valley, promising to cure everyone. He gave everyone medicine—and all the good noise disappeared. The Soundkeeper angrily chased Dr. Dischord from the valley, and then she banished all sounds. It’s been this way ever since. The people need Milo’s help to attack the fortress and free sound. Milo’s task is to visit the Soundkeeper and bring back a sound to go in the cannon. Milo agrees to go.
By “curing” everyone and getting rid of good sounds, Dr. Dischord upset the balance in the valley. But the Soundkeeper took things a step further when she took all sound away—this is something the novel implies upsets the balance in the valley even more than Dr. Dischord’s actions. And in this passage, the Soundkeeper reads as selfish, just as Faintly Macabre was, though her reasoning is still a mystery.
Themes
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Minutes later, Milo knocks on the fortress door by slipping a note reading “Knock, knock” under the door. The door opens and a voice calls him into the parlor, where the Soundkeeper sits next to a huge silent radio. She says she has a busy listening schedule of silence and quiet for the day. The Soundkeeper insists that silence is beautiful—the silence as a storm ends, the silence before dawn, or the quiet of a nighttime country road. The phone begins to ring, but she explains she’s not going to answer it. She calls herself to check in, and she’s not going to interrupt this radio program.
Milo’s note is humorous, because while it makes sense in a valley where things are silent, it’s still an unexpected way to request entry. Though the Soundkeeper is perhaps right that silence can be beautiful, she’s also missing an important point here: that the silence after the storm, for instance, is only beautiful because it contrasts so greatly with the noisy storm that came before it. And clearly, she understands that she needs sound, or she wouldn’t be calling herself to check in.
Themes
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Milo politely asks how the Soundkeeper is doing. She says she’s not doing well, but she suggests that Milo must want to tour the vaults. She leads him away, the bells and chimes sewn onto her clothing jingling softly. The Soundkeeper takes Milo down an elevator to a huge vault filled with bins and drawers. Every sound is here, including the sound of George Washington whistling as he crossed the Delaware in 1777. She explains that she collects them because otherwise, there would be too much sound in the air for anything to make sense. To demonstrate how it works, she asks Milo to say something and then locates it in an envelope in a cabinet. Impressed, Milo asks for a sound as a souvenir.
Again, the Soundkeeper clearly understands how comforting sound can be—it’s no accident that she has the bells and chimes sewn onto her clothes. She, at least, needs the comfort of being able to hear something. So, this begs the question of why, exactly, she decided to take sound away from everyone living in the Valley of Sound. Showing Milo how sounds are catalogued is absurd, as it portrays a fantastical and impossible way of organizing intangible things.
Themes
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
At first, the Soundkeeper says yes—but then she says it’s against the rules. Milo follows the Soundkeeper to the workshops, where people used to invent all sounds. She demonstrates by hitting a bass drum, which creates six fluffy balls. She puts them in a grinder, adds some powder, and the grinder emits the drum’s booms. Milo claps, which creates pieces of paper. He admires the looms that weave music and gets very excited. But when he asks why the Soundkeeper doesn’t still make sound, she tells him to take the drumbeat out of his pocket and come with her to the parlor so she can tell her story.
The Soundkeeper seems hesitant to keep the sounds for herself, which suggests that she doesn’t actually want to keep sound from people—again calling her reasoning into question. Recall that in the past, Milo has listened to people’s stories but didn’t have much to say about them. Now, though, he’s asking questions and experimenting—a sign that he’s becoming more engaged with, and curious about, the world around him.
Themes
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Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
The Soundkeeper says she doesn’t like keeping the sounds for herself. If people listen to the sounds carefully, they can tell someone a lot. Milo asks if she should just release them, but the Soundkeeper says she can’t—people just use them to make terrible noises. And if people won’t make nice sounds, she won’t let them make any. Milo starts to say, “But,” but he stops. The small word remains trapped in his mouth—he’ll be able to carry it out to the protestors. A minute later, the Soundkeeper sends him on his way.
The Soundkeeper suggests that sounds—and not necessarily words, but non-speech sounds—function much the same way language does. This is another indicator that, perhaps, the argument of whether words or numbers are more important is misguided. The Soundkeeper reads as very selfish, as she’s keeping the sounds for herself. What she’s doing is essentially enforcing censorship—so this shows that censoring people is fundamentally a selfish endeavor.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
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