Friday, September 24, 2021

"Howl’s Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones--Fiction Review

In today’s review, we’re getting a castle—that moves! Ok, that was terrible. In any case, Obscurists, we’re talking about “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones.

Diana Wynne Jones

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

I can’t remember if I first really got into science fiction or fantasy as a kid, but I suppose it doesn’t matter—both were formative to me. I bring this up because “Howl’s Moving Castle” struck me several times as being an excellent first fantasy book for a young reader. The stakes are real—from beginning to end—but it feels more whimsical than threatening. The challenges the characters face in this book never seem unsurmountable as long as they all work together.

Our main character, Sophie, is a wonderful protagonist because of her relatability, she’s a good person, but she has her flaws. Her biggest of which is that she’s nosey. If ever she’s told not to go somewhere or ask a certain question, she can’t help herself and does it anyway. This extends to really all of Jones’s characters. They’re all likable but have distinct character flaws—Howl’s vanity, Calcifer’s grumpiness, and Michael’s insecurity. What I like about these characters is that despite their flaws, they all still have the opportunity to grow and transcend their character flaws without radically altering their identities. It’s very tactful character work because, in my experience, many characters feel like different people at the ends of novels than who they were in the beginning.

It’s a slow-burn romance between Sophie and Wizard Howl, and the outcome is never certain throughout the book. We know what Sophie thinks about everything, but it’s difficult to pin down Howl because he hates giving a straight answer to anything.

What I don’t love about this book:

The middle of this novel meanders to the point of sedateness. Part of this is because of the particular curse Sophie is under—she’s a young woman cursed into being an elderly lady, but there doesn’t feel like a lot of direction from the other characters, either. 

Since most of our time is spent hanging out in the moving castle with Sophie, cleaning, making the other character’s lives more interesting, there isn’t much world-building involving the different locations the moving castle is attached to. There is, in theory, people certainly talk about the other places. But it’s precious few times that Sophie actually gets out of the castle in a way that involves us seeing what’s going on in the wider world. This might just be my perception because when I think about this book, it’s about the long, intricate passages of Sophie cleaning the castle, like Cinderella if she were a crone. 

So it’d be weird if I didn’t bring up that there is a Miyazaki film based on this novel that I’d wager people are more familiar with than the book. I was certainly in that camp. In the movie, the Witch of the Waste is a far more complex character that transcends the descriptor of a mere antagonist. In the book, however, if she had a mustache, she’d be twirling it constantly. There’s no rhyme or reason why she’s a jerk that I can see. She just is a jerk.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Sophie Hatter, daughter to a deceased Hatter and eldest sister of three girls, lives in a magical kingdom but doesn’t suppose her life will ever amount to much. This is just a known and accepted fact about the eldest sisters in this world. Sophie tries to content herself running her father’s old hat shop alongside her stepmother—who, as a nice change of pace, isn’t evil or even malicious.

One day though, in a moment of pique, Sophie insults a woman who came into the shop that turns out to be the Witch of the waste, who then curses Sophie. The curse takes on the form of prematurely turning Sophie into an old woman. When she recognizes her plight, Sophie decides that nobody will recognize her, so she decides to leave everything behind and set off on her own.

Out in the wilderness, Sophie comes across Wizard Howl’s moving castle and manages to get in, there she meets Howl’s apprentice Michael and Howl’s fire demon Calcifer. She poses herself as the new cleaning lady for the castle and is permitted to stay by Howl when he arrives home. He doesn’t say as much because he’s always kind of evasive, but he doesn’t throw Sophie out. The castle, it turns out, isn’t really a castle but more of a shack with the illusion of a walking castle out one door and just a building somewhere else, out the same magical door. In fact, it exists in several places at once.

Sophie makes a deal with Calcifer, the fire demon, to help him break his contract with Howl, and in return, Calcifer will remove the curse Sophie is under. However, as part of the contract, Calcifer can’t actually tell Sophie the specifics of the contract or how to break it precisely. Undeterred, Sophie agrees, reasoning that she will just figure it out on her own, but quickly she becomes concerned that her host, Howl, a notorious womanizer, is starting to move in on one of her sisters. This is complicated because Michael is also in a relationship with one of Sophies’s sisters, but due to magical shenanigans, it’s not entirely clear which at first.

A King, from one of the cities the moving castle exists in simultaneously, charges Howl to rescue his missing brother and kill the Witch of the Wastes. Howl isn’t too keen on the prospect because he carefully manages his reputation to be competent but vaguely sinister to avoid tough work. He even tries to rope Sophie into his scheme to blacken his name to the King by having her pretend to be his mother and be openly disappointed and discouraging about Howl’s competency.

It doesn’t work, though, because Howl does have to eventually face the Witch of the Waste, who it turns out was a jilted love interest that Howl alienated. The real antagonist turns out to be her fire demon, which had a similar arrangement with her that Howl has with Calcifer. Calcifer, and presumably all fire demons in this world, was once a falling star. Falling stars, however, can’t live long in this world, so Howl gave him his heart and therefore life, and in return, Calcifer was bound to Howl and provided him with his magical talents.

Having developed her own magical talents over the course of the story, Sophie manages to talk life into Calcifer of his own, freeing him and Howl from their contract. During the confrontation with the Witch of the Waste and her fire demon, who had been experimenting on the King’s brother and another Wizard, Howl forgets his vanity to rescue Sophie.

With the villains vanquished and everyone returned and restored, Howl suggests to the now cured Sophie that maybe all there is left to do is live happily ever after.


As a story, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the book, is pretty light in tone, and it’s a cozy sort of read, pastoral in nature—which is distinctly not the case with the movie version, but more on that later. 

Narratively, we spend a lot of time getting to know Jones’s characters which means the plot’s pace isn’t fast. The most bewitching little piece of information is that while all the events in this novel are predominately taking place in a fantasy world, that is all Jones’s creation, Howl himself, and another Wizard, seem to come from our universe. To me, it was genuinely baffling that the author didn’t feel the need to explore that element in more detail, like why or how. He was just talented at magic, studied it in school apparently as if that’s something you can do, and that’s all that is given in this book. I guess it’s possible that it comes up more in the sequels, which there are two, in this novel series, but I’m uncertain.

My personal fan theory, which is admittedly bullshit—you should know that upfront—is that Howl is just another wayward Wizard from “Off to be the Wizard.” Having discovered that reality is a simulation, he didn’t head for England’s distant past to be a Wizard, but to a parallel universe—or simulation, I guess. 

Parting thoughts:

I’ve talked before about how I’m intrinsically skeptical of translating a novel into a movie. I’ve seen excellent adaptations, and I would never claim it’s impossible to do right. Still, the central challenge with a film adaptation is the high degree of difficulty translating a long-form method of storytelling into a much more abbreviated package. It isn’t an easy task, and it requires someone with very specific skills to do it justice. 

I watched Miyazaki’s version of this story before and after reading this novel—and the book really altered my perspective of the animated classic. When I first saw the movie with no knowledge of Jones’s book, I loved it in a sort of uncritical way like all the other Miyazaki films I’d seen. It was pretty, and they got top-notch talent to do voice-over work for the English version—it’s a Japanese movie if you didn’t figure it out based on the name Miyazaki—and I liked the characters a whole lot. As for the plot, I didn’t think about it much.

After reading the novel, however, several things stuck out to me. While Miyazaki might start off his version almost precisely the same way as the book, it becomes clear that he was really after telling a very different sort of story. His anti-war narrative was entirely his own invention, and I’m not saying that’s a bad angle, but with knowledge of both versions, you can see the seams of how he stitched this together in stark relief. 

Character development leftover from the book makes its way into the movie, but it kind of just dangles there in the wind because its payoff was amputated for the new narrative direction. 

For instance, Howl’s vanity is highlighted by the scene where Sophie screws up his products, so his hair gets dyed red. That comes straight from the book, but it doesn’t really work in the movie. It happens but goes nowhere. In the book, Howl shows up to the final battle to save Sophie without having shaved or cleaned up in any way, proving how much he loves her that he overcame his vanity to save her. 

That’s just one example, if you go back and watch the movie, you’ll notice that the ending is really rushed. It’s because he felt the need to wrap up book subplot lines in the last few seconds of the film. There’s even a moment where, oh, yeah, the hopping scarecrow guy? He was a Prince transformed into a scarecrow. Are we going to get into that? No. Credits.


  1. In the novel, Howl wrote his PhD thesis dissertation on ancient magical spells in old documents. In an interview, DW Jones said that Howl was being chased by the brothers of a girl he had broken up with, and, desperate to get away, said the words of a spell he'd been studying while running for a doorway, and found himself in Ingary. The local female wizard took him on as a student because he had so much raw talent that it would be dangerous to leave him untrained. Which doesn't explain how the other guy got there, but we can assume something similar.

    1. I was aware that he studied ancient spells while at University, as his dissertation, which is just this side of plausible. After all, historians study all kinds of esoteric things, if that was what he was a student of in the first place.

      I did not know the story of the two brothers—it seems classic Howl, though. It's a little disappointing that it only "takes place" in an interview the author gave. It can be fun to hear expanded universe tidbits straight from the source, but I always wonder, are they actually thinking through what they are saying or just spitballing? Do you know if his origins ever get discussed in the sequel novels? I gathered from the synopsis that he and Sophie aren't the main focus of them.