The Phantom Tollbooth

55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

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55 Classics Review # 12 – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


I found quickly that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those books that defined many people’s youthful reading. When I started it I found that it started conversations for me. This is a book that true fans read over again and often. It can be tricky to read something like this for the first time as an adult, but I think my slow start to the text actually helped to prepare me for the unique content of the book.

The Phantom Tollbooth is unlike any text I’ve read before. It feels surreal like Alice In Wonderland, fast and expansive like A Wrinkle In Time, and allegorical like Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet somehow it works in a way I wouldn’t have expected if you had simply explained these elements to me. It fits into a space in literature that seems wholly unique. I read The Dot And The Line a few years ago and loved it. After that I began to learn more about Norton Juster, and I find him to be a fascinating creative. There is something wonderful about people who make great work in a field they don’t consider to be their career. Juster was a career architect who also happened to write a definitive children’s book. He is an author not because he thought it was his calling but because he knew he had to write a certain story. The story found him.

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The Phantom Tollbooth is a great story. It follows a bored little boy called Milo as he uses a mysterious gift to travel to a land filled with allegory and puns. Along the way he hears all kinds of non-sensical advice and learns that there is more to words, numbers, common sense, art, and logic than he ever imagined. He even helps bring a little order back to the lands that have lost their Rhyme and Reason.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, though the nature of the book really keeps them shallowly depicted. The story moves so quickly through so much space that its a sensory overload for both the characters and the reader, which probably contributed to how slowly I read this relatively short book. I delighted in many of the puns, but I also found myself constantly wondering if I had totally missed some of them when I didn’t find one where I might have expected to. The main idea is simply that there are a thousand directions to explore knowledge of all sorts, and that’s one message that is always exciting to behold. The main thrust of the discovering in the book is of the use of words, numbers, and the sensory. I loved the idea of the colors in the world being brought out through the silent playing of an entire orchestra, and I personally would have enjoyed more of these artistic fantasies rather than the mathematic and scientific ones.

Overall, I was delighted by The Phantom Tollbooth. I realized from the first chapter that if this book exists as a quintessential classic to so many people, I can hold on to hope for my own creativity. Often I am dissatisfied with my own creative endeavors for the reasons I’m dissatisfied with some classics. There are things that I don’t enjoy about books like this one and Alice In Wonderland and A Wrinkle In Time, but I’m always delighted that there are people out there with different tastes that go beyond my simple appreciation for this type of work to outright passion and accolade. The Phantom Tollbooth wasn’t written for someone like me, but I can greatly appreciate how much people love it and why.

 

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Keep On Reading!

What I Learned From My First Book Review

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard Work

Wandlung, by M. Landers

Jules Feiffer Encourages Failure


 

Jules Feiffer was a huge catalyst in the creation of The Phantom Tollbooth. He wasn’t simply the illustrator, but a next-door neighbor and co-dreamer with Norton Juster. We often hear about the value of resilience through failure, but Feiffer seems almost to encourage an attitude of looking forward to it. A failure often carries more potential for illumination than a straightforward success.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On Creative Agony

Kurt Vonnegut Says Hate Gets Things Done

Mark Twain’s Amusement With Pains

 

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating


Norton Juster on writing and The Phantom Tollbooth from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

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As I make my way through the whimsical world of The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time, I am delighted as a reader and reassured as a writer. To hear that such genius minds as Maurice Sendak and Norton Juster had fears in the creative process and still managed to endear themselves to others through their mad ideas gives me hope and freedom to believe that we can continue to connect through silly stories.

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Further Reading

Dave Eggers’ Fear As An Author

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Fear