Published on June 5th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones
Most people know Howl’s Moving Castle as a Studio Ghibli film that was released in 2004, but the popular animé was based on a book by Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones in 1986.
When asked by a small child to write about a moving castle, Jones came up with this novel set in a lavish fantasy world called Ingary, where magic and demons exist.
The main character is Sophie, a chronically procrastinating young girl who lives with her step-mother and two younger sisters in a Hat shop that has been in the family for generations. Her father has passed away and her step-mother is left with getting the children started on the rest of their lives. For the younger sister’s she sends them to be apprenticed and work, while for Sophie, she leaves her the Hat shop in the hope to keep the family business going.
Sophie has always resigned herself to a boring existence due to the perpetuated idea that the eldest of the children are doomed to a curse of mundanity. She feels that due in part to her average looks and lack of charm that she’ll never really amount to much and so accepts unhappily her life as shop assistant, passing by the time by talking to the hats and thinking to herself.
Soon, however Sophie’s rubbish life is shattered permanently by the entrance one day of a beautiful witch who violently bewitches the unprovoking Sophie into an old hag.
This last injustice renews Sophie’s resolve to go and find her fortune, so she sets off immediately.
She soon discovers a crawling castle, chugging along at a slow pace and embarks it. It is here she discovers a fire demon called “Calcifer” with whom she agrees to free from his contract with his master, in return for Calcifer turning her back to a normal girl.
She soon meets Calcifer’s master and anti-hero of the story, the Wizard Howl, a vain and enigmatic man who spends his time grooming himself and accosting young ladies in order to make them love him, so he can then ditch them. He is a coward and spends most of his time avoiding responsiblilty and escaping the clutches of the dreaded “Witch of the Waste” who also cursed Sophie.
The novel is fairly ample at around 300 pages and the pacing remains consistent throughout. The overarching plot is a little loose and unsatisfying but moment to moment the novel shines, Howl is an amusing and oddly likeable character and Sophie is relatable and invigorating.
Some of the minor characters such as Calcifer and Michael are also enjoyable and the characters’ interrelations and dialogue is clearly the best thing about the book.
The way demons work was rather interesting, Calcifer is a fire demon and needs a constant supply of fuel in order to stay alive and keep the castle together. He has sworn a pact with Howl which means he must stay and look after the castle and can’t leave.
The castle is like the Tardis, the outer layer is mostly higgledy piggeldy stone and is rather tall, but inside it only has a few rooms. The main room with the chimney in has a door which leads to another door located in another part of Ingary. When the coloured lock is moved, the corresponding door changes. This means they can go into many different villages without having to physically move the castle there, this does however mean that anyone can knock on the door and bother them, and seemingly two people could do that at once.
The world appears to resemble a folklorish land where the general populace is whimsical and unassuming, allowing for some good comedic elements when Sophie must venture outside the castle, however not enough time is spent getting to know the world and the people in it, it’s very much character-driven.
Not all of the time is spent in the world of Ingary, as around midway into the book there is a short and swift setchange to Wales, giving the book a Blyton-esque vibe.
The character of Sophie is especially charming, her development throughout the book and her rightous attitude easily makes you cheer her on, probably because you can easily imagine this girl embracing being an old woman and wreaking havoc on others.
The reason why I picked this book up was because I when I saw the film, I was a little disappointed.
Howl was irritatingly whiny and pointless and Sophie felt somewhat vapid from around the middle to the end of the film. Instead of a steady development into a fun and outgoing character, she became a soulless love puppet ready to be inserted into the next Disney film, which I feel is wholly unrepresentative of other Ghibli works.
Although reading the book, I wouldn’t say it’s vastly different to the film and it hardly expands on the themes and ideas which you want it to, the magic remains only as a secondary device and there isn’t a very interesting subplot, but it does tidy up all of the problems of the animé, adding in more appealing characters and some better comic relief, albeit with a little more British charm.