Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)
At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.
On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.
The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.
I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,
A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…
Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.
As was the case with the author herself, Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three girls, and lives in a little market town in the country of Ingary. Her father has just died, and she is in the charge of her stepmother. All the signs point to this being another literary fairytale, but Jones is never one to stick to the conventional path, despite references to seven-league boots, for example, and affectionate parodies of other literary fairytales.
As an example of the latter I’d like to cite The Wizard of Oz. Jones includes a scarecrow, a dog, a wizard, kind witches and even Wicked Witch of the Waste, all nods towards Baum’s hugely influential fantasy (there is even a hint of the quests for brains, heart and courage, if one looks hard enough). But Jones subverts all these tropes: the moving castle is described as black while the Emerald City appears green only because viewed through tinted spectacles; the Wizard Howl is not a fraud where the ability to work magic is concerned, whereas the magic of the Wizard of Oz is all humbug; Sophie is cursed to become a grumpy old woman where Dorothy remains a young girl throughout; and so on.
Jones was in her fifties when the first Howl book was published, and I suspect that she must have felt like Sophie, with a young mind in an ageing body. Sophie is cursed — by mistake, it turns out — by the Wicked Witch of the Waste who only knows that one of the Hatter girls is somehow a threat to her: the curse being that Sophie is not able to tell anyone that she has been turned into a crone. She hobbles off from the hat shop she is charge of, towards the hills where a black four-turreted castle is ranging about, supposedly inhabited by a Bluebeard-like wizard called by the sinister name of Howl.
Along the way Sophie encounters a scarecrow in a hedge, then somehow manages to enter the perambulating fortress where she meets the wizard’s apprentice, Michael, and eventually the, frankly terrifying, Howl himself.
Howl is terrifying because he mopes around like a lumpen teenager. If Sophie is an aspect of the author herself, Howl is a mix of the author’s husband and sons (as she admits in an interview at the end of this edition and in her posthumous memoir Reflections). Howl apparently turns out to be many a young girl’s dream boyfriend, whether they want to mother him or change him through the love of a good woman I’m not in a position to say; but, irritated as I am by Howl, I admit that I am more attracted by old Sophie who expresses her frustration with everything in general grumpiness and displacement activity, an attitude I am totally in tune with!
Howl’s Moving Castle is a fun but complex tale, too complex to discuss here without giving out unforgivable spoilers, but it’s worth noting a few more points. First is the fire-demon Calcifer, a counterpart of Howl in character and literally the driving force behind the castle. Just as the word focus originally referred to the heart of the home — the hearth — in ancient times, so Calcifer is where the main characters always repair to when they need comfort and solidity. But not all fire-demons are the same…
“Write about what you know,” is the advice often given to aspiring writers. How does this apply to fantasy which, one could argue, is about things unreal and beyond our everyday experiences? We’ve already seen how the author drew on family for her protagonists, a dangerous ploy but one which adds verisimilitude to character traits and motivations. She also drew on what was familiar to her from her life and from environments she had lived in.
Thus she constantly alluded to the synchronicities that occurred between her writing and real life, which in a way is a kind of magic. Also she included places that she knew as elements in her plots: for example, the appearance of Howl’s residence in Ingary was as a black castle, which I’m half convinced Jones based on the Victorian folly called Arno’s Castle in Brislington, Bristol, which she would have regularly seen on her way from Central Bristol to nearby Bath.
I must also mention Wales, which is where Howl (as Howell Jenkins) originally hailed from. During the war Jones was evacuated to her father’s relatives outside Swansea in South Wales, and the hilly streets, typically lined with small terraced houses, must have lodged strongly in her memory for this is where Howl (when he isn’t lovelorn or stricken with man-flu) takes her to the family home, where love is in short supply.
And speaking of love, let’s return to The Mikado with some more lines from Nanki-Poo which almost equally apply to Howl who — with the guitar he can’t play and the sighs he utters — could have had this as his theme song, if it weren’t for the fact that another popular song and a metaphysical poem will dominate his fate lines.
Are you in sentimental mood?
I’ll sigh with you
Oh, sorrow, sorrow!
On maiden’s coldness do you brood?
I’ll do so, too —
I’ll charm your willing ears
With songs of lovers’ fears
While sympathetic tears
My cheeks bedew —