Note: Throughout June, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Diana Wynne Jones. There are definitely spoilers below, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best known and most popular books. It has two sequels, Castle in the Air, and House of Many Ways. It’s also one of my favorite books by DWJ, and yet one that I have never really reviewed until now.
The opening of this book is really delightful. “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.” It’s such a perfect set up for the story that will follow, with the fairy tale echoes, and also the parts that push back against fairy tales. And the character sketches that follow give us Sophie’s point-of-view so clearly, while also showing us that things might not be exactly as she thinks.
It also establishes this as a story that is in conversation with other stories. There are references galore. In addition to the fairy tales, Howl’s curse is, of course, “Song” by John Donne. There’s another Donne reference (“Busy old fool, unruly Sophie,” says Howl), as well as Raleigh and Shakespeare. Moreover, Megan’s house in Wales is called Rivendell. I mean, really! I even had a moment where I started thinking about possible parallels to Pride and Prejudice (am I going too far? Maybe but also maybe not?).
All in all, I felt re-reading this, that DWJ was having so much fun with this story. She’s playing around with characters, conventions, expectations. It’s not frothy–there’s substance to it too–but it is light. It comforts rather than challenges as, say, Hexwood does. And of course, Howl at his most histrionic is really funny to read about (maybe less to live with). The slime! Despair! Anguish! Horror! His dramatic cold! (Apparently based on her husband’s–“I just had to write it all down,” she says in the Q&A. Also: “He blows his nose exactly like a bassoon in a tunnel.”)
But, despite the sheer enjoyment factor of this book, it’s also doing some tricksy things. There is lots of hiding in plain sight. Remember how I mentioned characters who are in disguise, even from themselves? That describes multiple characters in HMC. There’s Sophie, there’s the wicked wizard who isn’t wicked, the dog-man–even Lettie & Martha.
It’s even crafty in terms of the plot. Sophie’s central quest is to find out and break the contract between Calcifer and Howl, and we’re basically told the solution right at the beginning (“he was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard”) but in a way that misdirects us for ages. This is a clever book, in the best way–not crowing over its own wit, but waiting for you to uncover it.
When it comes down to it, though, for me the real heart (heheheh) of the book is Sophie. It’s Sophie’s point-of-view we get, Sophie who is so unaware of her own strengths for so much of the book, and yet so clear at the same time. Sophie who is often a mystery to herself, who is prickly and stubborn and brave. The shepherd she meets thinks she’s a witch and she gets indignant even though she very clearly is one. This is the story, in so many ways, of a teenage girl growing up and seeing her own strengths. They’re always there–one of my favorite moments in the whole book is just after the Witch turns Sophie old and she thinks, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, of course I shall have to do for her”–but she doesn’t always believe in them. This is the story of her learning to believe in her own instincts, her own desires, her own worth.
What I sometimes forget, because she’s so much Sophie through the whole book, is that she does all of this while an old lady. There’s a very interesting bit where Sophie thinks that as a girl she “would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman she did not mind what she did or said.” I can quite manage to pull this into a thesis, What Diana Wynne Jones is Saying About Women and Age and Societal Expectations, but it’s there.
If Sophie is one central point of this story, Howl is the other. I said on Twitter as I was reading this that he really does remind me of Gen in many ways, and then almost the next line was “‘What a lie that was,’ Howl remarked as he walked into the wall. ‘My shining dishonesty will be the salvation of me.'” They’re both characters who hide their hearts, who mask the fact that they care with abundant flamboyance and deliberate botheration of those around them. They’re both slitherer-outers, for sure.
But when it comes down to it, Howl is quite selfish; or not selfish exactly but certainly self-centered. He quite likes helping people, and yet he’s rather ruthless when it comes to things he does or doesn’t want to do. I’m quite pleased when he meets his match in Sophie, who’s just about as stubborn and has more care for other people.
The one note of this book which I don’t quite love is the treatment of Megan. “I love Wales, but it doesn’t love me,” says Howl, but he’s really talking about his sister. This is realistic, perhaps, but Megan remains such a one note character without any real reason that we’re given for her uncharitable depiction. We’re shown that she’s annoying, but well, so is Howl. (As an aside, this is yet another DWJ book where the main action takes place in one world with excursions to another world, which is ours. Reverse portal fantasy, if you will.) It’s not enough to sour the whole book for me by any means, but I do always notice and sigh a little.
I feel slightly the same way about the Witch, but far less so because she really has done nasty things and treated people in an awful way. Oddly enough, she reminded me just a little of a more evil, and witchy, version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (This was the point at which I started thinking of HMC and P&P and wondering.) So I can notice that her depiction falls into a pattern that I don’t love, but also accept it and keep reading.
Despite these hiccups, this is really a book which I find delightful as a reading experience, and which also touches me deeply. If you asked me which characters I feel most like, I would say Betsy Ray and Sophie Hatter. Perhaps it’s because I’m also the oldest child of three & always resented that fairy tales rewarded the youngest, perhaps it’s because the way Sophie sees herself is really quite familiar. Regardless, for me reading this book the first time–and all the times since–has felt like coming home, like greeting an old friend.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1986, Greenwillow; mg/YA