Desert Isle Keeper
Howl's Moving Castle
I first read and loved Howl’s Moving Castle when it was published twenty years ago. In my umpteenth re-reading of the book for this DIK review, I realize I still love it as much as ever. It is, in my opinion, one of the best novels ever about finding yourself and about the nature of love.
It begins: “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 three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
Sophie Hatter, our heroine, is an eldest sister and completely resigned to her role. While her sisters have found positions to their liking, she isolates herself in her step-mother’s hat shop where she is an apprentice, talking to hats and feeling put-upon. Her life changes dramatically when the Witch of the Waste comes into the hat shop and puts her under a spell which turns her into an old woman. Too much ashamed to face her stepmother or sisters, she leaves in secret and seeks shelter at night in the moving castle of the evil Wizard Howl.
Wizard Howl has a terrible reputation for stealing young girls’ hearts and/or souls, but Sophie argues to herself that, as an old woman, she is in no danger. The castle is empty inside except for Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer, with whom Sophie strikes up a conversation. They discover that what they have in common is that both are being exploited, and Calcifer proposes a bargain: He will remove Sophie’s spell, if she manages to break the contract which binds him to Howl.
In order to be allowed to stay in the castle, Sophie appoints herself as the new cleaning lady (the castle is extremely dirty). She bullies Calcifer and Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and embarks on a battle of wills with Howl about how much cleaning and snooping around he permits her to do. Not to be a nicely-behaved young girl any longer is wonderfully liberating for her, and she revels in it (and the reader with her).
Howl is a fascinating and enigmatic character with immense charm that he uses to his every advantage. He is incredibly vain – spending two hours in the bathroom every morning – and enjoys posturing. He throws spectacular temper tantrums when thwarted and also tries to slither out of every situation that is not to his liking. Yet he is a talented wizard, teaches Michael patiently, and he permits Sophie to stay. With all these contradictions, new facets of his personality and his background continue to surprise both Sophie and the reader.
The way Sophie and Howl interact is both very funny and very true to life. They are very outspoken, sometimes bordering on rude, but it is clear that they are well-matched in this. I also like the novel’s honesty in describing that exasperation at your beloved’s faults and attempts to manipulate him into doing what you want are very much part of a relationship. Another theme that is dealt with sensitively is sibling rivalry.
The language is in turns witty and lyrical and the plotting clever and intricate. Although there is a great deal going on, everything is connected logically, and satisfying explanations for even the most hair-raising events are given. One important plot-line depends on John Donne’s Song (“Go and catch a falling star”) being used as a puzzle that must be deciphered. The minor characters are described carefully as to give each a personality of their own. Calcifer, the fire demon, is utterly lovable.
I read this book twenty years ago for the fun, exciting plot and romance…now I read it for its wisdom and intricacies. It is a book that I can highly recommend for both teenagers and adults. A sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle is Castle in the Air. It’s a highly readable book, albeit not as outstanding as the original, and during the first third, no connection between the two seems to exist. That the connection has been there from very early on becomes clear later, so don’t give up too soon.
The anime film Howl’s Moving Castle is based on the novel and adheres closely to it in the first half, but then plot and character development differ greatly. I adore the film in its own right (Christian Bale is Howl’s voice in the English version), but it is a fairly free adaptation.