“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”
All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.
Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.
One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.
The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker