Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    "I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be." (2.11)

    The Whether Man gives a catchy lesson on homonyms (words that have different meanings but that sound the same, like pair/pear, too/two, and whether/weather). His lesson is also a tongue twister – try saying this aloud three times fast! Do you agree with him that "it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be," or do you think that it's "more important to know…what the weather will be" first?

    "Very serious, very serious," the gateman said, shaking his head also. "You can't get in without a reason." He thought for a moment and then continued. "Wait a minute; maybe I have an old one you can use." (3.23)

    We need reasons to do lots of things. According to the gatekeeper, you need a reason to "get in" to Dictionopolis. One thing stands out here, though. In real life, we think of reasons as concepts rather than <em>things</em>. We can't <em>see </em>them, or hold them in our hands. We <em>think </em>them. In Dictionopolis, reasons are real objects, like coins or bracelets, or in this case, "a small medallion on a chain." (3.24)

    "We're not interested in making sense; it's not our job," scolded the first [cabinet member].

    "Besides," explained the second, "one word is as good as another – so why not use them all?"

    "Then you don't have to choose which one is right," advised the third. (3.60-62)

    The attitude toward language described here is a little bit different from the one you might hear about in an English class, where you've got to learn the exact meanings of words, and always use the right one in the right place. These cabinet members, on the other hand, don't think words should "mak[e] sense." They're not looking for exactly the "right" words. Instead, they're trying to make sure no words feel left out. Aw, that's kind of nice.

    Milo and Tock wandered up and down the aisles looking at the wonderful assortment of words for sale. There were short ones and easy ones for everyday use, and long and very important ones for special occasions, and even some marvelously fancy ones packed in individual gift boxes for use in royal decrees and pronouncements. (4.6)

    This word store is described as a marvelous, wonderful place. In fact, it sounds just plain awesome. But imagine what your life might be like if you had to buy all of your words before you used them. Would you find this frustrating? Shmoop certainly would, but then again, we're pretty talkative.

    "They never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many." (5.64)

    Words seem really important to the people of Dictionopolis, but here the Which gives us a glimpse into the not-so-great side of using all these words. If you use so many, you're really not expressing yourself very well, are you? You run the risk of being vague, and people might not understand just what you mean. The Which points out an important lesson for all you budding writers out there: it's better to use one right word than a bunch of words that are just close enough.

    The Humbug, suddenly realizing what had happened, leaped to his feet in terror, and Tock worriedly checked to see if he was still keeping time. It was certainly a strange feeling to know that no matter how loudly or softly you chatted or rattled or bumped, it all came out the same way – as nothing.

    "How dreadful," thought Milo as he slowed down the car. (12.6-7)

    If this doesn't make you crazy, what will? This situation is a bit like the following saying: If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody's there to hear it, did it really make a sound? If no one can hear Milo and his friends talking, because they aren't making sounds, are they still talking? If you can't make any noise, do you even exist, or are you nothing? Yikes! That's a scary question right there.

    "It will take years to collect all those sounds again," she [the Soundkeeper] sobbed, "and even longer to put them back in proper order. But it's all my fault. For you can't improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time." (13.17)

    The Soundkeeper is right about this. Too much of anything can be a bad thing. There were too many "sounds," so she tried to overcorrect with too much "silence." But that didn't work either. The two – sounds and silence – have to go together to create "proper" and useful communication. This also kind of reminds us of the Which's lesson, that one "proper" word is far better than a billion so-so words.

    "But maybe he doesn't understand numbers," said Milo, who found [the Mathemagician's letter] a little difficult to read himself.

    "NONSENSE!" bellowed the Mathemagician. "Everyone understands numbers. No matter what language you speak, they always mean the same thing. A seven is a seven anywhere in the world." (16.43-44)

    Is this really true? Are numbers the same everywhere? If they are, we should really think about what their value is, compared to the value of language. The Mathemagician may be right that everybody knows what "seven" means, but that also means that there are limits to what it <em>can </em>mean. It doesn't have as many possibilities as a word does. For example, imagine that instead of words, Shmoop only used numbers. How could we convey the same information? Could we?

    "That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."

    "I remember," said Milo eagerly. "Tell me now."

    "It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.

    "Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.

    "Do you mean – " stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.

    "Yes, indeed," they repeated together; "but if we'd told you then, you might not have gone – and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." (19.51-56)

    Well that's weird. How can something impossible be possible? That's a strange concept, and a confusing use of both of these words. But maybe they aren't so different after all. We mean, impossible just adds two letters to the word possible. You could just as easily take them off again.

    <em>It's true that there are many lands you've still to visit (some of which are not even on the map) and wonderful things to see (that no one has yet imagined), but we're quite sure that if you really want to, you'll find a way to reach them all by yourself.

    Yours truly,

    </em>The signature was blurred and couldn't be read. (20.13-15)

    Bah! This just might be the most frustrating moment in the novel. Because the "signature [i]s blurred," we never find out the name of whoever it was who sent Milo the tollbooth. Names are a kind of language, too, right? But here, we don't get access to that language, and we're left in the dark.

  • Time

    "As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we'd never get nothing done."

    "You mean you'd never get anything done," corrected Milo.

    "We don't want to get anything done," snapped another angrily; "we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help." (2.65-67)

    If you look more closely at this first statement, like Milo does, you might think the Lethargarians are making a grammatical mistake by saying, "we'd never get nothing done." But they're not. They <em>do</em> want to get nothing done. In the Doldrums, the point is to do as little as possible, and the Lethargarians fill up their schedules quite carefully to make sure that's exactly what happens. Every possible minute must be wasted. How does this work out for them?

    Milo's eyes opened wide, for there in front of him was a large dog with a perfectly normal head, four feet, and a tail – and the body of a loudly ticking alarm clock.

    "What are you doing here?" growled the watchdog. (2.81-82)

    This character is a walking pun. He's a watchdog (as in a guard dog), <em>and</em> a dog with a giant watch inside of him. Like a watch, he tells you what time it is. Like a watchdog, he keeps track of how other people are using time and polices them to make sure they do so properly.

    "You see," he [Tock] continued, beginning to feel better, "once there was no time at all, and people found it very inconvenient. They never knew whether they were eating lunch or dinner, and they were always missing trains. So time was invented to help them keep track of the day and get places where they should. […] [I]t seemed as if there was much more [time] than could ever be used. […] People wasted it and even gave it away. Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again". (3.11)

    Shmoop wonders how in the world you could even build a train, or a train station without time. Wouldn't all those construction workers just show up whenever they wanted and never get anything done? Despite how crazy this quotation sounds, it poses an interesting question: has time always existed? Or did we humans invent it? We'll give you a minute (or a day) for that whopper of a question to sink in.

    One by one, the hours passed, and at exactly 5:22 (by Tock's very accurate clock) Milo carefully opened one eye and, in a moment, the other. Everything was still purple, dark blue, and black, yet scarcely a minute remained to the long, quiet night. (11.1)

    So is Tock a dog or a clock? How in the world can he be both?

    At last the exhausted Milo, afraid to call for help and on the verge of tears, dropped his hands to his sides. The orchestra stopped. The colors disappeared, and once again it was night. The time was 5:27 A.M. (11.15)

    Milo's botched attempt at conducting the sunrise lasts exactly a week and five minutes. Time seems <em>very </em>precise around these parts. Why do you think that is?

    When they had all been safely started, the very pleasant man returned to the tree and, leaning against it once more, continued to stare vacantly down the trail, while Milo, Tock, and the Humbug worked hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour – (16.116)

    You know what Shmoop loves about this quote? You can literally <em>feel </em>the boring repetitiveness of the jobs that the "very pleasant man" gives Milo and the others. We see the hours passing by just as the characters do. Seriously, read this quote aloud and see how long it takes you. You'll be exhausted by the end. Take it from Shmoop – we tried it!

    "Then why bother?" asked Tock, whose alarm suddenly began to ring. (17.13)

    This moment reminds us of Tock's watchdog side. He's protecting time, sure, but he's also protecting his friends. His alarm could be used to remind people to get up (etc.), but here it functions like a proper "alarm" (like a fire alarm), warning the others of danger. Tock's a pretty handy guy to have around.

    "Think of all the trouble it saves," the man explained, and his face looked as if he'd be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren't for that dreadful magic staff, you'd never know how much time you were wasting." (17.20)

    The demon's mantra goes against everything Tock stands for. The demon's purpose is "wasting" time, but that's precisely what Tock's supposed to guard against. So it makes sense that this guy ends up being really dangerous. Tock's main job in life is figuring out when people are wasting time and keeping them from doing so. But he's fooled by the demon and doesn't realize that the tasks the demon provides are precisely designed <em>to</em> waste time.

    "Well, time flies, doesn't it?" asked Milo.

    "On many occasions," barked Tock, jumping eagerly to his feet. "I'll take everyone down." (18.72-73)

    Here's another instance where wordplay saves lives. We don't usually mean the expression "time flies" literally. It's an expression people use to emphasize that things are happening more quickly than they expected. But Tock represents time, and he lives in a place where figures of speech continually come true. So, as Time's representative, Tock can actually fly. Awesome.

    King Azaz and the Mathemagician pledged that every year at this same time they would lead their armies to the Mountains of Ignorance until not one demon remained, and everyone agreed that no finer carnival for no finer reason had ever been held in Wisdom.

    But even things as fine as all that must end sometime, and late on the afternoon of the third day the tents were struck, the pavilions were folded, and everything was packed ready to leave. (19.63-64)

    You might think that in a fantasyland, celebrations could last and last, but there's a time for revelry, and a time for getting back to work. Even in the Lands Beyond, people can't party forever. The narrator tells us that "even things as fine as all that must end sometime." If they never ended, maybe they wouldn't be as special. Maybe they'd even be – dare we say – a waste of time.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have. (1.2)

    Milo's got some major apathy going on here. He's the epitome of the "grass is always greener" guy, mixed with the "glass is always half-empty guy." In other words, he's an envier mixed with a pessimist. Is that any way for a young boy to live his life?

    "BALDERDASH!" shouted a booming voice. And from around the wagon stepped a large beetlelike insect dressed in a lavish coat, striped pants, checked vest, spats, and a derby hat. "Let me repeat – BALDERDASH!" he shouted again, swinging his cane and clicking his heels in mid-air. (4.39)

    This moment actually tells us a lot about the Humbug as a character. If his philosophy could be summed up in one word, "BALDERDASH" would be it. "BALDERDASH" is a nonsense word, and it usually means that our Humbug thinks that whatever the other person is saying is totally useless. The joke on the Humbug is, of course, that he doesn't have anything to back up his view of things. He's all ready to offer up Milo on a quest to save the princesses, but would never dream of taking on something like that himself. Shmoop thinks <em>that's</em> balderdash.

    "Words are more important than wisdom," said one privately.

    "Numbers are more important than wisdom," thought the other to himself. (6.9-10)

    Hmm. That definitely doesn't sound right. No wonder these people are in such trouble. See, what both of them don't realize is that you shouldn't separate "wisdom" from either words or numbers. Doing so makes these two a little less wise.

    "I didn't know that I was going to have to eat my words," objected Milo.

    "Of course, of course, everyone here does," the king grunted. "You should have made a tastier speech." (7.52-53)

    In Dictionopolis, people are very careful about what they say at banquets because they have to "eat [their] words." Can you imagine if this were true in everyday life? What a way to live. It seems like one of the philosophies of Dictionopolis is to be very careful about what you say. But this doesn't quite jive with their imprisonment of the Which, who's all about being careful what you say.

    "It is a little [inconvenient]," replied Alec, "but it is quite important to know what lies behind things, and the family helps me take care of the rest. My father sees to things, my mother looks after things, my brother sees beyond things, my uncle sees the other side of every question, and my little sister Alice sees under things." (9.33)

    If someone asked you to explain how you look at the world, what would you say? Would you be able to identify your bias or point of view? Alec's saying here that everyone he knows has a specific way of looking at the world. In this case, he means it literally. But what Alec's saying can also be a metaphor for the fact that we all have our own way of looking at the world.

    "I'm sorry you can't stay longer," said Alec sadly. "There's so much more to see in the Forest of Sight. But I suppose there's a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open." (11.23)

    Keep your eyes open? Or maybe keep your <em>mind</em> open? Alec shows Milo all the different ways you can look at the world, and here he encourages him to take it all in, without prejudice. Sounds like good advice. Does Milo follow it?

    "How terribly confusing," he [the Dodecahedron] cried. "Everything here is called exactly what it is. The triangles are called triangles, the circles are called circles, and even the same numbers have the same name. Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You'd have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four's name were Albert, things would be hopeless." (14.22)

    This quote is hilarious. But the more we think about it, the more we realize it's actually pretty fascinating, too. Ironically, the Dodecahedron is both right and wrong. It is confusing when things aren't called by their proper names. So Digitopolis makes more sense in that way. But numbers aren't the same as people. Two 2's are the same as each other, but two people definitely are not. 2 may equal 2, but Robert doesn't equal John, right? Phew, where's that rhyme or reason when you need it?

    "Because, my young friends," he [the blank man] muttered sourly, "what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you'll never get to where you're going." He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh. (17.14)

    The Terrible Trivium is kind enough here to tell us his philosophy straight up: "what could be more important than doing unimportant things?" Indeed, what could? This idea probably sounds familiar to anyone who's been most inspired to organize a sock drawer instead of finishing her homework.

    "I'm the demon of insincerity," he sobbed. "I don't mean what I say, I don't mean what I do, and I don't mean what I am. Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there, but you and your awful telescope have spoiled everything. I'm going home." And, crying hysterically, he stamped off in a huff.

    "It certainly pays to have a good look at things," observed Milo as he wrapped up the telescope with great care. (17.43-44)

    Milo puts Alec's earlier advice to good use here. He has learned that if you really look closely at something, you can see it for what it really is. And it's this ability that saves Milo and his buddies. If they didn't see the demon of insincerity clearly, they might be stuck in this pit forever.

    "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." (18.61)

    At last, we get some of the philosophy of Rhyme and Reason, and it sounds pretty darn wise to Shmoop. Their names alone should give us a clue that they are the most sensible and balanced creatures in the book. Fittingly, their philosophy is kind and encouraging. They're not perfectionists, but they are moral. Do you think they'll help save the Lands Beyond?

  • Freedom and Confinement

    "Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums. Anyone breaking this law shall be severely punished!" (2.43)

    Imagine not having the freedom to think. What would that be like? Awful, that's what. And how would people be able to tell if you were "breaking this law" or not? Is it possible to not think at all? How can you even answer that question without thinking about it? Our mind is spinning!

    </em>Everyone agreed that it was a very fair sentence, and the judge continued: "There will also be a small additional penalty of six million years in prison. Case closed," he pronounced, rapping his gavel again. "Come with me. I'll take you to the dungeon." (5.24)

    Hasn't anyone told this judge about cruel and unusual punishment? There's a big gap here between the "fair sentence" Milo thought he would receive and six million years in the clinker. But the key here is that our clever judge has separated the sentence ("I am") and the punishment. Talk about mincing words.

    "And so they were taken from the palace and sent far away to the Castle in the Air, and they have not been seen since. That is why today, in all this land, there is neither Rhyme nor Reason." (6.23)

    The two brothers disagreed with Rhyme and Reason, so they cast their sisters out. That was shortsighted and, ultimately, stupid because, while Rhyme and Reason were the ones who were technically being held prisoner, the people they left behind suffered even more without them.

    "You will, of course, need a guide," said the king, "and, since he knows the obstacles so well, the Humbug has cheerfully volunteered to accompany you."

    "Now see here," cried the startled bug, for that was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. (8.66-67)

    The king traps the Humbug into going on the quest through clever wordplay. In fact, in Dictionopolis, it seems like words are always ensnaring people. When we read this quote, we can't help but think of Milo's "sentence" in Chapter 5.

    All the flowers suddenly appeared black, the gray rocks became a lovely soft chartreuse, and even peacefully sleeping Tock changed from brown to a magnificent ultramarine. Nothing was the color it should have been, and yet, the more he tried to straighten things out, the worse they became.

    "I wish I hadn't started," he thought unhappily as a pale-blue blackbird flew by. "There doesn't seem to be any way to stop them." (11.12-13)

    Milo is trapped by his own bad decision. He made the overconfident error of thinking he could conduct the sunrise. Once he started, he just couldn't stop. He probably should have thought that one through, but, hey, we all make mistakes. Hopefully Milo will learn from this one.

    "You must visit the Soundkeeper and bring from the fortress one sound, no matter how small, with which to load our cannon. For, if we can reach the walls with the slightest noise, they will collapse and free the rest. It won't be easy, for she is hard to deceive, but you must try." (12.47)

    All the sounds of this region have been captured and locked away in a fortress. So, even though the people are free, they're unable to talk aloud or to make any sounds at all. So, how free can they really be?

    "Has Azaz agreed to it?" the Mathemagician inquired.

    "Yes, sir," the dog assured him.

    "THEN I DON'T," he thundered again, "for since they've been banished, we've never agreed on anything – and we never will." (16.44-9)

    The two brothers have trapped themselves in a pointless, endless argument. They're minds are totally closed to other viewpoints and ideas. Luckily Rhyme and Reason can return to open their minds, with the help of clever Milo and his buddies.

    After what seemed like days, he [the Humbug] had dug a hole scarcely large enough for his thumb. Tock shuffled steadily back and forth with the dropper in his teeth, but the full well was still almost as full as when he began, and Milo's new pile of sand was hardly a pile at all.

    "How very strange," said Milo, without stopping for a moment. "I've been working steadily all this time, and I don't feel the slightest bit tired or hungry. I could go right on the same way forever."

    "Perhaps you will," the man agreed. (17.1-3)

    Milo, Tock, and the Humbug all agreed to these tasks of their own free will. No one's standing over them with weapons or anything to make sure they keep at it. So what's keeping them there, then? Perhaps it's their own closed minds. They're not thinking clearly, or critically, so they just keep going with the (awful) flow.

    "Well, I hope you didn't expect to get anywhere by listening to me," said the voice gleefully.

    "We'll never get out of here," the Humbug moaned, looking at the steep, smooth sides of the pit.

    "That is quite an accurate evaluation of the situation," said the voice coldly. (17.35-37)

    In this moment, it seems like all the three travelers' attempts to rescue the princesses will have been in vain because they are stuck in this terrible "pit." How can they possibly escape? Well, for starters, they could figure out who's trapped them down there. As it most situations in this book, the trick to getting out of a jam is nothing more than clever thinking.

    "But what of the Castle in the Air?" the bug objected, not very pleased with the arrangement.

    "Let it drift away," said Rhyme.

    "And good riddance," added Reason, "for no matter how beautiful it seems, it's still nothing but a prison." (18.76-78)

    The Humbug just sees a beautiful castle. It's up to Rhyme and Reason to remind the others that the place's beauty doesn't change what it really is: a jail. Remember Alec's advice? Keep your eyes (and your mind) open. Then you can see things for what they truly are.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    "From 2:30 to 3:30 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today." (2.60)

    This is perhaps the funniest part of the Lethargarians' schedule, in which they spend a full hour deciding what they should "have done today" and "put [it] off for tomorrow." But they don't do anything! So even if they could put something off, they have nothing <em>to</em> put off.

    "When I arrived, they were determined not to make the same mistake twice and, since it seemed logical that all their children would make the sound, they named me Tock. […] My parents were so overwrought [when they realized that Tock goes 'tick'] that they gave up having any more children and devoted their lives to doing good work among the poor and hungry." (3.8)

    Tock's parents attempt to use "logic," but it totally and tragically backfires on them. They try to overcorrect for a previous mistake but they just end up making everything worse. Maybe they're not so smart after all. Or maybe being logical doesn't have much to do with being smart. What do you think?

    "I am also the judge. Now would you like a long or a short sentence?"

    "A short one, if you please," said Milo.

    "Good," said the judge, rapping his gavel three times. How about 'I am'? That's the shortest sentence I know." (5.21-23)

    In this moment, we and Milo might feel relieved that Milo's going to get out of this jam with nothing worse than a slap on the wrist. In other words, we're all expecting a prison "sentence," but the sentence the judge gives is simply "I am." This isn't even a punishment. Clever Milo may think he's just gotten out of a jam, but the clever judge has something up his sleeve.

    "How are you going to make it [the wagon] move? It doesn't have a – "

    "Be very quiet," advised the duke, "for it goes without saying."

    And, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets, and in a very short time they arrived at the royal palace. (6.55-57)

    In one of the cleverest moments in the book, the duke tells Milo how the king's cabinet uses their wagon to travel: it "goes without saying." Ha! So, the wagon doesn't need gas or manpower to run – just wordplay. It turns out that the car that "goes without saying" is author Norton Juster's "favorite [pun]" in the whole book, as he told Salon.com's Laura Miller in an interview.

    "Do you want to ruin everything? You see, to tall men I'm a midget, and to short men I'm a giant; to the skinny ones I'm a fat man, and to the fat ones I'm a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I'm neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I'm quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything. Now what is your question?" (10.33)

    The man described here has built his entire identity on a clever joke. He's totally "ordinary." But, because he was ordinary, he didn't feel special. So, by putting his ordinary-ness in a variety of different contexts, he can convince different small groups that he's actually really special. It's smart, but it's also kind of sad, don't you think?

    </em>"Besides," growled Tock, who decided that he didn't much like Dr. Dischord, "there is no such illness as lack of noise."

    "Of course not," replied the doctor, pouring himself a small glass of the liquid; "that's what makes it so difficult to cure. I only treat illnesses that don't exist: that way, if I can't cure them, there's no harm done – just one of the precautions of the trade." (11.56-57)

    Dr. Dischord is both a terrible doctor and a really smart one. On the one hand, he's totally useless because, by treating nonexistent illnesses, he's not exactly saving anyone's life. But on the other hand, this way, he can't go wrong. So – is he smart? Or just incompetent? Sometimes, it seems, there's a fine line between the two.

    "But – " he started to say, and it got no further than that. For while he was about to say that he didn't think that that was quite fair (a thought to which the obstinate Soundkeeper might not have taken kindly) he suddenly discovered the way he would carry his little sound from the fortress. In the instant between saying the word and before it sailed off into the air he had clamped his lips shut – and the "but" was trapped in his mouth, all made but not spoken. (12.104)

    Milo has one of his smartest moments in the book. Problem is, it's totally by accident. Try as he might, he hasn't been able to figure out a way to "carry his little sound from the fortress" and therefore bring back a weapon the villagers can use to rescue all the other sounds. It's only when he's "about to say" something and holds it back just in time that he has the brainwave of sneaking out an almost-"spoken" word. Smart? Or just lucky?

    "If you had high hopes, how would you know how high they were? And did you know that narrow escapes come in all different widths? Would you travel the whole wide world without ever knowing how wide it was? And how could you do anything at long last," he [the Dodecahedron] concluded, waving his arms over his head, "without knowing how long the last was? Why, numbers are the most beautiful and valuable things in the world. Just follow me and I'll show you." (14.52)

    The Dodecahedron's comments here seem to suggest that words and phrases depend on numbers. All the phrases he mentions – which you'd probably have to eat if you were in Dictionopolis – are not fully comprehensible unless you can do the calculations they rely on. And to do those calculations, you need "the most beautiful and valuable things in the world": "numbers." In Digitopolis, you had better be a mathlete.

    "Then each of you agrees that he will disagree with whatever each of you agrees with," said Milo triumphantly; "and if you both disagree with the same thing, then aren't you really in agreement?"

    "I'VE BEEN TRICKED!" cried the Mathemagician helplessly, for no matter how he figured, it still came out just that way. (16.56-57)

    In what might be Milo's finest moment, he does the clever thing he's been working on secretly for much of the book. He fools the Mathemagician into admitting that he really does "agree" with Azaz this one time. Although they were both agreeing by default, since they both thought they couldn't agree with each other, Milo points out that the Mathemagician and Azaz were already agreeing, because they had agreed to disagree. Phew. That was a mouthful.

    And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn't know – music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new – and worth trying. (20.18)

    This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for the whole book. Milo realizes that he can go on a quest or adventure simply by using the power of his "thoughts." He doesn't need a magic tollbooth or other accessory to have a good time. He just needs himself. And that makes him smart on smart.

  • Education

    "I can't see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February." And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all. (1.3)

    Poor Milo – he obviously doesn't have a resource like Shmoop to turn to in order to make learning less, well, <em>boring</em>. We kid, we kid. But seriously, Milo thinks education is simply pointless whether it's math, geography, or English. While he sees all of life as pretty much without merit, the narrator emphasizes that Milo thinks "seeking knowledge [i]s the greatest waste of time of all." If only he could go on adventure that would make him think differently…

    "You see, years ago I was just an ordinary bee minding my own business, smelling flowers all day, and occasionally picking up part-time work in people's bonnets. Then one day I realized that I'd never amount to anything without an education and, being naturally adept at spelling, I decided that – ". (4.38)

    The Bee is one of the many characters Milo meets in the Lands Beyond who values learning. Somehow, though, the encouragement to take up "an education" sounds less preachy coming from a Bee than it might from one of the adults Milo knows back at home, which makes Milo a bit more willing to hear what he has to say.

    "You know something, Tock?" he said as he wound up the dog. "You can get in a lot of trouble mixing up words or just not knowing how to spell them. If we ever get out of here, I'm going to make sure to learn all about them." (5.42)

    From here on out, Milo slowly begins to realize the value and importance of learning things. Each time he gets into a jam in the Lands Beyond, or meets someone new, he comes out the other side with a new appreciation for learning, and this is the first example.

    </em>"Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars. Therefore, let both kingdoms live in peace." (6.20)

    Rhyme and Reason are punished for being reasonable and fair. They offer a compromise, which pleases no one. Both King Azaz and the Mathemagician don't want to hear that "words and numbers" need each other. They each want to hear that the one they prefer is the best. But Rhyme and Reason emphasize that knowledge needs both equally.

    "In this box are all the words I know," he said. "Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places." (8.64)

    It's funny – at first this box might seem like an amazing and magical gift. King Azaz certainly thinks it is. And the word-box will certainly come in handy for Milo in the Mountains of Ignorance. But we all have access to a gift like this any time we want. All we have to do is look in the dictionary, right?

    "What's a Dodecahedron?" inquired Milo, who was barely able to pronounce the strange word.

    "See for yourself," he said, turning around slowly. "A Dodecahedron is a mathematical shape with twelve faces." (14.13-14)

    When the Dodecahedron introduces himself to Milo, Tock, and the Humbug, he emphasizes that, in Digitopolis (and perhaps throughout the Lands Beyond), education is built into life and names – and who people really are. His name is the Dodecahedron because he is a Dodecahedron, which gives Milo and the others a built-in lesson in geometry. This would be like saying Milo is named Milo because he is a Milo.

    "That's absurd," objected Milo, whose head was spinning from all the numbers and questions.

    "That may be true," he acknowledged, "but it's completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you'll have to make it yourself." (14.34-35)

    This might sound fairly backward, compared to the way questions and answers usually go in school or on tests. Milo calls this method "absurd" because it just doesn't "make" "sense" to him to go for a "right" "answer" over a "wrong" "question." How can the question be wrong? How can you change a question so that you end up with the right answer? Shouldn't you have to know what the question is in the first place? And there our minds go again, spinning like crazy.

    "Splendid," cried the Dodecahedron. "And suppose you had something and added less than nothing to it. What would you have then?"

    "FAMINE!" roared the anguished Humbug, who suddenly realized that that was exactly what he'd eaten twenty-three bowls of. (15.27-28)

    The hungry Milo, Tock, and Humbug find themselves in the middle of an unfortunate story problem. The Dodecahedron's making them do math using the real life example of getting hungrier and hungrier. What's funny is that if he were in Dictionopolis, and he said "famine," he'd probably encounter the same result, having to eat his words and all.

    "There's nothing to it," they all said in chorus, "if you have a magic staff." Then six of them canceled themselves out and simply disappeared.

    "But it's only a big pencil," the Humbug objected, tapping at it with his cane.

    "True enough," agreed the Mathemagician; "but once you learn to use it, there's no end to what you can do." (15.37-39)

    Yeah, it's only a pencil. But it's only a pencil in the same way that King Azaz's word-box is only a collection of words. They're all tools, and it's what the user does with them that counts. And just as we realized that we've already got a word-box at hand (the dictionary), we can all definitely scrounge up a pencil and put it to use.

    "Don't be too sure," said the child patiently, "for one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see," he went on, "it's very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it's there, but you just don't know where – but just because you can never reach it doesn't mean that it's not worth looking for." (16.22)

    It seems like everywhere Milo turns, he's getting advice about how great the whole process of learning is. Even the little boy who's only half there has an opinion about the learning process. And this awesome advice will pop up again later, when Azaz and Mathemagician tell Milo that finding Rhyme and Reason was impossible, but that because he didn't know that, it was possible. The takeaway point here seems to be, <em>keep on dreaming, kiddo</em>.

  • Versions of Reality

    "I don't think there really is such a country," he concluded after studying it [the map] carefully. "Well, it doesn't matter anyway." And he closed his eyes and poked a finger at the map. (1.27)

    Because Milo doesn't believe the "country" shown on the map is real, in a weird way, he doesn't have to worry about what might happen if he goes there. He temporarily has the carefree feeling of getting to imagine what it would be like to visit part of it, because he doesn't think he'll "really" end up getting there in the long run.

    Suddenly he found himself speeding along an unfamiliar country highway, and as he looked back over his shoulder neither the tollbooth nor his room nor even the house was anywhere in sight. What had started as make-believe was now very real. (2.1)

    It's almost like Milo outsmarted himself here. He didn't think the version of reality presented in the map was a real one, so he set out on a "journey" with no thought for the consequences. But the journey ends up being "real." Uh-oh. Do you think he's excited at this point, or totally terrified?

    "Easy as falling off a log," cried the earl, falling off a log with a loud thump.

    "Must you be so clumsy?" shouted the duke.

    "All I said was – " began the earl, rubbing his head.

    "We heard you," said the minister angrily, "and you'll have to find an expression that's less dangerous." (3.86-89)

    In our world, we can use "expression[s]" that are as flamboyant and "dangerous" as we want. In fact, the more descriptive and vivid the expression, the better off we might be in conveying the idea or mood we're trying to communicate. But in Dictionopolis, expressions are literal. So if you say one, it actually happens. The next time you use an expression, an idiom, or other figurative language, stop and think about what would happen if you literally had to carry out the words of that expression. It just might be worse than falling off a log.

    "But that's just as bad," protested Milo.

    "You mean just as good," corrected the Humbug. "Things which are equally bad are also equally good. Try to look on the bright side of things."

    "I don't know which side of anything to look at," protested Milo. "Everything is so confusing and all your words only make things worse." (8.17-19)

    This is like the classic glass half full/half empty debate – which is it? Whatever side of the fence you're on, you have to admit there's some water in the glass. That's what the Humbug is trying to do here: get Milo to step back and view an issue from both sides. But Milo's not used to that, and the idea of seeing one thing two ways totally throws him for a loop.

    </em>Soon all traces of Dictionopolis had vanished in the distance and all those strange and unknown lands that lay between the kingdom of words and the kingdom of numbers stretched before them. It was late afternoon and the dark-orange sun floated heavily over the distant mountains. A friendly, cool breeze slapped playfully at the car, and the long shadows stretched out lazily from the trees and bushes. (9.1)

    All the characteristics of the scene described here – the time of day, the sun in the sky, the shadows filling the background – could be used in any landscape in the real world. They seem normal. The sun's the right color (pretty much). There are mountains in the distance, just like there would be in another normal landscape. But the characters aren't on an American highway or the Oregon Trail. They're between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and the things in those cities are as unlike the cities back home as Milo could imagine.

    "How can you see something that isn't there?" yawned the Humbug, who wasn't fully awake yet.

    "Sometimes it's much simpler than seeing things that are," he [Alec] said. "For instance, if something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn't there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That's why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones." (10.46-47)

    What do you make of Alec's explanation? Do you buy it? Is it "easier to see" the "imaginary things"? Sometimes it might be harder. At the beginning of the book, after all, it seems like it might have been harder for Milo to see imaginary things, but it doesn't seem so hard. There are whole worlds inside his mind, and he can open the door to them at any time. Sweet.

    There, piled into enormous mounds that reached almost to the ceiling, were not only diamonds and emeralds and rubies but also sapphires, amethysts, topazes, moonstones, and garnets. It was the most amazing mass of wealth that any of them had ever seen.

    "They're such a terrible nuisance," sighed the Mathemagician, "and no one can think of what to do with them. So we just keep digging them up and throwing them out. Now," he said, taking a silver whistle from his pocket and blowing it loudly, "let's have some lunch." (14.79-80)

    In our reality, we'd probably go bananas walking into a room like this. Imagine all these gems scattered far and wide. How could anyone possibly conceive of so many jewels as just trash, when they're so valuable? But in Digitopolis, nothing compares to numbers. Other valuable things dug up out of the ground are just "a terrible nuisance." We guess the old saying is true – one man's trash is another man's treasure. Or is it the other way around?

    "Oh dear," said Milo sadly and softly. "I only eat when I'm hungry."

    "What a curious idea," said the Mathemagician, raising his staff over his head and scrubbing the rubber end back and forth several times on the ceiling. "The next thing you'll have us believe is that you only sleep when you're tired." (15.30-31)

    Hmm. Once again, things in the Lands Beyond seem exactly opposite to our own reality. For the most part, we agree with Milo. We "eat when [we're] hungry" and "sleep when [we're] tired." But for the Mathemagician, who's really interested in negative numbers, you eat to feel less full and, presumably, sleep when you feel most awake.

    Cringing with fear, the monsters of Ignorance turned in flight and, with anguished cries too horrible ever to forget, returned to the damp, dark places from which they came. The Humbug sighed with relief, and Milo and the princesses prepared to greet the victorious army. (19.21)

    This sentence, especially when pulled away from its neighbors for observation, seems like a metaphor gone wild. It's like a huge jolt of figurative language that connects ignorance to darkness. In the Lands Beyond, though, this language isn't metaphorical. It's factual. The monsters are real, and so is the darkness they come from.

    The road raced ahead in a series of gentle curves that began to look familiar, and off in the distance the solitary tollbooth appeared, a welcome sight indeed. In a few minutes he reached the end of his journey, deposited his coin, and drove through. And, almost before realizing it, he was sitting in the middle of his own room again. (20.3)

    What do you think this drive back to reality was like for Milo? Disappointing? Reassuring? Do you think he'll assume it was all just a dream? Or is it more real than anything he has experienced in life so far?

  • Exploration

    It was a beautiful map, in many colors, showing principal roads, rivers and seas, towns and cities, mountains and valleys, intersections and detours, and sites of outstanding interest both beautiful and historic.

    The only trouble was that Milo had never heard of any of the places it indicated, and even the names sounded most peculiar. (1.25-26)

    At first glance this map seems like any other. It's got all the major landmarks you could want, it shows the natural and man-made parts of the area, and it points out the places you're most likely to want to go. But, as the book says, "the only trouble" with the map is the fact that it maps out a totally unrecognizable area. It's full of places he's "never heard of." But this makes us all the more eager to explore it, right?

    "Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going. Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not." (2.13)

    This quotation could apply almost as well to the theme "Versions of Reality" as it does to "Exploration." That's because, even though this character is describing a place that only literally exists in the Lands Beyond, "Expectations" does seem like a state of mind rather than a real place. But in the Lands Beyond, Expectations becomes a literal place – a spot on the map – instead of a thought process people have to go through.

    "Then one day a small ship appeared on the Sea of Knowledge. It carried a young prince seeking the future. In the name of goodness and truth he laid claim to all the country and set out to explore his new domain." (6.2)

    Notably, just like the European guys who took over the New World, this young prince "laid claim" to the Lands Beyond without considering the thoughts and feelings of those who already lived there. By the time characters like Milo arrive, all those natives are the demons who've been pushed back to live in the Mountains of Ignorance, where they seem pretty ticked off.

    "From there it's a simple matter of entering the Mountains of Ignorance, full of perilous pitfalls and ominous overtones – a land to which many venture but few return, and whose evil demons slither slowly from peak to peak in search of prey. Then an effortless climb up a two-thousand-step circular stairway without railings in a high wind at night (for in those mountains it is always night) to the Castle in the Air." (8.48)

    Check out the Humbug's descriptive language here. Even though the journey is "full of perilous pitfalls and ominous overtones" and the destination is full of "evil demons" that "slither" about, he describes undertaking it as "a simple matter" that involves "an effortless climb." The harder and more difficult the elements of such a quest are, the more strongly the Humbug describes them as really being no problem. Why do you think that is?

    "Ah, the open road!" exclaimed the Humbug, breathing deeply, for he now seemed happily resigned to the trip. "The spirit of adventure, the lure of the unknown, the thrill of a gallant quest. How very grand indeed." Then, pleased with himself, he folded his arms, sat back, and left it at that. (9.2)

    The Humbug can talk himself into just about anything, can't he? A moment earlier, going on this adventure was the last thing he wanted to do. If the king hadn't made him, he wouldn't have gone. But now that he's on "the trip," the narrator says, he's "happily resigned" to it. It seems like the Humbug has to make the trip sound as exciting and "grand" as possible to make himself feel better about going.

    </em>"To be sure," said Canby; "you're on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You're apt to be here for some time."

    "But how did we get here?" asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.

    "You jumped, of course," explained Canby. "That's the way most everyone gets here. It's really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It's such an easy trip to make that I've been here hundreds of times." (13.52-54)

    If the things and people of the Lands Beyond are more than what they seem at first, so are the methods of travel used in the Lands. From the wagon that "goes without saying" to the Mathemagician's erasing, to the quick and easy jump to Conclusions, each area comes with its own benefits and problems – and its own landscapes to explore.

    "What a curious idea," said the Mathemagician, raising his staff over his head and scrubbing the rubber end back and forth several times on the ceiling. "The next thing you'll have us believe is that you only sleep when you're tired." And by the time he'd finished the sentence, the cavern, the miners, and the Dodecahedron had vanished, leaving just the four of them standing in the Mathemagician's workshop.

    "I often find," he casually explained to his dazed visitors, "that the best way to get from one place to another is to erase everything and begin again. Please make yourself at home." (15.31-32)

    The Mathemagician's "staff" sure seems like it's more magical than an ordinary pencil. It enables him to travel "from one place to another" quickly and easily. And he can take as many people with him as he likes. Statements like this show that the whole world around him is at his fingertips. He can explore whenever and wherever he likes.

    "Just follow that line forever," said the Mathemagician, "and when you reach the end, turn left. There you'll find the land of Infinity, where the tallest, the shortest, the biggest, the smallest, and the most and the least of everything are kept." (15.72)

    Straightforward directions, right? Like almost everything else in the Lands Beyond, the closer you examine them the less sense they make. "Follow that line forever." Well, if you did that, you'd never "reach the end," because it goes on "forever." Duh. But the Mathemagician's instructions include an action that Milo should take after he "reach[es] the end": he should "turn left." Well, how can you turn left at the end if there is no end?

    Higher and higher they climbed, in search of the castle and the two banished princesses – from one crest to the next, from jagged rock to jagged rock, up frightful crumbling cliffs and along desperately narrow ledges where a single misstep meant only good-by. (18.1)

    This is either an exciting landscape to explore, or a totally frightening one, depending on your point of view. For thrill seekers, the high "cliffs" and "rocks" and "narrow ledges" have huge potential for thrills. For scaredy-cats, they have huge potential for sheer terror. Why is our Milo so willing to risk it all and conquer this crazy scene just to rescue to princesses he has never even met?

    "And remember, also," added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, "that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow." (18.66)

    The Princess of Sweet Rhyme offers Milo excellent advice that he can take with him for any and all future journeys. She says that he will develop skills and talents that will help him travel wherever he wants to go, even if it means going "off the map," like a true explorer. He's building the skills that will enable him to "discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow." Even if he doesn't see the sense of what he's working on learning in the moment, he just needs to trust that whatever it is will help him, later on down the road. It's a leap of faith.