The Phantom Tollbooth Summary
A boy named Milo does not know what to do with himself, but only sometimes. He constantly wishes he were somewhere else doing something else; but when he is somewhere else doing something else, he is not content. Nothing important interests him and he feels as if everything is a waste of time. Walking home from school one day, Milo says that nothing he is studying in school has value. Since no one tells him anything different, Milo thinks “the process of seeking knowledge is the greatest waste of time of all.”
Despite the fact that he does not feel that any place he goes is worth going, he is always in a hurry to get there. Today he wonders why such a large world feels so small and empty sometimes. It contains nothing worth seeing and there is nothing he wants to do. He rushes home to his eighth-floor apartment and “flops dejectedly in to a chair.” Nothing he owns is interesting to him: books, tools, toys, games, bats, or balls. Suddenly he spies something he has never seen before, sitting next to the phonograph. It is a package, neither square nor round, neither large nor small; it has a blue envelope on the side that reads, “To Milo, who has plenty of time.”
Milo is both puzzled and excited. Though he probably will not like the gift, he certainly cannot give it back. To be polite, he opens the envelope and a letter explains that the gift is a “Genuine Turnpike Tollbooth” designed for those who have “never traveled to lands beyond.” The package contains a tollbooth, which must be assembled according to the directions; three precautionary signs; one map of natural and man-made elements; and one book of rules and traffic regulations, which must be followed precisely. At the bottom is a guarantee that if he is not completely satisfied (which is not guaranteed), his wasted time will be refunded.
Soon Milo unpacks the tollbooth and sets it on a stand. He inserts...
(The entire section is 531 words.)
Milo is driving on an unfamiliar country highway; he looks behind him and sees no sign of the tollbooth or his bedroom. Make-believe has become real. It is a clear, sunny day and everything is brighter than he has ever seen before. He sees a sign, welcoming him to Expectations, painted on a small house by the side of the road. The sign also offers cheerfully delivered predictions, advice, and information. If he is interested, he should park his car and blow his horn. Milo is interested.
A little man in a large coat comes rushing from the house and welcomes Milo to Expectations. He says everything twice and introduces himself as the Whether Man. Milo asks if this is the road to Dictionopolis, and the man says any road that goes to Dictionopolis must be the right road because “there are no wrong roads to anywhere.” The Whether Man wonders if it is going to rain.
The man explains that Expectations is the place all people must go before they get to where they are going. While it is true that some people never go beyond Expectations, the Whether Man’s job is to hurry them along their journey. Doubting the man’s sanity, Milo thinks he can find his own way. The repeating man is glad to hear that and, if Milo happens to find the Whether Man’s way, the man would like to have it back, as it was lost long ago. The Whether Man does not like to make up his mind about anything, and he believes that if he expects everything, the unexpected never happens.
Milo drives away just as a raincloud settles directly over the strange man; Milo is glad to be back on the road, realizing that staying in Expectations for very long would get him nowhere. Milo daydreams as he drives; that is why, when he reaches a fork in the road and the sign points to the left, he turns right. Suddenly the sky turns gray and the entire countryside has lost its color.
The road is a series of...
(The entire section is 744 words.)
Welcome to Dictionopolis
Milo is thankful to have left the Doldrums and is thankful for the dog’s assistance. The dog is sure they will be friends and asks Milo to call him Tock. Of course the boy thinks it is odd for a dog that “goes tickticktickticktick all day” to be called Tock, so the dog explains the sad story.
His brother, the first pup in the family, was called Tick because everyone was sure that is the sound he would make; however, the unfortunate pup “went tocktocktocktocktocktock” all day. His parents tried to change his name officially but could not. When the Watchdog arrived, his parents assumed he would make the same sound and called him Tock, but of course that is not the case. Now both brothers are doomed to have the wrong names. After this disaster, his parents had no more children; instead, they devoted their lives to charity work.
Tock is a watchdog because his family has always been watchdogs. Once there was no such thing as time, something people found quite inconvenient. Time was invented to help people get to places and do things on time; however, because it seemed there was so much of it, people assumed it could not be very valuable. Suddenly people began to waste it and even give it away—until the watchdogs were assigned to make sure no one ever again wasted time.
As they drive, Tock explains the importance of time until they see the distant flags of Dictionopolis. Soon they arrive at the wall and then stand at the gate to the city, where they are greeted by a guard. Today is market day and the guard wonders whether Milo and Tock have come here to buy or to sell. When Milo searches for something to say, the guard volunteers to help him find a reason; he is certain he must have an old one Milo can use. He searches through an old suitcase full of reasons and finally holds up a small chain from which a medallion hangs. It says, “Why not?” The guard says...
(The entire section is 563 words.)
Confusion in the Market Place
At the market, Milo can see crowds of people pushing, shouting, buying, selling, trading, and bargaining. Carts are pouring in from the orchards, and caravans are preparing to leave for every part of the kingdom. Above all the other noises and activity is the call of the merchants trying to sell their goods. People from every imaginable place (“and some places even beyond that”) are sorting and choosing their words.
Milo and Tock marvel at the array of words as they walk the market aisles. Though Milo has never thought much about words before, he now longs to have some. Tock, however, is more interested in finding a bone than in shopping for a word. The boy hopes that if he buys some words, he can learn how to use them. The three he chooses are quagmire, flabbergast, and upholstery, though he has no idea what they mean.
Unfortunately, Milo has only the coin he needs to get back through the tollbooth, and of course Tock has nothing but time. They walk until Milo notices a wagon that is different from every other stall. On the side, it says, “DO IT YOURSELF,” and inside are twenty-six bins, one for every letter of the alphabet. The owner of the wagon says these letters are for people who want to create their own words. Milo nibbles on an A, and it tastes just as one would expect an A to taste. Z and X are rather dry and sawdusty from lack of use; the I is icy and the C is crunchy.
Milo spits the pits from a P and says he is not very good at spelling just as an enormous bee, twice his size, settles on the wagon. Though the Spelling Bee has only peaceful intentions, Tock hides under the wagon. Though the bee looks harmless enough, Milo is not too sure about him, either. He puts the Spelling Bee to the test, and the bee can spell nearly everything. He was once an ordinary...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
One of the salesmen shouts, “Done what you’ve looked!” He obviously meant “Look what you’ve done,” but the words are hopelessly mixed up now. The letters are swept into a large pile for sorting, amid the confusion and the mess. Spelling Bee flies off in a huff just as Milo gets to his feet and the entire Dictionopolis police force arrives—and he is blowing his whistle.
He is Officer Shrift, the shortest policeman Milo has ever seen; he is only two feet tall and twice as wide, wearing a blue uniform and a very fierce expression. He tells everyone he sees that they are guilty and finally stops in front of Milo. He tells the boy to turn off his dog, as it is impolite...
(The entire section is 750 words.)
Faintly Macabre’s Story
This is the story Faintly Macabre tells Milo and Tock. The land is a barren and frightening wilderness, and evil creatures roam freely in this land, called Null. One day a small ship appears on the Sea of Knowledge; it is a prince, and he claims the land in the name of goodness and truth. When he begins to explore the country, the demons, monsters, and giants work together to drive away the prince.
There is a great battle, and all that remains for the prince in the end is a “small piece of land at the edge of the sea”; nevertheless, he builds his city here. Soon ships arrive with more settlers, and over time, the borders of the city expand. Though it is attacked...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
The Royal Banquet
Milo and Tock arrive at the royal palace, a place that looks like a giant book standing on end with the door at the bottom of the binding. Inside, they hurry down a long hallway glittering with chandeliers and mirrors. They are late and the banquet hall is full of people talking and arguing loudly. Gold plates and linen napkins line the long table, and an attendant stands behind each chair. On the wall is the royal coat of arms with the royal flags of Dictionopolis on each side.
