This is probably about the third time I’ve read Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve also seen the movie twice, once when it came out (before I’d read the book, because I am a heathen) and once within the past few years, following a re-read, and the second viewing left me cold. The book, on the other hand, is immensely entertaining. Spoilers to follow…
To the book’s credit, it never projects itself as a love story. It’s intended to be a coming-of-age where the Witch of the Waste curses Sophie Hatter, turning her into an old lady who is unable to tell anyone she is cursed (however, if they figure it out on their own, all bets are off). In Sophie’s homeland, there is something of an old wives’ tale that states a child born eldest of three will fail miserably if the three siblings set out to seek their fortune. Of course, after getting turned old, Sophie feels she has nothing left to lose and defies this, setting out to see what she can see. Because she’s creaky and stumpy and unused to being either, she doesn’t make it very far in her venture and instead yells at the mysterious moving castle up in the hills to slow down and let her come in to sit. From there, she worms her way into the lives of the castle’s inhabitants: vain, brilliant, cowardly Howl, a wizard from another land who spends all of his time chasing women for no given reason; Michael, his boy apprentice; and Calcifer, the fire demon who lives in the fireplace and is under a mysterious contract with Howl. Calcifer recognizes that Sophie is under a spell and agrees to help break it if she’ll help break his contract with Howl. So Sophie stays on with the team as their housekeeper, who basically makes a nuisance of herself by actually cleaning things. (Boys and men in this land, or maybe just wizards and apprentices, do not much care for cleaning or having things be clean.)
Meanwhile, there are several other things going on. In no particular order:
– Howl is at war (of sorts) with the Witch of the Waste, who
– may or may not have kidnapped Prince Justin.
– Howl is under something of a curse himself, brought upon him by the Witch in the form of a John Donne poem (‘Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star’, which is said to also be the inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), and if you’re wondering how a British 1500-1600s poet is responsible for a curse in a fictional land, it’s because
– Wizard Howl/Sorcerer Jenkins is actually Howell Jenkins, from Wales, who has a family residing there and has somehow through his study of magic in college, found a doorway into Sophie’s realm, though how or why is never explained.
– Also in modern-day Wales is Ben Sullivan, who it turns out is the Wizard Suliman (gone missing from both locations) and his fiancee Miss Angorian, with whom Howl falls in deep lust. Or so it seems?
– PS, Sophie also has two sisters, Martha and Lettie, who through the use of magic have switched places and are both going by the name Lettie Hatter, and both Howl and Michael the apprentice are dating a Lettie Hatter.
– PPS, Sophie is also magic.
How this book ends up with a very frothy romantic back-and-forth in the last two pages (and it is very fluffy indeed, as they flirt while everyone else tries to tell them important things and they don’t hear it because they are being cute!) is something of a mystery, as Howl is painted as a relentless skirt-chaser, who pursues women until they finally love him, then gets bored and leaves them until they hunt down his door and cry, and/or send their angry old aunts to yell at Howl. This has earned Howl a reputation in Sophie’s hometown of Market Chipping as being a wicked wizard who eats girls’ hearts. It leads to some clever misunderstanding, as Sophie spends much of her time trying to investigate the secrets of Howl’s wickedness, only over time to very slowly realize that he’s actually a pretty okay guy, just the aforementioned vain and cowardly dude. Howl’s apparent change in emotions towards Sophie seems to come out of nowhere, as she spends her time with him as an old lady (Howl is not into cougars; probably the Witch of the Waste scared him straight on that matter), and when he does figure out she’s under a curse, we don’t know it until well after, when he tells her. In fact, on several occasions, he has Sophie posing as his mother. None of this strikes me as being particularly romantic, but what do I know? (Although it may or may not turn out that Howl’s advances on one of the Lettie Hatters were actually fact-finding missions re: Sophie, so maybe there were indications, but again, we never saw this.)
The story isn’t really about romance, so you can see why I’m confused. It’s about solving a magical mystery (while on a tour?), it’s about learning to overcome fears, it’s about how to properly clean a dusty castle, it’s about how to properly use seven-league boots and about calling your family once in awhile, because they worry about you. I don’t object to a romance thrown in here and there, but there’s no real motivation for it, other than they live together and have gotten sort of used to each other in between tantrums and threatening to walk out on one another. They even open a flower shop together! Still, ‘you’re an okay landlord for not throwing an old lady out on the streets’ is not good enough reason to stare moonily into someone’s eyes. And to be fair, his womanizing is at least partially due to the fact that his contract means Calcifer has his heart. Furthermore, Sophie quite literally gives Howl his heart back, when she uses her magic to separate it from Calcifer and grant them both life. Not a bad gig all around, but loving someone (though in fairness, the word love is never used) because they undid your terrible mistake and saved your life doesn’t seem like the most honest basis for a relationship. However, it is a decent fairytale ending for what ends up being a pretty excellent fairytale. So I guess it all works out for the best.