The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 8. The Humbug Volunteers Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Everyone is extremely full. As people lick their spoons, the Humbug remarks that the meal was elegant. Then, he suddenly asks Milo to find him water for his indigestion. Milo suggests he ate too much too fast. The Humbug mutters in agreement and suggests he should’ve eaten too little too slowly. He falls off his chair as King Azaz leaps up—and as everyone else aside from Milo, Tock, and the Humbug run out of the palace. King Azaz begins a speech, but Milo meekly points out that nobody is left. With a sigh, the king says this happens all the time. Everyone went to dinner; the king will follow soon.
The Humbug likes to say things intended to make him sound educated and intelligent—but really, they make him look pompous and out of touch. This proves Faintly Macabre’s point that using too many words doesn’t make a person better. The events after the banquet again illustrate how ridiculous and nonsensical Dictionopolis is. To Milo, all of this is very strange and impossible to follow. Why did everyone leave? Why did Azaz try to make a speech to an empty room? All of this is left ambiguous, so readers are just as confused as Milo is.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Milo wants to know how they can possibly eat dinner after a banquet. King Azaz shouts that indeed, that’s scandalous—people must eat dinner before the banquet in the future. Milo insists that’s just as bad, but the Humbug corrects Milo: it’s just as good, if Milo looks on the bright side. Milo admits he’s confused by everyone’s words and doesn’t know where to look. The king agrees with Milo, so the Humbug suggests he pass a law to clarify things.
Because Milo doesn’t have a solid language foundation, he’s struggling in Dictionopolis where everyone speaks in puns and nonsense. What King Azaz is saying is silly: a banquet, of course, is a meal, so it makes little to sense to have another meal before or after a banquet. So although Milo doesn’t have all the tools he needs to navigate Dictionopolis, he does have the common sense to notice when things are illogical.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Milo, though, suggests that King Azaz let Rhyme and Reason return. King Azaz says that would be nice, but it’s impossible because it’d be too difficult. The Humbug, who is “equally at home on either side of an argument,” agrees with King Azaz—and then with Milo’s suggestion that if they really wanted the princesses back, they could make it happen. Uncomfortably, the Humbug says the task is simple for a boy, a dog, and a car if that boy travels through miles of countryside to Digitopolis, gets the Mathemagician to agree to release the princesses, and then makes it through the demon-infested Mountains of Ignorance to the Castle in the Air. The boy would then have to do everything in reverse.
It's interesting that King Azaz seems fine with the princesses returning—perhaps he regrets banishing them in the first place. The Humbug just wants to be liked and look smart, so to him, it matters less what he says and more that someone powerful likes what he’s saying. When the King says it’d be too hard to rescue the princesses, he echoes Faintly Macabre’s complacency when she said that prison isn’t so bad. The novel seems to be suggesting that without “rhyme or reason”—logic—it’s easier to become complacent when things aren’t going well.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
King Azaz says he had no idea it’d be so easy, but Milo says it sounds dangerous. The king says there’s one more problem—but he can only tell Milo about it when Milo returns. At this, the king claps and waiters remove everything in the hall—and then the hall itself, leaving everyone standing in the market place. Azaz says he can’t go himself, but he offers Milo a gift: a box that will offer him protection. The box contains all the words King Azaz knows. Milo won’t need all of them, but it’ll allow him to ask and answer all questions. He just has to use the right words in the right places.
Despite how ridiculous King Azaz often seems, giving Milo the gift of so many words reads as extremely wise. This is especially true when he notes that Milo can use the words to both ask and answer questions, and when he says it’s essential to use the words properly. In other words, King Azaz still knows what it’s like to live in a land ruled by rhyme and reason. Most of the time, though, he just doesn’t.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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King Azaz walks Milo to his car and says that the Humbug will accompany Milo and Tock. The Humbug is shocked, but the king insists the Humbug is resourceful and loyal. This flatters the Humbug into agreeing. Tock isn’t convinced this is a good idea, but the party climbs in the car and drives off as the people of Dictionopolis cheer.
Again, Tock is one of the novel’s most sensible characters, so it’s not surprising that he’s not thrilled to have the Humbug along—the Humbug wants to flatter others and curry favor, not actually do anything difficult. So having him along will provide some comic relief, since he and Tock are on totally opposite sides of this divide.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon