When young Milo unexpectedly finds himself traveling through the Lands Beyond, he’s in for a shock. In the Lands Beyond, life is extremely absurd: Milo attends a banquet where he has to literally eat his words (which end up being very unappetizing) and Dr. Dischord creates all the loud, obnoxious sounds in existence. But not all of the absurdity in the Lands Beyond is fun or humorous: two warring kings argue about whether words or numbers are more important, entire valleys are sworn to complete silence, and some cities have disappeared after their residents stopped noticing the world around them. As Milo travels through the Lands Beyond, he hears the same thing over and over again from the various characters he meets: that things have only gotten so horribly absurd because the princesses, Rhyme and Reason, have been imprisoned, and so what they stand for—rhyme and reason—no longer exists in the Lands Beyond. While Milo embarks on his quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason and return them to the Lands Beyond, he discovers, essentially, the importance of balance. Absurdity isn’t a bad thing, the novel suggests—indeed, it can be fun when it exists alongside reason. But without reason to temper it, the novel shows how absurdity can morph from entertaining into something far more sinister: senselessness and, in some cases, censorship.
Through characters’ stories of how things were before Rhyme and Reason were imprisoned, the novel shows how a combination of rhyme, reason, and absurdity makes life functional and also fun. Faintly Macabre, for instance, explains how the former king of Wisdom found the baby princesses and how, with the princesses’ help, the kingdom of Wisdom functioned effectively and was a fun, beautiful place to live. With Rhyme and Reason making up a high court of sorts, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician were still fighting over whether words or numbers were superior, but their fight seemed more good-natured and less of a fight to the death. Residents throughout the kingdom, as in the city Reality, were able to appreciate their beautiful cities and landscapes, and it was easier for people from different places, with different priorities, to communicate effectively with each other. These stories of times past show the importance of balance. Life can be silly, and life can be ridiculous—but this isn’t a bad thing if life is still governed by reason and sensibility. According to the novel, the problem comes when rhyme and reason disappear entirely.
Without Rhyme and Reason, however, the novel shows how quickly life can digress into senselessness. King Azaz the Unabridged and his advisors, for instance, suggest that Milo has such a hard time navigating the ridiculousness in Dictionopolis because the princesses’ moderating effect no longer exists in the kingdom. This is why Milo doesn’t realize he’ll have to literally eat his words, which results in him having to try to figure out how to eat beautiful rays of sunlight (when he suggests a “light meal”) as well as platters of steaming squares (when Milo suggests they eat a “square meal”). Milo’s plight is funny, but it also shows that it’s nearly impossible to function in a world where there is no sense. More sinister is Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician’s argument over whether words or numbers are more important. Both are, of course, necessary to modern life—people speak and communicate in words, not exclusively in numbers; and as the Mathemagician points out, numbers are necessary for people to be able to say things like “tea for two.” But because the kings no longer have Rhyme and Reason to advocate for this kind of balance, their argument tips over into ridiculousness.
Finally, the novel illustrates the worst-case scenario, in which a lack of rhyme and reason leads to censorship. This idea shows up in various places throughout the novel, as when the Lethargians first inform Milo that thinking is illegal in the Doldrums. As Milo points out to the Lethargians, this is ridiculous—everyone thinks. But outlawing thinking, even if it’s just in name and not actually enforceable, shows how censorship and control can make it impossible to be rational, reasonable, or even make decisions about one’s own life. If one is to follow the rules of the Doldrums and remain there, the novel suggests, a person will waste their life away—without thinking, there’s no fun and no reason. Milo encounters a different kind of censorship in the Valley of Sound. There, not long after the princesses were imprisoned, residents began moving to the cities and stopped appreciating the beautiful sounds of everyday life. When a man named Dr. Dischord made it so the residents couldn’t hear anything but terrible sounds, the Soundkeeper took all sound away—so when Milo enters the valley, it’s entirely silent. And Faintly Macabre says that much the same thing happened in Dictionopolis when she, as the Official Which, began to hoard words, leading to forced silence and economic depression (because people could no longer buy or sell words in the market). Through these examples, the novel proposes that censorship itself is ridiculous and senseless—and it’s selfish of the person enforcing censorship to do so. Censorship, Milo finds, robs people of their relationships, their livelihoods, and their ability to dictate the course of their life. And this is why balance between absurdity and reason is so important. When both qualities exist in healthy amounts, life has parameters, but life can also be fun and exciting. But when life leans too much in one direction or the other, it’s all too easy for people to become isolated, unthinking, and unable to communicate.
Absurdity vs. Reason ThemeTracker
Absurdity vs. Reason Quotes in The Phantom Tollbooth
“That’s a ridiculous law,” said Milo, quite indignantly. “Everybody thinks.”
“We don’t,” shouted the Lethargians at once.
“And most of the time you don’t,” said a yellow one sitting in a daffodil. “That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.” And with that he toppled out of the flower and fell snoring into the grass.
Milo couldn’t help laughing at the little creature’s strange behavior, even though he knew it might be rude.
“Stop that at once,” ordered the plaid one clinging to his stocking. “Laughing is against the law.”
“Our job,” said the count, “is to see that all the words sold are proper ones, for it wouldn’t do to sell someone a word that had no meaning or didn’t exist at all. For instance, if you bought a word like ghlbtsk, where would you use it?”
“It would be difficult,” thought Milo—but there were so many words that were difficult, and he knew hardly any of them.
“But we never choose which ones to use,” explained the earl as they walked toward the market stalls, “for as long as they mean what they mean to mean we don’t care if they make sense or nonsense.”
“Innocence or magnificence,” added the count.
“That was all many years ago,” she continued; “but they never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many.”
“‘Words and numbers are of equal value for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars. Therefore, let both kingdoms live in peace.’”
“Everyone was pleased with the verdict. Everyone, that is, but the brothers, who were beside themselves with anger.
“‘What good are these girls if they cannot settle an argument in someone’s favor?’ they growled, since both were more interested in their own advantage than in the truth.”
“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.”
“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”
“Slowly at first, and then in a rush, more people came to settle here and brought with them new ways and new sounds, some very beautiful and some less so. But everyone was so busy with the things that had to be done that they scarcely had time to listen at all. And, as you know, a sound which is not heard disappears forever and is not to be found again.
“People laughed less and grumbled more, sang less and shouted more, and the sounds they made grew louder and uglier. It became difficult to hear even the birds or the breeze, and soon everyone stopped listening for them.”
“It doesn’t make me happy to hold back the sounds,” she began softly, “for if we listen to them carefully they can sometimes tell us things far better than words.”
“But if that is so,” asked Milo—and he had no doubt that it was—“shouldn’t you release them?”
“NEVER!” she cried. “They just use them to make horrible noises which are ugly to see and worse to hear. I leave all that to Dr. Dischord and that awful, awful DYNNE.”
“But some noises are good sounds, aren’t they?” he insisted.
“That may be true,” she replied stubbornly, “but if they won’t make the sounds that I like, they won’t make any.”
“But it’s all my fault. For you can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”
“What a shame,” sighed the Dodecahedron. “[Problems are] so very useful. Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build Boulder Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one-foot tail?”
“Where would you find a beaver that big?” grumbled the Humbug as his pencil point snapped.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”
“That’s absurd,” objected Milo (…)
“That may be true,” he acknowledged, “but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.”
“How did you do that?” gasped Milo.
“There’s nothing to it,” they all said in chorus, “if you have a magic staff.” Then six of them canceled themselves out and simply disappeared.
“But it’s only a big pencil,” the Humbug objected, tapping at it with his cane.
“True enough,” agreed the Mathemagician; “but once you learn to use it, there’s no end to what you can do.”
“But that can never be,” said Milo, jumping to his feet.
“Don’t be too sure,” said the child patiently, “for one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see,” he went on, “it’s very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.”
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin—if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you should really be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”
“I’m the demon of insincerity,” he sobbed. I don’t mean what I say, I don’t mean what I do, and I don’t mean what I am. Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there, but you and your awful telescope have spoiled everything. I’m going home.” And, crying hysterically, he stamped off in a huff.
“It certainly pays to have a good look at things,” observed Milo as he wrapped up the telescope with great care.
“And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
“And remember also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
“I think I understand,” Milo said, still full of questions and thoughts; “but which is the most important—”
“But what about the Castle in the Air?” the bug objected, not very pleased with the arrangement.
“Let it drift away,” said Rhyme.
“And good riddance,” added Reason, for no matter how beautiful it seems, it’s still nothing but a prison.”