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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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Course Hero. "The Phantom Tollbooth Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Jan. 2018. Web. 7 June 2023. <>.

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Course Hero. "The Phantom Tollbooth Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed June 7, 2023.


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The Phantom Tollbooth | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Journey Begins

Milo is a boy who is always bored. One day he comes home from school and finds a large package from an anonymous sender that contains "one genuine turnpike tollbooth." Milo follows the assembly instructions and looks at the colorful map of the Lands Beyond that is included. He closes his eyes and points to a place called Dictionopolis as his first destination. He hops in his electric toy car, puts a coin in the tollbooth, and begins his adventure. When everything starts to turn gray, a voice tells him that he is "in the Doldrums." Milo meets the Watchdog, a large dog with a ticking alarm clock on his side. His job is to make sure that no one wastes time. The Watchdog jumps in Milo's car for a ride. Soon they are back on the highway, surrounded by color again. The Watchdog tells Milo to call him Tock.

Milo and Tock reach Dictionopolis, which lies at the Foothills of Confusion and near the Sea of Knowledge. The Minister of Meaning, one of the five advisers to the king of Dictionopolis, tells them that all the words in the world are grown in the orchards of Dictionopolis. Once inside the gate, they see a banner that reads, "Welcome to the Word Market," where words are bought, sold, and traded. They meet two creatures, the Spelling Bee and the Humbug, who get into a fight with each other. They knock over stalls in the market place and letters fly everywhere. The letters are cleaned up, and Officer Shrift, an extremely short and wide policeman, arrives to survey the situation. The officer says he is also the judge, and he charges Milo and Tock with, among other things, "sowing confusion" and "mincing words." He gives Milo the shortest sentence he knows—"I am."—along with the "small additional penalty of six million years in prison."

In jail Milo and Tock meet a Which—not a witch—named Faintly Macabre. She had been the "Official Which," responsible for choosing appropriate words, but she was corrupted by her power and "grew miserly," choosing fewer and fewer words, until finally she ended up only with "Silence is golden." She was thrown into jail for silencing the people, and since there was no replacement Which, people started using as many words as they wanted to. Milo pledges to help her when he is released from jail, but she tells him that only "the return of Rhyme and Reason" can help her.

The Loss of Rhyme and Reason

Faintly Macabre tells the story of how the Kingdom of Wisdom was built by a prince who arrived by ship on the Sea of Knowledge. The prince had two sons, and when they were older he told them to grow the kingdom. One son built Dictionopolis, and the other son "went north to the Mountains of Ignorance and built Digitopolis." They were the cities of words and numbers. The sons argued over which was more important—words or numbers. The king discovered a basket holding two baby girls with golden hair. He named them Rhyme and Reason, and he and the queen raised them as their own. After the king died, the two sons were responsible for taking care of the two princesses. The sons became known as Azaz the Unabridged, king of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis. The princesses have the ability to "settle all controversies fairly and reasonably," and people came from other lands to ask for advice. The two sons sought their advice as well, since Rhyme and Reason could solve any problem. The princesses decided that words and numbers are of equal importance, declaring that both kingdoms should live in peace. This angered the two brothers, and they banished the princesses to the Castle in the Air, leaving the kingdom with "neither Rhyme nor Reason."

Faintly Macabre tells Milo and Tock that they can leave jail whenever they want and shows them the button on the wall that opens the door. They escape and are invited to the royal palace. Milo takes the opportunity to ask if Rhyme and Reason can return. The king says that while he would like the kingdom to return to the order that their presence created, bringing them back is not possible. The Humbug volunteers that Milo and Tock could make the perilous journey. The king agrees and gives Milo a box filled with every word he will ever need to know. He also volunteers the Humbug to guide him.

Milo, Tock, and the Humbug begin their road trip. They are admiring the view when a boy, standing three feet above the ground, appears. The boy, Alec Bings, explains that he can see through things. Alec suggests they visit the giant living in the house with the sign that says, "The Giant." Milo asks Alec if people live in the forest, and he replies that they live in a city called Reality. They see the forest, and Milo notices a shiny city off to the left. Alec says that it's the city of Illusions and they are actually standing on Main Street in the city of Reality. Alec explains that the people who lived in the city never paid any attention to how things looked. Eventually the city began to disappear until it was invisible.

Color and Sound

That evening they go to hear a symphony orchestra with over a thousand musicians. The conductor uses his body to conduct, but they are unable to hear any music. Alec tells them that they are supposed to watch, not listen, and that the symphony is responsible for all the colors in the world. Afterwards the conductor of color, Chroma the Great, asks Milo to keep an eye on the orchestra until it's time for sunrise. Milo decides that he wants to try conducting, and the musicians start to play. The colors around them brighten. Milo is frantic: "nothing was the color it should have been." The musicians play faster and faster and the sun keeps rising and setting. In minutes, "a whole week had gone by." Tired, Milo's arms drop and everything stops. Chroma wakes up and takes over conducting. He never finds out about the lost week. Tock says is it time to go, and Alec says goodbye, reminding Milo to keep his eyes open and start noticing his surroundings, because "there's a lot to see everywhere." Alec gives Milo a telescope so that he "can see things as they really are."

Milo continues his road trip through the countryside and down into a valley. They see a red carnival wagon with the name "Kakofonous A. Dischord, Doctor of Dissonance" painted on its side. The doctor specializes in noises of all kinds. The bottles on the shelves are filled with various sounds. Dr. Dischord introduces his assistant, the DYNNE, who is preceded by rumbling, loud sounds that erupt into a deafening roar. The DYNNE's job is to collect unpleasant noises.

Their trip takes them into a silent valley where no sounds can be heard, no matter how loud they shout. The people living in the valley march with signs protesting the quiet. They are ruled by a Soundkeeper who banned all sounds. They ask Milo to help bring back sounds by stealing one from the Soundkeeper that they can use to attack her fortress. Milo visits the Soundkeeper, and she shows him the vault that holds "every sound that's ever been made in history." The Soundkeeper explains that she has to withhold sound to prevent horrible noises like the ones made by Dr. Dischord and the DYNNE. Milo is unable to change her mind about reinstating sound, but as he leaves he traps one small sound in his mouth to take with him.

Milo returns from his visit to the Soundkeeper and says that he has sound on the tip of his tongue. A cannon is aimed at the fortress wall and Milo drops a small sound from his tongue into the cannon. The sound hits the wall and a thundering crash is heard. The fortress crumbles, and the vaults burst open, releasing all the sounds in the world. The DYNNE appears, carrying a huge sack filled with sounds that escaped from the vaults. He returns them to the Soundkeeper, who realizes that silence is not the solution to preventing unpleasant noise. Milo tells her that he is on his way to rescue Rhyme and Reason. She gives Milo a package filled with sounds so that he doesn't get lonely.

The Land of Numbers

The road divides into three and a strange figure appears. He is the Dodecahedron, and he is constructed from an "assortment of lines and angles" that form a mathematical shape with 12 faces. Each face has a different expression. They set off for the "land of numbers," and the Dodecahedron lectures Milo on why "numbers are the most beautiful and valuable things in the world." The Dodecahedron leads them down into the numbers mine where they meet the Mathemagician. He is dressed in a flowing robe covered with mathematical equations. They all have lunch down in the mine, and the more they eat, the hungrier they get. The Dodecahedron points out that in Digitopolis they dine when they're full and stop when they're hungry. The Mathemagician draws a straight line in the air then walks across it, explaining that he always takes "the shortest distance between any two points." When he needs to be in more than one place at the same time he multiplies himself. The more he climbs, the more there is to go, and he never gets close to the top. Milo feels discouraged, acknowledging that "everything in Digitopolis is much too difficult for me."

The Mathemagician is still angry at his brother. Tock tells the king that they would like to rescue Rhyme and Reason. When he finds out that his brother Azaz has approved of this idea, the Mathemagician says he does not approve. Milo tells the king that if they both agree to disagree with each other, then they are actually in agreement. The king yells that he has been tricked, but he agrees to accept defeat and shows Milo the way to travel. Milo leaves with the gifts he has received on the way, along with a magic staff—a "small gleaming pencil"—from the Mathemagician. He tells Milo, "use it well and there is nothing it cannot do for you."

The Castle in the Air

Milo, Tock, and Humbug start their trek into the demon-filled Mountains of Ignorance, and the higher they go, the darker it gets. They meet strange creatures, first chatting with a bird, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, and then encountering an elegant gentleman in a dark suit. The man has no face. He asks them to do three tasks: move a pile of sand with tweezers, empty a well with an eye dropper, and dig a hole with a needle. The three work at their tasks for what seems like days, making little progress. 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. They are all transfixed by his soothing voice, and he moves to snatch them, but they are roused when someone yells "Run!" They run up slippery rocks, step through sticky ooze, and finally fall into a deep pit. Milo looks for the source of the voice with his telescope. It belongs to a small, furry creature who starts to whimper and cries that he is "the demon of insincerity." He admits that "bad advice is my specialty," and he leaves. As the three attempt to climb out of the pit, 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. Milo shows the giant the box full of ideas from King Azaz, and the giant is terrified and lets them all go.

The other demons spread the word about Milo, Tock, and the Humbug. The three keep climbing in search of the Castle in the Air. At the top of the highest peak is a spiral stairway leading to the castle. In front of the first step sits the Senses Taker, writing in a ledger with a quill pen. He demands their names and then asks them dozens of questions. Before letting them go, he shows Milo a circus in the distance; teases Tock with a new, pleasant smell; and attracts the Humbug with the sound of cheers and applause. They are all mesmerized and forget why they are there. Milo drops his bag of gifts, and the sounds break loose, breaking the spell. They run up the narrow stairs, pass through the castle gate, and enter the great hall. Two sweet voices say, "We've been expecting you." It is the princesses, dressed in white. Princess Pure Reason tells him that learning does have a purpose, and that "whatever we do affects everything and everyone else." Princess Sweet Rhyme adds, "what you learn today ... will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow."

A loud chopping noise is heard and the room shakes. The demons are at work below, chopping the stairway to make it collapse. The castle starts to drift away, so everyone climbs on Tock and they fall "to the mountains and the monsters below." Tock and the others land on the ground with a jolt. As they gallop down the mountainside, they are followed by demons and gorgons. They are met by the armies of Wisdom, swords and shields shining in the sunlight. The sound of thousands of trumpets is heard, and lines of horsemen advance. The charge is led by King Azaz and the Mathemagician. Dr. Dischord hurls explosives, Chroma the Great leads his orchestra, and everyone who met Milo during his adventure is present. Everyone thanks Milo, Tock, and Humbug, and cheers them on. A royal holiday is declared in their honor, and parades and a three-day carnival are held. Afterwards, it is time for Milo to go home. He thanks everyone for the things they taught him, and the king thanks Milo for what he taught them. They bring out his car, "polished like new." Everyone waves, and Milo heads home.

Returning Home

Milo drives through the countryside, wondering how long he had been gone. In the distance he sees the tollbooth, which he passes through. It is six o'clock and he is back in the middle of his room. He is amazed to see that it is still the same day and he had been gone for only one hour. The next day the tollbooth is gone. In its place is an envelope that says, "For Milo, who now knows the way." The note inside says that his trip is completed and there are other children waiting to use the tollbooth. Milo thinks about all of the characters he met on his trip, including Tock and Humbug. He notices that "the sky was a lovely shade of blue" and that a cloud was shaped like a ship. And mostly he thinks about all of the things he could do.

The Phantom Tollbooth Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Milo constructs the Phantom Tollbooth.

Rising Action

2 Milo drives through the tollbooth and meets Tock.

3 Milo arrives in Dictionopolis and meets the Humbug.

4 Milo goes to jail.

5 Milo meets King Azaz and leaves to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

6 Milo meets the Mathemagician.


7 Milo arrives at the Castle in the Air.

Falling Action

8 Milo rescues Rhyme and Reason.


9 Milo returns home through the Phantom Tollbooth.

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