You know what’s fairly remarkable? I’ve never actually read The Phantom Tollbooth. Somehow, I just never read it as a kid. And I’ve decided after reading this New Yorker retrospective to finally remedy that failure in my life.
It’s a commonplace of scholarship to insist that children’s literature came of age when it began to break away from the authoritarian model of the moralizing allegory. Yet “The Phantom Tollbooth” is an old-fashioned moralizing allegory, with a symbolic point at every turn. Milo finds that the strange land on the other side of the tollbooth is sundered between words and numbers, between the land of Azaz the Unabridged, the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother the Mathemagician, the ruler of Digitopolis. The only way to reunite the kingdoms is for someone—why not Milo?—to scale the Mountains of Ignorance, defeat the demons, and release the banished princesses of Rhyme and Reason from their prison. (They were banished because they refused to choose between words and numbers, thereby infuriating the kings.)
Along the way, each new experience makes funny and concrete some familiar idea or turn of speech: Milo jumps to Conclusions, a crowded island; grows drowsy in the Doldrums; and finds that you can swim in the Sea of Knowledge for hours and not get wet. The book is made magical by Juster’s and Feiffer’s gift for transforming abstract philosophical ideas into unforgettable images. The thinnest fat man in the world turns out to be the fattest thin man; we see them both. We meet the fractional boy, divided in the middle of his smile, who is the “.58 child” in the average American family of 2.58 children. The tone of the book is at once antic and professorial, as if a very smart middle-aged academic were working his way through an absurd and elaborate parable for his kids. The reality is that when Juster wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth” he was a young architect in Brooklyn, just out of the Navy, unmarried and childless, and with no particular background in writing or teaching, working out a series of jokes and joys for himself alone.
Really great piece.