Milo recognizes many of the guests from the marketplace. The letter man is explaining the history of the W to some people, while the Spelling Bee and the Humbug are in a corner arguing...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
The Humbug Volunteers
All the guests have finished eating. Suddenly the king leaps to his feet and shouts for everyone’s attention by pounding on the table. The king did not need to give the command, for everyone but Milo, Tock, and the Humbug rushes from the room the moment he begins speaking.
His guests are already outside of the palace when the king addresses the nearly empty room. Milo politely reminds King Azaz that all the others have left, but the king was hoping no one had noticed. This happens every time: all the guests go to dinner as soon as they have eaten at the king’s banquet. This seems ridiculous to Milo and the king agrees: by royal command, from now on all guests must...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
It’s All in How You Look at Things
As Dictionopolis disappears behind them, all the strange and unknown lands between the kingdom of words and the kingdom of numbers stretch before them. The Humbug is “happily resigned to the trip,” and soon they arrive at the edge of a dense forest. A large road sign says, “This Is the Scenic Route: Straight Ahead to Point of View.” The travelers see nothing but more trees, and the forest grows denser as they continue until they can no longer see the sky above them.
The forest ends abruptly and the road ends on a broad promontory; below them they can see the land they had just traveled. Milo exclaims that it is a beautiful sight, and a strange...
(The entire section is 699 words.)
A Colorful Symphony
The travelers run through the forest until the Humbug suggests they might be lost. Alec is sitting on a high branch above the rest; he says they are not lost because they are right here, and he has no interest in being anywhere he is not. The travelers are confused by his logic. Alec points to a small house nestled between two of the largest trees and says they can ask the giant what he thinks. The nameplate reads “The Giant,” and the man who opens the door is perfectly ordinary in size and greets them graciously. He is the smallest giant in the world.
Milo asks the giant if they are lost, and the giant suggests they go around to the back of the house and ask the...
(The entire section is 806 words.)
Dischord and Dynne
At exactly 5:22 (Tock’s clock is very accurate), Milo sees the sky is still black, dark blue, and purple, though the sun will rise in just a moment. The others are still asleep. Milo must wake Chroma. Suddenly Milo wonders what it would be like to conduct the orchestra and color the world. He thinks it cannot be too difficult because the musicians undoubtedly know what to play, and it would be a shame to wake Chroma so early. Besides, this might be his only opportunity to try such a thing. The musicians are already poised to play, and he would only direct them for a short time.
Milo stands on tiptoe and makes the tiniest gesture to the orchestra at 5:23. A single piccolo...
(The entire section is 802 words.)
The Silent Valley
Milo thinks the valley looks quite pleasant and believes Dr. Dischord was exaggerating about the Valley of Sound. As soon as he drives through a heavy stone gateway, however, everything changes. Everything looks and smells the same, but it sounds quite different. It takes him a moment to find the difference, but Milo suddenly realizes there is absolutely no sound—not even the ticking of Tock. It is an unnerving sensation and Milo begins to slow the car.
The travelers realize they have driven into a large crowd of people marching along the roadway. They are singing (although their song cannot be heard) and carrying signs such as “Down with Silence,” “It’s Laudable...
(The entire section is 778 words.)
When Milo returned to town, everyone wonders where the sound is. Because he cannot speak, Milo writes on the chalkboard that the sound is on the tip of his tongue. The crowd is elated and they push the cannon into place, loading it with gunpowder. Milo stands on his toes, leans into the mouth of the cannon, and opens his mouth. The tiny sound drops silently to the bottom. Someone lights the fuse and it begins to sputter.
Just as Milo is hoping no one gets hurt, the cannon shoots and the sound of a tiny little word—but—flies toward the wall. The sound lands lightly, and almost immediately there is a “blasting, roaring, thundering smash, followed by a...
(The entire section is 796 words.)
