I must admit, I’ve been sitting on this for quite some time. Being particularly fond of Miyazaki’s 2004 animated film, I was concerned I would be unable to read the book without being overly influenced by the film. Ultimately, it took a rave review from my partner to persuade me to dust it off and give it a fair chance.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, given that it was originally published in 1986, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle felt like a breath of fresh air for me. While the vast majority of the new fantasy novels that I have recently read are high fantasy epics with intricately detailed fictional worlds, this was a low fantasy slow-burner that put its characters ahead of its setting. I should stress that this is not intended as a knock on the setting of the book at all. Indeed the area in which the novel takes place, ‘Folding Valley’, is full of beautifully constructed locales that felt reminiscent of an idealised version of early 20th Century Britain. It simply isn’t a central character of the book in the way that high fantasy worlds often are.
The plot centres on Sophie, the eldest daughter of a hat-maker who is cursed to become an old woman, and the relationship that she builds with the book’s eponymous wizard, Howl. They begin as polar opposites. While Sophie lacks self-assurance and demonstrates an extremely fatalistic outlook on life, Howl exudes confidence and his actions and reputation resemble those of a libertine. As the book progresses however, we see their attitudes converge slowly, despite the characters rarely spending any actual time together (Imagine two leaves starting on opposite sides of a whirlpool, gradually getting closer together while dancing around one another, before eventually meeting in the middle). The development of both Sophie and Howl (and many of the book’s secondary characters)is masterfully done yet in very different ways. While Sophie’s development is made evident through her expression of her thoughts and feelings (as well as with the aid of the change in her physical appearance), Howl’s is much more subtle.The reader, like Sophie, is never really privy to what is going on in Howl’s mind and we are only shown glimpses of the changes in his attitudes.
Issues pertaining to the idea of fate were cleverly presented throughout the book, beyond just the dichotomous attitudes of its two main characters. There is the seeming inevitability of the curse that will befall Howl on Midsummer Day. As more and more aspects of the curse come to fruition, it becomes impossible to avoid a sense of resignation that Howl will be unable to avoid his destiny. Wynne Jones also looks at fate through the role of family. There is a clear sense of detachment between Sophie and Howl and the legitimate families. Meanwhile, we see a strong familial bond develop between all the characters that reside in the titular castle. They have all come from different places, families, and backgrounds to create a family that fate did not hand them. As time has passed and this book has aged, I feel that this idea in particular has become more and more pertinent.Just as Howl, Sophie, Calcifer, and Michael all converged to live together in the moving castle, a growing number of people are able to travel far from their home and start new lives with the people they meet on their travels.
Despite all of the wonderful elements of the book mentioned above (as well as the many more that I’ve no time to discuss) I nearly gave up on this book. That Howl was originally from our world, Wales to be precise, only served to completely break my suspension of disbelief. I found it to be a bizarre choice and found that it changed my perception of Folding Valley to a certain extent in a manner which I did not enjoy.
With that being said, what Wynne Jones has accomplished with Howl’s Moving Castle really is fantastic. She shows us that we don’t have to accept what we think that fate has in store for us. If anything, we should feel obliged to take our destiny into our own hands and, like Sophie and Howl, create our own fate.
– The Librarian