Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

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.

Arno’s Castle, Bristol, a model for Howl’s Castle?

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 —

Alisby’s Castle, Crickhowell, Powys, Wales

I previously published a review in 2012 of this novel here, but am revisiting it as part of two blog events, the Wales Readathon and March Magics (also known respectively as Dewithon and DWJ March).

24 thoughts on “Of shreds and patches

  1. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  2. What an excellent review, full of tantalising details: hints but no spoilers. I’ve seen a cartoon film version which I thought was lovely, but I’d no idea there were so many layers to be peeled back. This has just moved to the top of my ‘Wanted’ list.

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    1. Thanks, Cath, I’m glad the review fitted the bill for you! The Studio Ghibli film was indeed lovely, though the animators opted for a more Alsace-Lorraine look than the Cotswold Hills (which I suspect Jones had in mind for the main setting) and as the film went on they took some more liberties with the plot.

      But this is a strength of any author, isn’t it, not just the superficial layers of their narrative but the sense that it is rooted in various essential truths about human nature and the real world, whatever the genre. This is what DWJ knew and why novels like this have legions of aficionados. Hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, Chris. Layers are the magic touch. I love writing that can be ‘unpicked’, though that’s not quite the same thing as re-working endings, which is what it sounds like you’re suggesting the film did.

        So, I can forget what I remember of the film, and just enjoy the book on it’s own account…lovely.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kim, I’m glad you appreciated it! The enchanted scarecrow nagged at me over the years until the reread, and then I noted the Toto equivalent and the rest sort of slid into place. I’d like to think there was something in it, and with the possible inspirations for Howl’s Castle!

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  3. I am absolutely tickled to learn that Wales has a Table Mountain (I do too! We went hiking there Friday!) — and it has a Howell fort on top. That is excellent.

    I have never understood why some women find Howl so appealing. He’s very entertaining to watch, but I’d hate to have to live with him!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you can see from my photo, our Table Mountain is quite small (though some argue it’s the plateau above it that is so-called); and there’s also a Sugar Loaf Mountain nearby. I’d love to think DWJ knew of this because when we too lived in Bristol we often drove here to walk around the National Park’s peaks–it’s only an hour’s drive away.

      It’s interesting to hear you say that about Howl’s character, as I’ve never understood how he could attract swooning female fans. Fun fact: in the English version of the Studio Ghibli film Howl’s voice was dubbed by Christian Bale–who was actually born in Haverfordwest, in Wales!

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  4. Kristen M.

    Arno’s Castle definitely looks like a candidate for inspiration!

    Thank you again for being such a great participant this month! It’s fun to not only share our love of these authors with those who may not have discovered them yet but also to have friends who already understand why they hold the places in our hearts that they do.

    Also, I really, really need to get to Wales sooner than later!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope we haven’t been overselling Wales this last month, Kristen! (If I remember right, George W had difficulties with locating it after the young Welsh singer Charlotte ‘the voice of an angel’ Church sang for him in the late 1990s.) Anyway, hope you love it if and when you get here!

      I’m sorry I didn’t join in more with March Magics this month–I did actually read Everard’s Ride but haven’t got round to the review yet. Maybe early April! But thanks for running the event again, a timely reminder that I’ve got all these DWJ titles to reread and review and, as you say, a chance to share or even introduce these superb authors with a wider audience.

      Arno’s Castle I used to pass on my way to school in the sixties, when it was sometimes called ‘the Black Castle’ after the black copper-slag blocks cast from the waste generated by a nearby foundry. There’s little doubt Diana knew of this structure, and I even surmise that Joan Aiken borrowed it for a 19th-century adventure story (as I wrote here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-saddle).

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  5. piotrek

    Always a feast to read the results of your literary investigations, thank you!

    I’ve just learned used copies of the Polish translation go for an equivalent of 60 pounds, that what you get on a market where they probably only printed a few thousand copies in cheap paperback in the mid-90ties 😦 I’ll have to wait for my nieces to learn more English…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Until they do whet their appetite with the Ghibli animation, a lovely retelling in its own right! Do you haunt secondhand bookstalls, if you have many in your neck of the woods, or charity shops / thrift stores? Sometimes the odd bargain can be picked up for a song, unless the proprietor really knows the cost value of their books! Otherwise the equivalent of £60.00 is an awful lot of money for a cheap paperback, I agree.

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  6. Howl as a teenager makes sense – women do tend to fall in love with immature men, I think it’s a mothering instinct. It creates havoc in actual grownup relationships, though! I think Howl and Sophie have learned enough through their trials to make it work, but marrying Howl would indeed be no picnic!

    And who knows, maybe the Hywel hill fort lodged in DWJ’s subconscious and came up when she needed a name for this character. It was a good choice, however it came about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting to get glimpses of Howl and Sophie’s relationship in the sequels, Lory, to see how they have developed a modus vivendi, as it were.

      I’d really like to believe DWJ knew of Crickhowell when she was writing the first Howl book; if in the 80s she was driving to the Brecon Beacons National Park, for example, she’d have had to pass through the town en route to Brecon, the main centre for tourism for the Park.

      I realise I’ve made a lot of obscure literary claims for this little town and it’s hillfort recently: as Crickhollow in The Lord of the Rings, as Pennygaff in Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain (she did her research at Brecon Library, scarcely ten miles away) and now as the original of Howl’s Moving Castle. Would that they were all true! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh! And don’t forget a little kid gave her the idea for the novel in the first place. A boy came up to her during a…a school meeting? I think at a school. Anyway, a boy asks her to write a story about a moving castle. That’s the catalyst. 🙂 But as you say, Jones was bloody brilliant and gathering up her own feelings and experiences and mixing them round with ingredients from beloved tales to create something utterly new, fun, and unique. xxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think she ever said (in Reflections, or in any introduction to HMC) where this incident happened—I’ll have to check now!—but it’d be neat if it was somewhere in Wales, the country which is said to have the highest density of castles (per square mile? per population?) in the world.

      But yeah, she was a master/mistress magician! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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