The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 18. Castle in the Air Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Milo, Tock, and the Humbug climb higher and higher, the demons behind them. Milo catches sight of the Castle in the Air—but he and his friends don’t see the sleeping little man at the bottom of the stairs to the castle. He has a ledger and a quill pen. Just as the travelers start to climb the stairs, the man asks them for their names. The man introduces himself as the official Senses Taker; he needs information before he can take their senses. He asks for family information, demographics, and various sizes of clothing items for each person. Humbug gives his information first, then Milo, then Tock.
The Senses Taker initially looks reasonable and like he’s doing a meaningful job, with his ledger and his pen. “Senses Taker” is, after all, a play on the term “census taker,” someone who records basic information about a population. But the fact that he stops Milo and his friends should raise suspicions, since this seems to be what demons in Ignorance do: try to hold up travelers. And what he asks them for reads not just as ridiculous, but as invasive. He never tells them why he needs this information, just that he needs it. It again seems like a mistake on Milo’s part not to ask more questions.
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This information recorded (the demons are gaining on the travelers), the Senses Taker says Milo can continue—after giving more information, such as how much ice cream he can eat in a week and his favorite color. He also gives the travelers forms to fill out. Milo, the Humbug, and Tock fill out the forms as fast as possible and then start up the steps. But the Senses Taker asks them for their destination. Milo says they’re going to the Castle in the Air. The Senses Taker asks why bother, and then suggests Milo would rather see something else. Milo suddenly sees a wonderful circus. Tock can smell a delicious smell, and the Humbug can only hear a huge crowd cheering for him. The three stand in trances, focusing only on what the Senses Taker is showing them.
Now the Senses Taker is asking for truly ridiculous information—but as with the Terrible Trivium, this seems designed to distract and slow down Milo and his friends. Complacency, the novel shows, is by no means the only enemy of education and learning. Rather, it works alongside busy work, pointless tasks, and other things that distract a person from what they really should be doing. The pun of the Senses Taker’s name comes to light here, when he robs the travelers of the ability to use their senses to see the real world—he’s not a census taker, which is what it sounds and looks like he should be.
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The demons get closer and closer, but Milo, Tock, and the Humbug don’t notice.  Milo is so engrossed that his bag of gifts slips off his shoulder and the package of sounds breaks open. Laughs fill the air and, suddenly, Milo, Tock, and the Humbug are laughing and no longer paying attention to the Senses Taker. They realize they’ve been tricked, but the Senses Taker says he is the Senses Taker—his job is to help people find what they’re not looking for and steal their sense of purpose. The only thing saving Milo is the laughter. If Milo can hear laughter, the Senses Taker can’t take his sense of humor.
Just as with the other demons Milo has encountered, the Senses Taker isn’t all bad—he’s still capable of teaching Milo an important lesson. He proposes that it’s important to have a sense of humor, as that will help keep a person on track. The novel itself is, in a way, a lesson in how people can cultivate a sense of humor in themselves by learning enough about language to understand puns and wordplay, so what the Senses Taker has to say makes sense.
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Seeing the demons, the Humbug leads the others up the stairs. The demons are right behind them now. Finally, they break through the clouds and enter through the castle gates. Two sweet voices greet Milo, Tock, and the Humbug. The two women are clearly the Princess of Pure Reason and the Princess of Sweet Rhyme. Milo says they’ve come to rescue the princesses. The princesses assure him that the demons won’t enter the castle, and they’ll all get down soon. They suggest the travelers rest. Tock instantly falls asleep, as does the Humbug.
Milo is almost done with his quest—and now he can take a moment to rest in the presence of Rhyme and Reason. The simple fact that the princesses are here suggests that Milo might finally get some reasonable answers to his many questions. Milo having made it at all is a mark of his tenacity and his newfound belief that education is meaningful and worthwhile.
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Milo climbs onto the couch between the princesses and apologizes for taking so long. He made mistakes that slowed them down. Reason assures him that mistakes are fine, so long as he learns from them. Milo sighs that there’s so much to learn, but Rhyme says that learning isn’t even the most important thing. Rather, what’s more important is knowing what to do with what one learns, and learning why you have to learn. Milo complains that so much of what he learns seems pointless. Reason, though, says that everything has a purpose and affects others. Just as one person being happy can make others happy, learning something makes the world richer. Rhyme adds that Milo will reach every place on the map he’d like to go, all because he’s learning things that will help him out tomorrow.
Here, Rhyme and Reason distill many of the novel’s ideas about education. Reason validates the idea that mistakes are fine—as Milo discovered when talking to the demons, making the mistake of trusting them allowed him to demonstrate his skills and gain mastery over them. And then, both princesses say that learning doesn’t just benefit the person learning. It benefits everyone, as it creates a bigger knowledge pool for people to learn from. And even if something doesn’t seem useful in the moment, it may become useful later—as when Milo used math to best the Trivium.
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Milo has another question, but at that moment, he hears something chopping. The demons are cutting the stairway loose, and the princesses suggest they leave. Milo notes that time flies and Tock offers to carry everyone down. Rhyme and Reason climb onto Tock’s back, while Milo and the Humbug can hold onto his tail. The Humbug asks what they’ll do with the Castle in the Air. The princesses insist they should let it go. It’s beautiful, but it’s still a prison. With this, Tock’s passengers settle themselves, and he leaps through the window.
Milo’s question is, presumably, whether numbers or words are more important. When nobody can answer this question, it drives home that it’s not really a useful question anyway—both are, as the princesses said years ago, equally important. The way that the princesses frame the Castle in the Air as a prison suggests that readers shouldn’t get too attached to their idea of something. Ideas, they suggest, can trap someone if they’re unwilling to see other perspectives.
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