Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth (Essential Modern Classics) by Norton Juster, Diana Wynne Jones (Introduction)

"The Phantom Tollbooth" is about escaping boredom and enjoying the pursuit of knowledge. Milo is bored with everything around him and doesn't see the purpose in gaining knowledge. When a mysterious box appears with a toy car, map, and tollbooth, Milo is sent into the fantasy world of the Lands Beyond ruled by King Azaz in Dictionopolis, the city of words, and the Mathemagician in Digitopolis, the city of numbers, where he changes as each adventure exposes him to the joys of learning. 

On his journey Milo meets Tock, a dog with a clock in his body, and Humbug who wants to be smart and important but  has neither of those qualities. The two kings do not get along because one feels words are more important than numbers and vice versa. Their sisters, the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, used to settle their disputes until they were banished to the Castle in the Air for telling the kings that both words and numbers are equally important. Milo goes on a quest to bring them back to the kings and establish peace throughout the realm.

While this is brilliantly written, I ironically lost my focus when Milo stops in Digitopolis, the city of numbers. Ironically, Norton Juster is poking fun at contemporary education by showing that words and numbers shouldn't be separate, but I've never liked math and even the funny wizard couldn't hold my attention. That's not to say that this is a heavy-handed moral story. It isn't. It is full of puns, word plays, and wit. I should probably be banished to the Land of Ignorance for my confession regarding numbers. Digitopolis is important in showing Milo's character arc as he realizes that while he doesn't understand math, through questions and answers he can find pleasure in learning mathematics and even trick the Mathemagician that rules there. 

The satire is clever with the Land of Ignorance showing creatures that can't reach their potential for various reasons. The villain, The Senses Taker, manages to take away the trios sense of purpose by asking them meaningless questions. The one sense he can't steal is laughter and that is how Milo learns to defeat him. Maria Nikolajeva writes about this book's use of emblematic characters who possess one trait and are flat. They differ from allegory in that they personify virtues, vices, and other human traits based on conventional signs versus allegory that requires more decoding by the reader. She says this type of writing stems for the Baroque tradition in art and literature. It reminded me of a long fable with many different morals imparted on each of Milo's adventures.

Milo is able to bring peace to the kingdoms because he is able to take responsibility for his education by addressing his ignorance through experiences that involve asking questions and seeking answers. When Milo returns to the tollbooth he discovers that he must let other children use it. However, rather than be disappointed, he is excited to learn about the world around him. This moral tale will either delight you or bore you which is sort of funny as it is addressing the concept of boredom in education. Either way, I can see why it is a classic. A brilliant work.

5 Smileys

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