Howl’s Moving Castle
“In the land of Ingary where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
Diana Wynne Jones is a legend in the fantasy genre. But, like many younger readers, Miyazaki’s animated version of Howl’s Moving Castle was my first glimpse into Jones’s work over ten years ago. I was enchanted by Miyazaki’s interpretation of Howl, Sophie, and the strangeness of their world. When I set out to read the book not long after, I found I was expecting an exact rendition of Miyazaki’s interpretation, rather than the book I encountered. Sadly, I didn’t pick it up for another eight years, but this time I was able to set aside my love for Miyazaki’s movie and appreciate the book for what it was: a damn good fantasy novel.
Eighteen-year-old Sophie is the eldest of three daughters and is destined to be a failure because of it. All the tales proclaim it so. When her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie is stuck in the old hat shop with her step-mother, who is not evil in the least, talking to hats and utterly forgotten. Everything changes when the Witch of the Waste enters the hat shop by chance and curses Sophie into the body of an old woman. When Sophie leaves home in search of a way to break her curse, she finds herself the new cleaning lady for the horrible Wizard Howl and his moving castle. With a prince and a wizard missing, and the Witch of the Waste on Howl’s trail, it will take every ounce of strength left in Sophie’s suddenly aged bones to put everything right.
The dry, dry wit is one of the things I love most about Jones’s writing style. Her tone turns the book into a satire of fairy-tale tropes, subtly flipping them on their heads with mastery akin to Jane Austen. Sophie, while seeming demure at first glance, is anything but. When she thinks no one is looking at her–under the curse as an old woman–she is able to say what she thinks for the first time in her life. I LOVE that Jones turns her into an old woman–a decidedly unsexy curse. Yet, because of it, Sophie is the only one who is not afraid to put Howl in his place.
Jones’s undermining of the macho romantic male lead in the terrible Wizard Howl–long before this trope came under fire–is fantastic. Despite his great power and fearsome reputation, Howl is a man-child who throws a tantrum when he is having a bad hair day. He is melodramatic and attention seeking in the best way possible: “I feel ill,” [Howl] announced. “I’m going to bed, where I may die.” But Jones also gives him qualities one would expect in a male lead–a willingness to help those in circumstances beneath his own and strength against darkness.
“Well, he’s fickle, careless, selfish, and hysterical,” [Sophie] said. ‘Half the time I think he doesn’t care what happens to anyone as long as he’s alright–but then I find out how awfully kind he’s been to someone. Then I think he’s kind just when it suits him–only then I find out he undercharges poor people. I don’t know, Your Majesty. He’s a mess.”
Jones is pioneering precisely because of her willingness to create characters and situations that undermine the norm while still upholding goodness. Sophie is overlooked but holds a strength she is not aware of. Howl is a selfish bastard, but shows tender moments of kindness beneath the facade. Jones brings them closer with brilliant subtlety as they romp through a world of powerful magic, living stars, and stolen hearts. And despite Jones’s skewering of fairy-tales, Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy-tale as hilarious, witty, and true as they come.