The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 6. Faintly Macabre’s Story Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Faintly Macabre begins her story. Once upon a time, she says, this land was a frightening wilderness. If anything grew, it was bent and the fruit was inedible. There were evil creatures everywhere, and the land was known as the land of Null. One day, a ship came in from the Sea of Knowledge carrying a young prince. The prince claimed the country in the name of goodness and truth. This infuriated the demons and monsters, so they tried to drive the prince out. By the end of their battle, the prince only had a small bit of land at the edge of the sea. He decided to build a city there.
Since the Land of Null (the land of nothing, essentially) was initially inhabited by evil creatures, this starts to draw connections between evil, nothingness, and by the end, anti-intellectualism. The fruit that doesn’t grow or is inedible speaks to how the novel frames a lack of education: it keeps people (or lands) from becoming useful and productive. When the prince comes from the Sea of Knowledge, it symbolically shows that he’s bringing knowledge and education to an empty land.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Faintly Macabre says that soon, settlers came to the new land and the city grew progressively larger. The demons and monsters continued to attack, but the city continued to expand. Eventually, it became known as the kingdom of Wisdom. The prince, at this point, became the king, and he decided to conquer the rest of the lands. Each spring, he went out with an army to fight the demons. The kingdom grew, the king took a wife, and eventually, they had two sons.
The prince-turned-king’s quest to conquer the land again symbolizes a quest to spread knowledge and make education possible for people. And when the kingdom becomes known as Wisdom, this suggests that through education, a person can become wise and knowledgeable. This is an important lesson for young Milo, who hasn’t prized education in the past.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
When the boys were young adults, the king told them he was getting old, and they must take over the fight to grow the kingdom of Wisdom. One boy went south to build the city of words, Dictionopolis. The other went north and built the city of numbers, Digitopolis. The cities flourished and the demons had to retreat—but the demons still haven’t totally given up. Faintly Macabre explains that the brothers were glad to part ways, as they’re suspicious and jealous. Each believed—and still believes—that their city, and by extension either words or numbers, are more important than wisdom.
By noting that the demons haven’t given up, Faintly Macabre implies that there will always be those who oppose education—even in the real world. Though the brothers are fighting over whether words or numbers are more important, recall that Tock has made it clear what the actual most important thing is: a person’s time. The brothers’ argument is silly on its face, but per the logic of the novel, it also disregards that neither numbers nor words are as important as what a person chooses to do with their time.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
The old king didn’t know how much his sons hated each other, so he remained happy. He was even happier, though, when he discovered two tiny baby girls abandoned under his grape arbor. He’d always wanted a daughter. The king named one baby Rhyme and the other Reason. Soon after, the king died. His sons took over the kingdom and agreed to care for the princesses. One son became Azaz the Unabridged, the king of Dictionopolis. The other became the Mathemagician, king of Digitopolis—but they continued to care for the princesses, who lived in Wisdom and were universally loved.
The princesses Rhyme and Reason represent the abstract idea of “rhyme or reason”—that is, a logical explanation. At this point in the story, when they reside in Wisdom, their location shows that seeing the world with “rhyme or reason”—logic—is part of how a person becomes and stays wise. Note that at first, Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician are loyal enough to their father and their sisters to care for their sisters, per the old king’s wishes. Their love for their sister and father keeps their argument from getting too heated.
Themes
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
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Azaz and the Mathemagician, Faintly Macabre says, would often call on Rhyme and Reason to settle their disputes. But as the years went on, the brothers’ animosity grew. One day, as they fought over whether words or numbers were more significant, the princesses declared that words and numbers are equally important—and the kingdoms should live in peace. The kings, though, weren’t pleased, so they banished the princesses to the Castle in the Air. This is why there’s no rhyme nor reason in this land anymore. Milo asks what happened to the kings. Faintly Macabre says they’ve continued to fight, even as their kingdoms prosper. Wisdom, however, is struggling. Nothing will be right again until the princesses return.
If one looks at the kings’ argument with figurative rhyme and reason, the princesses’ ruling makes sense: people need both numbers and words to communicate. Both are, as the princesses say, extremely important, so the argument is pointless. But because the kings have way more political power than their sisters, they’re able to imprison the princesses in the castle and get rid of figurative rhyme and reason in the Lands Beyond. This explains why Dictionopolis, at least, is so ridiculous: there’s no reason or sensibility to temper the absurdity.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Milo suggests they rescue the princesses, but Faintly Macabre explains that the Castle in the Air is far away and guarded by evil demons. It’s not a task for a boy and a dog—and anyway, it’s not hard to get used to life in prison. She tells Milo to get on with it anyway and explains that he can’t take Officer Shrift seriously. The man just likes putting people in prison, not keeping them imprisoned, so there’s a door in the cell. Milo presses the button the Which points to, which opens a door into the sunshine. He waves at Faintly Macabre as he and Tock step outside. Just then, the king’s advisors rush Milo and Tock: it’s time for the banquet. They all get in the advisors’ vehicle, which “goes without saying” (so they all stop talking, and it moves toward the palace).
Though Faintly Macabre can say intellectually that the princesses should return, she also shows here how complacent she’s become after so long without Rhyme and Reason. This suggests that life without logic is dangerous, because people who don’t think logically are more likely to remain stuck in their ways and accept circumstances that aren’t ideal. Faintly Macabre also shows Milo again that he shouldn’t necessarily take people at their word. Officer Shrift might be imposing despite his small stature, but she makes it clear that he doesn’t have much actual power in Dictionopolis—another symptom of the princesses’ absence. The vehicle that “goes without saying,” meanwhile, is another play on words. If something “goes without saying,” that means it’s obvious—whereas this vehicle literally goes if people stop saying things.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon