Inspiration – The Phantom Tollbooth and Indulging in Absurdity

A map of The Phantom Tollbooth's main setting, the Kingdom of Wisdom
A map of The Phantom Tollbooth’s main setting, the Kingdom of Wisdom (via CarlaGates247 on Flickr)

I think all writers remember those few books that set them upon the path they currently tread. These are the books we read over and over again, from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. Most of us probably have our battered, worn copies of these beloved tomes on their bookshelves still, which our loving fingers occasionally caress as we reminisce over the good times we had losing ourselves in these imaginary worlds.

I have a handful of such works, but the first which springs to my memory would have to be Norton Juster’s fable, The Phantom Tollbooth. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve read this book – well over twenty, at least. I recently received a special, annotated edition of the tale as a gift and I’m not ashamed to say in the least how much it thrilled me. Of course, I still have my first copy of the book, as you can see. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it. How could I? It’d be like losing a friend.

My copies of "The Phantom Tollbooth"
My copies of “The Phantom Tollbooth”

The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961, but has aged magnificently, like the best wine. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer are forever emblazoned in my mind and look as fresh and creative today as they did then. The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of a bored young man named Milo. To him the world seems agonizingly ordinary and bland. Each day follows the next, nothing is worth doing, and no one is worth knowing. All this changes when, one afternoon, a mysterious tollbooth arrives at his apartment and whisks Milo away to the Kingdom of Wisdom where he undertakes a quest to rescue the Princess Rhyme and the Princess Reason from the Castle in the Air in order to bring harmony back to the land.

A picture of illustrator Jules Feiffer
A young Jules Feiffer as captured by World Telegram staff photographer Dick DeMarsico

Juster’s book is awash with delightful word puns, magnanimous rulers, such as King Azaz the Unabridged and The Mathemagician, and charming, quirky, sometimes insidious characters such as Chroma, who conducts a symphony which plays all the world’s colors, and the Terrible Trivium, a demon who wastes innocents’ time with meaningless tasks. As beloved to many as much as the worlds of Oz or Wonderland, the Kingdom of Wisdom is a place which, as a child, I never wanted to leave. Of course Milo must, but he leaves realizing that he truly does live in a beautiful and interesting world after all, with so much to learn and see and experience.

There is a reason, I think, why books such as The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland delight and captivate readers of all ages. As children, stories like these open our minds to a world of infinite possibility and wonder, allowing us to believe for a short time that such worlds actually exist. As adults, these books perform a slightly different function. They remind us of the infinite, limitless possibilities our childhood imaginations granted us, and in a very real way, encourage us to turn those possibilities into realities. We indulge in the fantasy, in the absurdity, and the joy we draw from it can be translated into action in a way it rarely can in childhood. It’s important to let go of self or society imposed limitations and allow the mind to wander over what might be, what could be if only; and this is one of the principle tasks of a writer, to provide the opportunity for this freedom, this inspiration in others, to take place.

The cover to a 1907 edition of Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" drawn by Charles Robinson
The cover to a 1907 edition of Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” drawn by Charles Robinson

If any of you have a book you discovered in your childhood that’s still able to get your creative juices flowing, tell me about it in the comments! I’d love to hear about people’s formative pieces of fiction and I’m interested to hear what it is you love about them. Their timelessness? Their humor? Their characters? Please, let me know! Also, if you’re interested in watching a film version of The Phantom Tollbooth, the 1970 film adaptation, written and directed by none other than the legendary Chuck Jones, is available in its entirety on YouTube (click here!).

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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