Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

When her father dies, Sophie, the eldest child, remains with her stepmother at the family hat shop while her two sisters move away from home to make their own paths. One day, a difficult customer enters the shop, and when Sophie angers her, the customer reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste and promptly places Sophie under a spell which causes her to appear as an old woman and prevents her from telling anyone she has been cursed. Realizing that her stepmother would be horrified by her changed appearance, Sophie wanders off and soon stumbles upon the moving castle belonging to Wizard Howl. There she meets the dreaded Howl, who has a reputation for harming young girls, Michael, a young man who lives in the castle, and Calcifer, the fire demon with whom Howl has entered into a contract. Calcifer, who instantly guesses that Sophie has been cursed, makes a bargain with her: if she can help him get out of his contract with Howl, then Calcifer will see that Sophie's own curse is broken as well. In the meantime, Howl has been called upon to rescue a prince, a task which he does not appear to take seriously enough.

I knew absolutely nothing about this book except its title and author before picking it up, so I had no preconceived notions other than the understanding that I should read it because it so well-known and well-liked. What drew me in, first of all, were the tone of the story and the voice of the protagonist. The story uses the conventions of a fairy tale, but the writing has a decidedly modern flair, and Sophie is not just an archetype, but a fully developed human being who happens to inhabit a magical world. Howl, too, is a completely engaging part of this book. Despite his womanizing ways and the fact that one never knows whether to trust him, or fear him, or laugh at him, there is something magnetic about his personality. At the back of the ebook edition I read, there is an interview with the author in which she says that most of her readers have crushes on Howl and wish to marry him. While I tend to agree with Jones that he would not be an ideal marriage partner, I can see the appeal of his "bad boy" persona, especially given that Sophie herself is constantly looking for ways to improve him, and to better understand and protect him.

The castle, too, is an important and interesting part of this book. I will admit that it took me a while to really grasp how the castle works, and there were moments where I felt lost and unsure as to which door opens into which world. Still, even with the unsettled feeling of not always understanding what was happening, I could vividly imagine the interior of the castle, especially the bathroom where Howl spends so much time primping, and the fireplace which houses Calcifer. The fact that the castle allows Howl to appear as different personas to different people allows the story to explore the concept of identity in a very concrete and interesting way. Sophie's transformation into an old woman provides similar opportunities to think about the ways in which appearances do and do not make us who we are.

This is one of the few fantasy novels I think I would have enjoyed as a kid. The sense of humor really appeals to me, as do each of the characters living in the castle. Based on the experience of reading this book, I think I would like to read more of Jones's books, especially the other Howl titles: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Her writing style makes fantasy easier for me to understand and enjoy, and though there are some suspenseful moments, the book is really a feel-good story overall. Kids who like fantasy but are sensitive to scary themes will feel right at home in this universe and will be glad to see how all the problems sort themselves out in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment