Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Howl’s Moving Castle is a book that is very easy to love. Diana Wynne Jones is a consistently entertaining author, and her prose seldom fails to be enticing and comfortable as settling into a favorite armchair, even when opening one of her books for the first time. What is perhaps even more impressive is that it’s generally very hard to discern any effort beneath the workings. Jones almost gives the impression that she writes at perfect ease, never agonizing but instead kicking back and letting the words flow in an uninterrupted, easy-going cascade.
This isn’t to say that Howl’s Moving Castle is a perfect book by any means, but I want to make the point early and strongly that it is a very enjoyable one. The story concerns one Sophie Hatter and her relationship with the wizard Howl. Sophie has been transformed by a curse into an old woman, and in the hopes of breaking the spell has insinuated herself into a position as cleaning lady for the feckless, womanizing Howl. For fans of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, you should be aware that the book bears fairly little resemblance in plot and especially in tone to the events of the film. This Howl is not really a tragic figure so much as an amusing one.
Jones, of course, has always had a flair for satirizing fantasy, and a good bit of that bleeds through here, despite the fact that Howl’s Moving Castle is apparently a genuine fairy tale and not a pastiche of anything in particular. Some of the characters occasionally joke about fantasy tropes, for instance, and the ending has a more than slightly sardonic feel to its phrasing. If this is an attempt to write a straightforward wizardly love story, it’s certainly not shy about dropping in some tongue-in-cheek. If anything, I’m afraid this tendency of Jones’s to poke fun and take things lightly may have gotten a little out of hand in Howl’s Moving Castle.
By this, I mean that while the prose is good and the book overall is entertaining, there is the strong impression at points that Jones isn’t taking the novel entirely seriously. There are a number of subplots (particularly Howl’s place of origin) that may work as allusions and jokes but don’t seem to have much point in the overall plot and never give much satisfactory reason for existing at all. In fact, by the end of the book they end up making the world Jones has created feel a bit cheap and two-dimensional, like a painted backdrop. This is not entirely fair, but the random elements that seem to serve no purpose plotwise give the impression of scant consideration on the author’s part.
The plot aside from the tangents has a fairly decent flow, although it suffers from a bit of a pacing problem near the end of the book as the answer to every mystery is revealed very quickly in the space of a few pages. The ending in general is in fact a bit of an anticlimax due to its brevity if nothing else. As a final issue, one should note that Jones’s casual style occasionally results in a rather odd or nonsensical sentence. It’s very rare, but I remember thinking on at least three occasions that the editor really should have said something about potentially confusing phrases.
That said, however, the book is well worth reading just for the ride. Jones not only writes well but creates genuinely likeable characters along the way, as well as some very amusing scenes. The dialogue is smart and skillful (some of Sophie’s phrases in particular will leave the reader smiling) and it manages fairly well to be the sort of children’s book that adults can easily enjoy. On top of all that, this just feels like a good-natured little book, funny and sweet and comfortable. It has its issues, and it’s probably nothing that will change most readers’ worlds, but it has the kind of easy, unpretentious charm that can let someone feel at home from the first chapter. There’s something to be said for that.
I thought this children’s fantasy was charming and original, though it was occasionally confusing, and I wished some things had been explained a little better. I really felt for Sophie, the main character, who feels so timid, trapped and hopeless that when she’s hit with a curse that turns her into an old woman, it actually frees her in more ways than one. She leaves her dead-end job and, for lack of a better option, moves herself into the oddly mobile castle of the Wizard Howl, where magic and cobwebs fill the air. The fire demon in the castle’s fireplace challenges Sophie to break “the contract” between himself and Howl, and she hopes that maybe Howl and the demon can help break the curse on her as well.
The nature and use of magic in Howl’s Moving Castle were quite creative. As a former English major, I really enjoyed how John Donne’s poem “Song” (“Go and catch a falling star”) was worked into the story.
I thought that the wrap-up at the end was a bit too hasty, but overall it was a quick, fun read, with bonus points for an unusual degree of originality.
Perhaps the most well-known of Diana Wynne Jones’s extensive body of work (and not just because of the Hayao Miyazaki film), Howl’s Moving Castle is colourful, imaginative, humorous, mysterious and immensely clever, where nothing — absolutely nothing — is what it seems. Chock-a-block full of vivid characters and a twisty-turny storyline, this is one of those rare books (usually reserved for adult novels) that I can read for the third, fourth, fifth time and still pick up on some new detail that I’d previously missed.
In a sendup of the usual fairytale formula, Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and so well aware that she’s destined to have no adventures whatsoever in her life — especially with two younger, prettier sisters. Still, she’s resigned to working in her late father’s hat shop until the day the notorious Witch of the Waste enters and turns her into an old woman. Sophie has no idea why it’s been done or how to break the spell, but ashamed of her new appearance, she takes to the road.
She finds herself in the titular Moving Castle, home to the Wizard Howl who is rumoured to seduce young girls and steal their hearts. Ironically, her transformation gives Sophie a new lease on life, finding that as an old woman she’s lost most of her shyness and so assertive enough to set herself up as Howl’s cleaning lady. In her new position Sophie finds an abundance of mysteries to contend with: a demon living in the fireplace that offers to remove her spell if she helps break his contract with the wizard; the logistics of the castle itself, which has a singular door that can open into various locations and worlds (including modern-day Wales); and Howl himself, an infuriatingly vain and self-absorbed wizard with astonishing power that he apparently uses solely to woo ladies.
The story itself is intricately plotted, with Sophie being witness to several events that don’t have their full meaning explained until much later. The identities of several characters remain concealed, or even divided up between various entities for much of the book’s duration, and the motivations of the book’s main players can be mysterious or even obscure. It’s a tangled web that takes some discernment (or perhaps a second read) to fully grasp, especially given the rather hurried wrap-up, but it makes for a surprisingly complex storyline that demands your full attention. As Calcifer keeps telling Sophie, he’s constantly giving her hints about the nature of his contract with Howl (being unable to tell her outright) but she keeps missing them.
And that’s not even mentioning the scarecrow that chases Sophie around the countryside, the disappearances of Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin, and the bizarre sights waiting for Sophie when Howl takes her to modern-day Wales…
Sophie makes for an unorthodox heroine, not only in her enchantment that renders her an elderly woman, but in her practicality and dry wit. She makes a perfect foil for the flamboyant, dishonest, self-appreciative Howl, who tries to “slither out” of his predicaments rather than face them head-on. Sophie never hesitates in calling him out on his bad behaviour, though it becomes clear as the story goes on that plenty of hidden depths exist beneath his drama-queen persona. There’s also Calcifer, the sardonic and perhaps untrustworthy fire demon that controls the movement and magic of the castle, and Michael, Howl’s good natured young apprentice who quickly befriends Sophie when she first arrives. All of them are vividly realized, and Wynne Jones is an expert in taking an impartial view of these people and their personalities, letting the reader judge for themselves what they’re really like (in other words, she’s a master of the “show, don’t tell” rule).
But Diana Wynne Jones’s real gift is in how she makes magic so domestic — and therein lies its power and charm. Whether it be Calcifer nestling in the fireplace or Howl turning his home into a flower shop, everything weird and wonderful is treated so casually by the narrative that the perspective somehow flips on itself, becoming even more mysterious and potent to the reader. The inevitable comparison is the treatment of magic in HARRY POTTER, wherein every spell and charm would be met with awe and excitement — here, magic is treated as an everyday occurrence, thereby rendering it even more thrilling.
The ending is perhaps wrapped up a bit too hurriedly (such a complex storyline needed perhaps a little more exposition just to clarify things in the reader’s mind) but this remains one of Wynne Jones’s best novels. Be sure to follow up on these characters’ lives in the sequel: Castle in the Air.
Renewed interest in the author (and this book in particular) rose after the release of Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of the story, which is currently available on DVD. Though I enjoyed the film, especially for its visual brilliance, it changes or omits several important elements of the storyline, leaving it rather convoluted as a result. It’s better treated as supplemental material to the book than a straightforward adaption of it, but it’s still very enjoyable in its own way.
The book or the movie? I say movie.
I enjoyed listening to the audiobook (Recorded Books) with my kids. Jenny Sterlin gives a good performance.