The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

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Chapter 17 Summary

Unwelcoming Committee

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 working, they will finish their work in eight hundred thirty-seven years. When he tells the gentleman this news, the man is completely unconcerned and says they had better keep working, then. When Milo suggests that their tasks do not seem particularly worthwhile, the now-menacing gentleman says it is his intention that they continue doing unimportant things so they will never get where they are going.

The gentleman is Terrible Trivium, the “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” All three travelers slowly back away as he explains that doing easy and useless jobs keeps one from doing the important and more difficult ones. There is always something trivial to do that consumes valuable time that could be spent doing what really must be done.

He slowly advances on the three workers and whispers an invitation for them to come and stay with him. They will have fun together: filling and emptying, taking away and bringing back, picking up and putting down, and so many other useless pursuits. If they stay with him, they will never have to think again.

Just as they are being mesmerized into Terrible Trivium’s clutches, someone shouts at them to run, and they do. Finally they clamber to the top of the ridge, Terrible Trivium just a few steps behind them.

The voice calls them over to one side, and they unhesitatingly wallow through the ooze, which is soon up to their waists. Terrible Trivium hurls curses at them but does not follow them. They continue to follow the directions given by the voice but are soon at the bottom of a deep, murky pit. They have been following the voice of a “long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bow-legged, big-footed monster” that specializes in giving bad advice to anyone who will listen.

(The entire section is 788 words.)