The Dodecahedron Leads the Way
The road ahead of the travelers divides into three branches, and an enormous road sign points in all three directions giving the distance to Digitopolis in miles, rods, yards, feet, inches, and half-inches. The Humbug wants to travel by miles because it is shorter, but Milo prefers half-inches because it is quicker. All Tock knows is that which road they take must make a difference.
A peculiar little man appears and tells them it does, indeed, matter which road they take. The man is constructed of lines and angles, marked with capital and small letters, connected together into a solid, many-sided shape. He introduces himself as the Dodecahedron, a mathematical...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
This Way to Infinity
Seven of the strongest miners bring a huge, bubbling cauldron into the cave, and soon a tantalizing aroma fills the space. The travelers watch hungrily as each miner fills his bowl from the steaming pot. The Mathemagician gives each of the travelers a heaping bowlful, and all three of them eat every bit of what they had been given. The Mathemagician fills their bowls again and again and again, and Milo wonders why he grows hungrier with every portion he eats.
Milo eats nine servings, Tock eats eleven, and the Humbug eats twenty-three without ever looking up from his bowl. The Mathemagician blows his whistle and the pot is removed from the cave and the miners return to...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
A Very Dirty Bird
Milo climbs the stairs to Infinity but realizes he is no closer to the top than when he began—and not much farther from the bottom than when he started. He says he is certain he will never get there. A voice says he would not like Infinity much anyway; it is a very poor place that can never manage to make ends meet.
Milo looks up to see a half a child, neatly divided from top to bottom, standing next to him. Milo says he has never seen half a child before. The boy says it is .58 “to be precise.” His family is quite average: mother, father, and 2.58 children. He is the .58, of course.
The boy is never lonely because every family has a .58 for him to play...
(The entire section is 804 words.)
The Humbug is whistling happily as he works for he loves a task that does not require him to think. It has been days, and the hole he is digging is scarcely the size of his thumb. Tock has been working steadily, but the full well is still almost as full as it was when he began, and Milo’s new pile of sand can barely be called a pile.
Milo thinks it is strange that he has been working steadily for a long time but does not feel tired or hungry. He thinks he might be able to go on like this forever, and the gentleman yawns and says perhaps he will.
Milo uses his magic staff to calculate how long their tasks will take them; at the rate they are currently...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
Castle in the Air
The travelers climb higher and the demons move ominously closer. Suddenly, straight ahead of them is a “spidery spiral stair” that leads directly to the Castle in the Air. A little round man wearing a frock coat is sleeping on a large, worn ledger. He is stained with ink blobs, has a quill behind his ear, and wears a thick pair of eyeglasses. They try to step around the man, but he wakes up and demands to know their names as he opens the book and waits to write.
As Milo, Tock, and the Humbug each give their names, the man writes them in his book. He is the official Senses Taker and has to gather some information before he can take their senses. His questions are many...
(The entire section is 792 words.)
The Return of Rhyme and Reason
The group clinging to Tock sails past the tall mountain peaks and the grasping arms of the demons before reaching the ground with a jolt. Now they must run for their lives, and Tock takes the lead with the princesses on his back. They are followed by “all the loathsome creatures who choose to live in Ignorance” and who have been impatiently waiting for them. They are still running through thick, dark clouds; when Milo looks back he can see the awful creatures getting closer.
On the left are the Triple Demons of Compromise—“one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two.” These demons always settle their differences by...
(The entire section is 797 words.)
Good-by and Hello
As he drives home, it suddenly occurs to Milo that he must have been gone for weeks, and he hopes no one has worried too much about him. The road starts to look more familiar and soon he arrives at the tollbooth, a welcome sight to the young boy. He deposits his coin and drives through; almost immediately he is sitting in the middle of his own room again.
Yawning, he notes it is only six o’clock and then realizes it is still today. He has only been gone for one hour and is amazed at how much he accomplished in such a short time. Milo is much too tired to talk or eat, so he goes to bed as soon as he can and drifts “into a deep and welcome sleep.”
(The entire section is 473 words.)