There are times that you encounter such a charming, delightful book that you only realize it after finding your head floating in the clouds. Colorful, imaginative, fun, layered, unique, pitch perfect prose—these are some the main attributes you look back upon having drifted away. One such story must certainly be one of the most immersive fantasy novels of all time, Diana Wynne Jones’ superb Howl’s Moving Castle (1986).
Distilling the pure essence of fairy tale and creating a sub-text involving relationships, gender, and maturation in a contemporary storyline, Howl’s Moving Castle is a novel that perfectly straddles the fence between modern and traditional with nothing lost between. Borrowing the best of both worlds, there are wizards and witches, spells and magic, but these familiar devices are deployed in a story that transcends even the notion of stereotype. Howl is a young wizard of extraordinary talents, but prone to wallowing in self-pity. Sophie is a quiet, unconfident young woman who feels herself trapped to one path in life, unable to escape while those around her have all the fun. And the Witch of the Waste, well, she just might be as classic as evil in fairy tales gets. But I get ahead of myself.
Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of Sophie. Eldest daughter to a hatter in a small village, her life is turned upside down when the family’s income takes a serious cut. Her mother forced to plan the lives of her three daughters sooner rather than later, Sophie is left to take up the mantle of the family business while her sisters are apprenticed around the village. Her subsequent life in the hat shop dull to the point of exasperation, Sophie is most often found talking to hats rather than boys. Unwittingly snapping at the wrong customer one evening, the Witch of the Waste, Sophie has a spell cast on her. Made to look eighty years old, she flees the shop into the wilds beyond the village. Needing shelter the first night out, she spies Howl’s moving castle walking past, and, for all its elbows and knees, knocks, enters, and makes room for herself. Meeting a most extraordinary cast of characters inside, Sophie’s new life takes her places she’s never dreamed and may just see her spell lifted.
A most delicate, almost diaphanous coming of age, Howl’s Moving Castle tells of the trials and errors Sophie must go through to become someone wiser and more mature. But while her story is central, growingup beside her is the mysterious Howl (boy wizard said to steal young girls’ souls), his bonded fire demon Calcifer, a hoppity scarecrow, and Howl’s apprentice, Michael. Not to be outshined, the castle itself, with all its magical apertures and appearances, intertwines is uncanny possibilities in the lives of its inhabitants.
As openly stated at the beginning, Howl’s Moving Castle is a novel that charmed me to the point of having to search for my pants (I know, bad joke—but I don’t know any other variety). Jones’ imagination such a delight and her classical mode of writing framing the scenes and characters to an inch of tangibility (no matter how fantastical they may be), I lost track of the outside world, and was angry when I had to put the book down to sleep or work. No book is everybody’s cup of tea, but this one certainly captures that sparkle of imagination that makes reading fantasy as enjoyable as can be. In this day and age we tend to over-taxonomize books, and thus while I would guess Howl’s Moving Castle is technically YA, there is nothing limited about it. Adults will find just as much charm in Sophie’s tale as teens. I certainly did .
A note on the Studio Ghibli adaptation: I have watched the anime rendering of Howl’s Moving Castle. While it differs from the novel, particularly toward the end, it does not come close to destroying the original in the same fashion Miyazaki’s son decimated Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. (That, is a travesty.) Miyazaki the father captures Howl’s castle, Calcifer, the scarecrow and so many other elements perfectly—exactly as my imagination dreamed them while reading. While choosing to take the magic Howl performs for the king into new socio-political territory in the film, it generally fits, but at the cost of interfering with what is a very personal denouement for Howl and Sophie in the novel. The film ends in relatively similar fashion, but given the kingdom sweeping events that preceed, may lose impact in the juxtaposition. While I would also shake a finger at Miyazaki for eliding the ‘real-world’ elements of the novel (an aspect I found which truly grounded the Jones’ story), the film remains recommended as post-reading viewing.