The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 17. Unwelcoming Committee Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After hours and hours, neither Tock, Milo, nor the Humbug have made much progress. Milo finds this strange—especially since he’s not hungry or tired. He could go on forever. But Milo wishes he could find out how long this will take. At Tock’s suggestion, Milo pulls out his magic staff and figures out how long these tasks will take. When he realizes it’ll take 837 years to finish these tasks, he confronts the man and suggests this doesn’t seem worthwhile or important. The man says that’s the point, just as Tock’s alarm starts to ring. Tock asks why they should bother, and the man says that it’s most important to do unimportant things—that way, you’ll never get where you’re going.
Milo’s journey into Ignorance is, essentially, a drawn-out practical test, where he has to show that he’s internalized the concepts he’s learned along his journey. Here, he learns that math is useful, and it does have an important purpose: helping him figure out how long a pointless task like this is going to take. When Tock’s alarm clock goes off, it’s a signal that these tasks are indeed pointless; Tock is, perhaps unconsciously, warning Milo (and readers) of this fact in his capacity as a watchdog.
Themes
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Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
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Milo gasps, and the man finally introduces himself: he’s the Terrible Trivium, the demon of worthless jobs and petty tasks. He orders Milo and Tock not to leave, but Milo asks why people should only do unimportant things. (He now realizes how much time he spends doing unimportant things.) The Terrible Trivium insists it saves time and means you never have to do the difficult, important tasks. And if you don’t have a “dreadful” magic staff, people have no idea how much time they waste. He starts to step forward and asks Milo to stay and become a “monster of habit.” 
Even though the Terrible Trivium is evil, he’s still able to teach Milo important things—for instance, Milo now realizes that he often wastes time on unimportant tasks. This means that going forward, Milo will be able to make what the novel suggests are better choices as to how he spends his time. The Terrible Trivium also suggests that math is important, and that relying on a tool like a magic staff (or, in the reader’s world, a calculator) is inferior to doing math mentally or by hand.
Themes
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Milo, Tock, and the Humbug are transfixed—until someone shouts for them to run. They all run, each thinking the other is yelling to run. They wade into a puddle of ooze that turns out to be waist-deep; the Trivium finds a mound of pebbles to count and doesn’t follow. The voice tells Milo and his friends to head straight and step up—but suddenly, they find themselves in the bottom of a deep pit. Annoyed, Milo says the voice said to go up. The voice responds that nobody will get anywhere listening to him; he’s an expert in bad advice. He’s the “long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, big-footed monster,” and he’s terrifying.
Again, Milo, Tock, and the Humbug make the mistake of trusting someone they have no reason to trust, and again it backfires. But this is just another instance where they have the opportunity to learn. As the creature introduces himself, he paints a fearsome picture of a dangerous monster. It doesn’t seem like Milo has yet seen the monster, so this shows how powerful words are—just by using words, this monster is able to frighten Milo and his friends.
Themes
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Tock and the Humbug are scared, but Milo now knows that people aren’t always what they say they are. With his telescope, he peers at the creature—and sees a furry, worried-looking creature. Milo shouts that the creature isn’t a frightening monster, and he asks what kind of demon the creature is. Sobbing, the creature says he’s the Demon of Insincerity. He doesn’t mean anything he says or does, but most people believe him anyway. He curses Milo’s telescope and stomps away. With the demon gone, the three travelers carefully climb up the sides of the pit.
Because Milo knows he has to think critically and gain multiple perspectives after his time with Alec Bings, it’s second nature to him to pull out his telescope. In this way, Milo passes this test with flying colors by not getting drawn into the Demon of Insincerity’s deceitful words. Rather, Milo is able to think for himself and use the tools around him to make a logical, rational decision about what to do.
Themes
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Milo, Tock, and the Humbug travel until they reach a mountain, where they stop to make plans. But then, the mountain suddenly stands up—and they’re in the Gelatinous Giant’s hand. The giant, which looks like a huge bowl of jelly, roars at the travelers, scolding them for disturbing his nap. Milo apologizes; he didn’t see the giant. The giant says that’s understandable, since he looks like whatever is around him. Standing out is dangerous. Seeing that the giant wants to eat them, Milo quickly flatters the giant by insisting he’s too big to be afraid, but the giant says he’s afraid of everything—he acts ferocious to hide that fact. Milo suggests the giant is actually a “fearful demon,” which the giant can’t even agree with (it’s too scary to “make a positive statement”).
The Gelatinous Giant is spineless—he’s afraid to be who he really is and to think for himself. But because he’s big, he still manages to be frightening. This is another lesson for Milo on perspective and thinking critically about what people say. Looking at the giant, Milo perhaps should be afraid—the giant is, after all, much bigger than Milo. But by listening to what the giant says, Milo discovers that he should actually be able to trick the giant using logic, or by trying to get him to agree with something.
Themes
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As the Gelatinous Giant again tries to eat the travelers, Milo asks the giant to help them rescue Rhyme and Reason. The giant refuses; it’ll never work, and change is scary. He’s starting to lose his appetite and suggests he’ll just eat one person, but Milo says he has a better idea. Now the giant looks very ill; ideas are hard to digest. Milo holds up the gift from King Azaz—which sends the giant into fearful hysterics. He sets the travelers down and runs away. By this point, the Wordsnatcher, the Trivium, and the Demon of Insincerity know about Milo, Tock, and the Humbug, and they’ve told the other demons. Now, the demons begin to pursue the travelers so they can “protect Ignorance.” Tock suggests they hurry.
It's interesting that the Gelatinous Giant, who’s arguably an antagonist, expresses much the same kind of complacency that Faintly Macabre did. Complacency, the novel suggests, is one of the biggest enemies of education and learning—and it can show up in allies as well as in enemies. Milo fights back against complacency by continuing to fight to rescue the princesses. And specifically, he fights back here by showing the giant Azaz’s words. New ideas are frightening, he realizes, for those who fear change.
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