Thursday, December 15, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

This week I finally read Diana Wynne Jones' classic tale, Howl's Moving Castle.  I have long been a fan of the classic animè movie by Hayao Miyazaki that is loosely based on the tale, but I must say that the movie does not tell the tale at all the way that Diana Wynne Jones wrote it. In her book, there are no enemy aircraft bombing anyone. Rather, the tension is between Howl, his personal failings and the Witch of the Waste. 

The book begins with a young woman named Sophie Hatter.  She is the eldest of three daughters living in the town of Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary, where magic and witchcraft are accepted ways of life. She is very talented with the needle and makes the most beautiful hats and dresses, unknowingly talking life into the hats she creates and other objects.

As the eldest of three girls, she believes that she will have no chance of finding her fortune, accepting that she will have a dull life running the family hat shop.  That is, she accepts it until she is turned into an old crone by the Witch of the Waste, a powerful witch who is not at all pleased with one of Sophie's hats. Mortified, Sophie leaves the shop and installs herself as a cleaning lady for the notorious Wizard Howl, by simply moving in and taking over.  He is infamous in her town for eating the hearts of beautiful young women. Sophie hopes to make a bargain with him to have her spell removed so that she will be young again.

However, she soon learns that Howl is a rather self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier but ultimately good-natured person and an extraordinarily talented wizard. She discovers that he spreads many malicious rumours about himself to ensure his privacy and smears his own reputation to avoid work and responsibility.   As she gets to know him better, she frequently refers to him as a 'Slither-er Outer' because he always  manages to slither out of things that are disagreeable or involve real work. 

The door to his castle is actually a portal that opens onto four different places: the moving castle Sophie first encounters in the hills above Market Chipping, the seaside city of Porthaven, the royal capital of Kingsbury and Howl's boyhood home in Wales, where he was named Howell Jenkins.

Sophie immediately makes a bargain with Howl's resident fire demon, Calcifer: if Sophie can break the contract Howl and Calcifer have signed, then Calcifer will return Sophie to her original form. Part of the contract, however, stipulates that neither Howl nor Calcifer can disclose the terms of the contract to any third party. Sophie tries to guess the specifics of the contract, while Calcifer supplies frequent hints which Sophie usually doesn't pick up on.

Howl himself realizes that Sophie is under a spell and secretly attempts to remove the curse, but when he is unable to remove it, he comes to the conclusion that, for some reason, Sophie wants to remain an old woman.  Since she apparently wishes to be an old lady, he plays along with it, not letting on to her that he is aware that she is under a spell.

Howl's apprentice, Michael Fisher, does all the work of running of Howl's business, while Howl himself is out chasing his long string of paramours.  The minute a girl gives in to him, Howl falls out of love with her. Soon it emerges that Howl and Michael are courting Sophie's two younger sisters Lettie and Martha.  Michael is sincere, and truly loves Martha (who is going by the name of Lettie due to the girls switching places in their jobs). Sophie is worried about the real Lettie, whom Howl is obsessed with, knowing that the minute Lettie admits her love to him he will drop her like a hot rock and she doesn't want her sister to be hurt by him.  

Prince Justin, the King's younger brother, goes missing while searching for Wizard Suliman, who is actually Benjamin Sullivan, also from Wales.  The King orders Howl to find Suliman and Justin and kill the Witch of the Waste for him, as she is responsible for their disappearances. Howl, however, has his own reasons to avoid seeking a confrontation with the Witch of the Waste. The Witch, a jilted former lover, has laid a curse on him.

Howl attempts to weasel out of this exalted royal appointment by having Sophie pretend to be his mother and petition the King against the appointment.  Her attempt to convince the King that Howl is a self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier 'Slither-er Outer' is unsuccessful.  Howl becomes the official Royal Wizard despite his wishes to the contrary.

I must say that I really enjoyed this book.  It was first published in 1986, and how it was that I never read it before this, I don't know. I am now going to read more of Diana Wynne Jones' work, as this is also the first book of hers that I have read.  I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has seen the movie, because, as so often happens, the movie is a completely different tale altogether. 

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