The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 17 : Unwelcoming Committee | Summary



The three work at their tasks for what seems like days, making little progress. Milo wonders how long it will take to complete everything, and Tock suggests he try his magic staff. Milo uses his new pencil to calculate the rate at which they are working, estimating that it will take them 837 years to complete. The Terrible Trivium, the well-dressed, faceless gentleman, tells Milo that the tasks are unimportant on purpose to keep them from getting to their destination. He reveals that he is the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Just as his soothing voice starts to mesmerize them, they hear someone yell, "Run!"

They keep running, leaving The Trivium behind. They run up slippery rocks and step through sticky ooze, finally falling into a deep pit. Milo looks for the source of the voice with his telescope. It belongs to a small, furry creature that starts to whimper and cries that he is "the demon of insincerity." He admits that "bad advice is my specialty" and leaves. The three attempt to climb out of the pit when they accidentally step on the hand of the Gelatinous Giant. He shouts, "How dare you disturb my nap." Milo apologizes, saying that the giant looked like part of the mountain. The giant explains that he has no shape of his own so he takes the form of whatever he is near. He admits that he is very fearful, and that is why he acts ferociously. The giant prepares to eat the three of them when Milo asks him if he can help them rescue Rhyme and Reason. The giant says no and contemplates just eating one of them, admitting he doesn't like to eat ideas because "they're so hard to digest." Milo shows the giant his box from King Azaz, saying it's full of ideas, and the giant is terrified and lets them all go.

The other demons spread the word about Milo, Tock, and the Humbug, and new demons crawl out of caves, crevices, rocks, and shadows to destroy them.


Juster here makes a satirical comment on the idea of busywork. The tasks assigned Milo, Tock, and the Humbug are pointless, difficult, and painfully tedious. It takes a faceless demon to even assign those tasks. They're almost lulled by the demon into staying put—as one can be by busywork—until they hear someone shout the warning to run. This suggestion proves to be a bad one, however, when they end up in the palm of the giant—though that's unsurprising when readers find out the source of the suggestion was "the demon of insincerity."

The idea that the giant cannot digest new ideas is another literal interpretation of a figurative comment. Milo is able to terrify the giant by waving a box of ideas at him. The giant's fear is a pretty familiar one, however: most people have had a hard time accepting a new idea at one time or another.

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