Early on in his adventures, Milo runs into an interesting character: Tock, the watchdog. Tock’s job is to make sure time never gets wasted, so while they are on their way to Dictionopolis, he explains to Milo all of the reasons that time is so important and why it should be considered sacred. It is clear that Tock takes time very seriously, but Milo does not immediately seem to hold it to the same standard. At the other end of the extreme are the Lethargarians, who try as hard as they can to waste as much time as possible. Thus, in this section of the book, there is an overarching theme regarding time and the way that it should be spent, which leads one to consider the ways that time has been represented in the book thus far, as well as the way that it is esteemed in terms of childhood in general.
One of the first things that we read about Milo is that he is always in a rush, although it is not because he has anything to do or any place to get to. He hurries to get to his destinations, but once there, he sits dejectedly thinking about how there is nothing exciting going on. So while Milo is initially making a great use of time by spending as little of it in transit as possible, he immediately switches to wasting time once he reaches his destination. He has nothing to do, which makes it all the more interesting when he sees the package that reads, “For Milo, who has plenty of time.” At this point, time is turned into a possession, something of which a person either has plenty or not enough.
This is interesting because it ties into the way that childhood is viewed as a period of carefreeness. Children do not really have a concept of time or wasting it. They can spend hours playing the same game without getting bored, and they are seldom anxious about finishing one thing so that they can get started on another. For them, time is something that exists only in the context of having a certain number of hours to play outside, between finishing their homework and coming inside for dinner. But all of that time spent in play just exists – the minutes are not counted, they are not carefully planned out.
Thus, it appears that Milo gets a unique look into adulthood once he meets Tock. Hearing someone talk about time and all of its values, and the way that it is imperative not to waste it, is something that most children do not give much thought to. The book therefore serves to teach children the lesson of time and its value. It may be a premature lesson, as it is something that people naturally grow to accept as they get older and things like deadlines become more relevant. However, it is a unique thing to focus on in a children’s book, which gives The Phantom Tollbooth a different feel from other children’s books that we have looked at thus far.