The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 7. The Royal Banquet Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At the palace, the king’s advisors lead Milo and Tock up a marble stairway to a palace that looks suspiciously like a giant book standing upright. They wander down mirrored halls and the earl gasps that they must be late as they enter a banquet room. Everyone inside is talking and arguing; Milo recognizes many faces from the market place. The Humbug and the Spelling Bee are arguing in a corner, while Officer Shrift mutters “Guilty” as he wanders around. When he notices Milo, he brightly asks if it’s already been six million years.
Dictionopolis is the city of words, so it makes sense that the palace is book-shaped. That Milo notices this at all shows that he’s starting to pay more attention to the world around him (at the beginning of the book, he didn’t notice any of the buildings around him as he walked home). Officer Shrift’s greeting to Milo shows again how ridiculous and nonsensical things are in the Lands Beyond—it clearly hasn’t been six million years since Milo was imprisoned, so this just highlights how ineffective Officer Shrift is at his job.
Themes
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
With Milo, Tock, and the advisors in attendance, it’s time for the banquet. The Humbug says Milo, as the guest of honor, must choose the menu. As Milo is thinking, trumpets blast and a page announces King Azaz the Unabridged’s arrival. The giant man settles in his throne. Milo studies the man’s long beard and his robes, which have the alphabet embroidered all over them. King Azaz greets Milo and asks what Milo can do to entertain them. He deems Milo “ordinary” when Milo says he can’t sing, dance, tumble, or juggle. King Azaz lists all the things his cabinet members can do, like make mountains out of molehills, split hairs, and leave no stone unturned. Ominously, he says the undersecretary hangs by a thread.
Azaz’s robes illustrate how much he loves words and language, while his great size shows how powerful he is—he’s much bigger, and more knowledgeable about language, than tiny Milo is. And Milo feels even more insignificant when King Azaz insults Milo’s inability to entertain the court. It’s unclear whether Milo has the language skills or vocabulary to understand how funny Azaz’s advisors “abilities” are—essentially, they blow things out of proportion, are pedantic, and are at risk of losing their jobs.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Milo offers that he can count to a thousand, but at this, King Azaz tells him to never mention numbers here. Then, King Azaz and the Humbug ask Milo what they should eat. Remembering that his mother says to eat lightly when you’re a guest, Milo suggests a “light meal.” Waiters instantly rush in with serving platters. They lift the covers to reveal beautiful shafts of light. The Humbug suggests Milo come up with a more filling meal. Milo suggests “a square meal of—” but before he can finish, waiters bring platters piled with edible squares. The Spelling Bee says the squares taste terrible.
Milo might not have been particularly engaged in his life before coming to the Lands Beyond, but he did operate on the assumption that things made sense, and that he didn’t have to speak literally. Here in Dictionopolis, though, Milo has no idea how things work because there is no “rhyme or reason” to make things work normally. Now, when he asks for “light” and “square” meals (meaning a small meal, and a meal that’s nutritionally balanced, respectively), the waiters serve him literal lights and squares. On another note, when Milo is scolded for even mentioning numbers, it shows how specialized Azaz is in his subject area of choice—he isn’t well-rounded, as he’s only knowledgeable in one realm.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Nobody likes the squares, so King Azaz says it’s time for speeches. He tells Milo to go first. Timidly, Milo starts a speech, but the king cuts him off. The Humbug goes next. His speech is simply, “roast turkey, mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream.” Other speakers list food—and when the king claps once everyone has spoken, the waiters bring trays of the food listed in the speeches. The king tells Milo to dig in, but Milo says he had no idea he’d have to eat his words. The king suggests he should’ve made “a tastier speech.”
Milo is, again, operating under totally different expectations for how a banquet like this is supposed to go. Speeches aren’t normally a person’s dinner order, and Milo had no way of knowing that, since nobody told him. So, Milo is certainly at a disadvantage here, but it’s also important to note that nobody thought to let Milo in on some of the local customs. Milo is learning a lot, but mostly just that everything he says is going to be taken literally here.
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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The duke offers Milo somersault (which improves the flavor). Passing the breadbasket, the minister and duke suggest he have a ragamuffin or a synonym bun. As the advisors continue to make suggestions, the earl chokes—and when his fellows tease him, all five start a fistfight under the table. King Azaz threatens to banish all of them, so they stop and apologize. The rest of the meal is silent until the smell of dessert wafts in. The King says the pastry chefs have been working tirelessly in the half bakery. Milo asks what a half bakery is (it’s where half-baked ideas come from). Milo doesn’t know what a half-baked idea is either. By this point, carts have arrived with cakes and everyone jumps up to get one.
Despite their powerful positions, the advisors read as far less mature than Milo, an actual child. It’s possible to see this as yet another symptom of the princesses’ absence, as people are operating without “rhyme or reason.” The advisors are using wordplay with the breadbasket: “ragamuffin” sounds like an edible “muffin” but actually means someone wearing ragged clothes. “Synonym bun” is a play on “cinnamon bun,” with “synonym” humorously meaning a word with a similar definition to another word. These expressions also go right over Milo’s head, because he seems not to know what these words actually mean, just as he struggles to understand what a half-baked idea is. In this case, he discovers that they’re actual cakes that are half-baked, rather than incomplete ideas. When Azaz is so annoyed that Milo doesn’t know any of these things, it shows that Azaz isn’t adept at helping people with a more limited grasp of something figure things out.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
The Humbug says the half-baked ideas are tasty, but not always agreeable. He hands a cake to Milo that’s been iced with the words “THE EARTH IS FLAT.” The Spelling Bee muses that people used to swallow that one, but it’s not popular anymore. He nibbles one that reads, “THE MOON IS MADE OF GREEN CHEESE.” Tock advises Milo not to eat too many so he won’t get sick. Milo decides to wrap one up for later. He selects, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR THE BEST.”
What the Humbug and Tock say about half-baked ideas gets at an important point: half-baked ideas (meaning incomplete ideas) are often nice, but that doesn’t make them true. And eating too many, or taking them too seriously, can lead to serious consequences. Fortunately for Milo, he’s operating with more sense than his fellows, so he knows to treat these ideas with caution and take Tock’s advice.
Themes
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon