The Phantom Tollbooth is a fundamentally silly book filled with puns, witty wordplay, and logic puzzles. At first, the wordplay puzzles young Milo, who isn’t good at spelling and, for that matter, has never cared to learn the meanings of most words. He also doesn’t entirely see the humor in many of the novel’s puns or logic puzzles. So part of Milo’s journey is developing the language skills to find the humor in these things, a quest on which the reader accompanies him. Through the novel’s humor and Milo’s developing understanding of its puns and wordplay, The Phantom Tollbooth makes the point that learning to use words and logic doesn’t have to be stuffy—rather, just like the act of reading, it can be fun.
While The Phantom Tollbooth insists throughout that learning about words and language is important to a person’s ability to function in life, it also shows that without a baseline grasp of language, a person’s sense of humor suffers. This idea plays out most clearly in Dictionopolis, the city of words, which is the first place that Milo visits of his own volition. There, the king’s five advisors all speak together and in turn, with each of them saying exactly the same thing but using different words to do so. Because of this, to readers whose vocabulary lets them understand what’s going on, the advisors are hilarious—especially when Tock mutters that what the advisors are doing is ridiculous and doesn’t actually make them sound intelligent. But to Milo, who doesn’t know what any of the advisors are actually saying, the humor is lost on him. It’s essential, he realizes, to have a baseline level of education in order to understand when things are funny. Indeed, much of the novel’s humor goes right over Milo’s head because he doesn’t have the language, logic, or math skills to realize what’s funny. This, in a way, makes Milo the butt of a joke that readers are in on. While the novel encourages readers to be like Milo (in that they should endeavor to learn whenever possible and see how important it is to do so, as Milo eventually does), the novel also suggests that life is way funnier if one has already gone through this process and is more like Milo at the end of the novel. The novel is, in this sense, a roadmap that shows people how to develop a sense of humor.
The novel also suggests that stuffiness, pretentiousness, and extreme specialization of knowledge is funny and should be laughed at, not aspired to. King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician’s argument about whether words or numbers are superior is serious—it’s what’s ripping the Kingdom of Wisdom apart and making it so ridiculous, after all—but each ruler, because of their intense specialization in one subject area, becomes a laughable figure. When the Mathemagician offers Milo a friendly letter he wrote to his brother, which was returned, he’s enraged because nobody could read it—but the letter is just a random assortment of numbers and is totally unreadable. The Mathemagician is so intent on only using numbers that he humorously makes it impossible to communicate with other people. Similarly, King Azaz’s insistence that in Dictionopolis, they only use numbers when absolutely necessary, reads as ridiculous and humorous. Math is a part of everyday life, whether one likes it or not—and the fact that a king concerned about his kingdom’s wealth and fortune almost refuses to use numbers reads as misguided and closed-minded. This kind of extreme specialization, to the point that a person won’t acknowledge the existence or use of subjects outside their area of expertise, is something the novel frames as ridiculous and even harmful.
Finally, The Phantom Tollbooth shows that learning (and specifically, learning to read) should be fun by presenting a story that’s in turn exciting, funny, and ridiculous. Reading, it suggests, doesn’t have to be stuffy. Whether Tock is asking to go for a ride in the car or Milo is struggling to conduct an orchestra playing the sunrise and turning snow green in the process, The Phantom Tollbooth invites readers along on a fantastical, ridiculous ride. Learning, it suggests, is important for a variety of reasons—but a person’s reason for learning can be simply to be able to find humor in the world around them, and to be able to enjoy reading books like this one for entertainment. The Phantom Tollbooth may have darker, thornier undertones (such as its issues with the modern world, or with censorship), but it’s more than okay, it suggests, to enjoy the ride along with Milo and come away having been entertained.
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic ThemeTracker
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic 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.”
“When they began to count all the time that was available, (…) it seemed as if there was much more than could ever be used. ‘If there’s so much of it, it couldn’t be very valuable,’ was the general opinion, and it soon fell into disrepute. People wasted it and even gave it away. Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again,” he said, sitting up proudly. “It’s hard work but a noble calling. For you see”—and now he was standing on the seat, one foot on the windshield, shouting with his arms outstretched—“it is our most valuable possession, more precious than diamonds. It marches on, and tide wait for no man, and—”
“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.
Milo had never thought much about words before, but these looked so good that he longed to have some.
“Look, Tock,” he cried, “aren’t they wonderful?”
“They’re fine, if you have something to say,” replied Tock in a tired voice, for he was much more interested in finding a bone than in shopping for new words.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”