02 June 2015

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth was yet another book I didn't read as a kid. My children highly recommended it, and, in a lecture series I just listened to, Eric Rabkin named it as one of the best examples of pure fantastic literature for children since Lewis Carroll's Alice books. I found that I liked it a lot. It was quirky in that mid-twentieth century children's style, reminiscent of the writings of Roald Dahl and the Uncle books by J.P. Martin.

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo, an unimaginative, dull boy who sees no point in education, curiosity, or imagination is taken on a magical adventure to a land in which abstract concepts like numbers, words, reason, and  wisdom are personified. The cities of Digitopolis, ruled by the Mathemagician, and Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz, have been enemies for years. Everyone that Milo meets in this world is myopic.
This demon is called "The
Terrible Trivium," but I'm
pretty sure it's just Slenderman.
They all pursue their own specialization as if it is the only subject of study that exists, even though none of them can practically apply anything they know to the world around them (an apt criticism of the modern educational system). Only by rescuing Princesses Rhyme and Reason, who have been imprisoned in the castle in the sky, can Milo restore the kingdom of Wisdom which will rule over all the various disciplines and order them harmoniously. Along with his companions, the watchdog Tock and the Humbug, Milo travels through the Kingdom of Wisdom in order to face the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance and bring back the banished princesses.

My favorite selection from the book is when Milo finds the princesses and talks about them about the journey he has taken:

"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons." 
"But there's so much to learn," he said, with a thoughtful frown. "That's just what I mean," explained Milo, as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. "Many of the things I'm supposed to know seem so useless that I can't see the purpose in learning them at all."
"You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you're sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."

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