Intimations of mortality

roch-castle-1880

Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults?

Putting aside the liberties that particularly the second half of the film takes with the story, I think a key to this book’s fascination is the heroine’s premature ageing. Jones specialised in the young adult fantasy genre despite being no spring chicken herself, and so the apparent way in which the fairytale motif of the youthful protagonist becomes seemingly permanently subverted by the sudden onset of years and the attendant aches and pains must strike a warning chord with older readers too.

You are as old as you feel, the conventional saying goes, along with the belief that youth is wasted on the young. In Howl’s Moving Castle these themes are developed. Sophie (whose name means Wisdom) finds her bright young mind trapped in a decrepit body (a fear many middle-aged individuals feel as old age beckons). How she deals with that, when the fairytale convention says most heroes and heroines must be robustly proactive, is that she uses her wits, her understanding and her innate skills (such as empathy) rather than mere physicality to overcome the obstacles that stand in her way. While ostensibly about Howl and his mobile dwelling, this book is really (I suspect) about DWJ as Sophie, but with the consolation of a fairytale ending. And while the animated film takes on additional themes that reflect some of its maker’s obsessions, it does at least capture the perennial essence of each human being’s intimations of mortality and built-in obsolescence.

A final note: like all Diana Wynne Jones books (and books by a great many other authors, of course!) the choice of names is often significant. I like the name of Ingary, home to Sophie and her family: reminiscent of Hungary, it must be a closet reference to a parallel England, pronounced Inglund. And Sophie Hatter herself, no Mad Hatter (though she must have felt she was going mad) but a Wise Hatter.

The first of a trio of tales featuring Howl, his moving castle and Sophie. This review was first published July 2012; reviews of the second and the third will be republished on successive days. If you haven’t seen the film, then this trailer will give you a flavour. In a letter to me in November 2005, Diana told me that the animated film was “well worth seeing, although it is only a little like the book.”

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6 thoughts on “Intimations of mortality

    1. Meant to respond to this before now, sorry! Hope you’ve had a chance to read this by now, Kate, and it’s also great to read aloud to children.

      Also the film is great, if slightly at variance with the book, but as with many of the Studio Ghibli anime films appeals to all ages (even with having to read the subtitles). Especially favoured by our grandchildren are ‘Ponyo’, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (and I love them too!). There’s also a version of ‘The Borrowers’ called ‘Arrietty’ though I haven’t seen it yet.

  1. =Tamar

    Since a hat is also a metaphor for a job, Sophie’s talent as a hatter might also be that she is good at fitting people to their jobs.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    DWJ so often creates juxtapositions of the unlikeliest elements. A star who becomes a dog? A griffin who becomes a college student? A fairy tale heroine who becomes an old woman? In the end it’s always about finding your true self, and discerning truth in others. The self can take many forms but the essence remains, if we can see and understand it — that is the basis of magic, after all.

    1. I think too that hers is a distinctive voice, one that constantly expresses the magic that is inherent in everyday things and that the juxtapositions you mention help throw that magic into sharp relief.

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