Today I Read…Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving CastleToday I read Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, the first book in the Castle trilogy. It won the Phoenix Award from the Children’s Literature Association in 2006, 20 years after it was first published. The Phoenix award is given to books that do not win awards when they are first published but later rise from obscurity. In 2004 it was made into an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (thank you Wikipedia).

Sophie Hatter knows that she is doomed to failure. After all, she is the eldest of three sisters, and everyone knows that the oldest is always the least special. If she’s lucky, she’ll always be alone and eventually take over the family hat shop in Market Chipping.

And then one day the evil Witch of the Waste comes into the shop and curses her. Suddenly, Sophie is old before her time, and her family doesn’t recognize her, so with nothing to lose Sophie sets off into the world to find a cure and maybe her fortune. She comes to the magical moving castle of the mysterious and wicked Wizard Howl, who eats the hearts of young girls–everyone says so! Of course, Sophie is no longer young, so she must be safe. She takes a job as the castle’s housekeeper–it certainly needs one, with the mess that Howl and the other castle inhabitants make!

Howl is certainly very wicked–he’s also lazy and cowardly and dishonest and handsome and vain and flamboyant and foolish and silly and selfish and charming and so unexpectedly kind… Sophie makes a deal with Calcifer the fire demon to free him from his contract with Howl if he’ll take the spell off Sophie, but they have a deadline–Midsummer Day, the day that the curse the Witch of the Waste placed on Howl will come to fruition and doom them all. Sophie and Howl must learn that the most powerful magic is the lies we tell ourselves.


This book is an old favourite–I loved Diana Wynne Jones’ books when I was growing up, and I was very sad to hear about her death from cancer in 2011. I was glad when the craze for magic books following the popularity of Harry Potter led to many of Jones’ books being reissued with new covers–I would recommend any of them with no hesitation (though I really loved Howl’s Moving Castle and the sequels Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways–oh, and The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin–and definitely Deep Secret, shame she never wrote a sequel to that one–and The Homeward Bounders and Black Maria were always very powerful–and of course, any of the Chrestomanci books…).

Sophie is a really fun character, a very practical by training person who is finally discovering how much fun it can be to do whatever you want. She always knew that her sisters’ were prettier and smarter than she was, but she loved them so she never resented them. She never realized that just because they were pretty and smart, it didn’t make her ugly or stupid, even by comparison. She felt she had to be the responsible one, since as the oldest she had nothing else going for her, so she let her whole family boss her around and have fun while she did what she was supposed to do. The curse taking away her youth is a blessing in disguise, since it means that she has nothing to lose–she can tell people exactly what she thinks, instead of being nice to customers; she’s old, so she can boss everyone else around, instead of being bossed around because she is young; she can wear pretty clothes because she likes them, because she’s old and it doesn’t matter if she isn’t pretty; she can be impulsive, because who’s going to yell at her for making a mistake? By letting go of everything she let tie her down, Sophie finds out that she is pretty and smart and her family loves and values her and she can do magic–she is special and everything she never thought she was.

The new Old Sophie turns out to be exactly what the weaselly Howl needs–he’s not actually a bad person, just an incredibly selfish one who doesn’t usually stop to consider the consequences of his actions until it’s too late. Sophie can boss Howl around and make him be better, which is exactly what he needs to grow up a little. By not running away from his problems, Howl can finally defeat the Witch’s curse and free himself from his co-dependence with Calcifer.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, magic may grant power but it doesn’t make you happy–the important thing is to figure out what makes you happy and to grab onto it with all your strength. You may be surprised just how much strength you have, when it’s important.


In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.


There was the sound of wheels and horse hoofs and a carriage darkened the window. The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress. Sophie’s eyes went to the lady’s wide hat first— real ostrich plume dyed to reflect the pinks and greens and blues winking in the diamonds and yet still look black. This was a wealthy hat. The lady’s face was carefully beautiful. The chestnut-brown hair made her seem young, but… Sophie’s eyes took in the young man who followed the lady in, a slightly formless-faced person with reddish hair, quite well dressed, but pale and obviously upset. He stared at Sophie with a kind of beseeching horror. He was clearly younger than the lady. Sophie was puzzled.


“Miss Hatter?” the lady asked in a musical but commanding voice.


“Yes,” said Sophie. The man looked more upset than ever. Perhaps the lady was his mother.


“I hear you sell the most heavenly hats,” said the lady. “Show me.”


Sophie did not trust herself to answer in her present mood. She went and got out hats. None of them were in this lady’s class, but she could feel the man’s eyes following her and that made her uncomfortable. The sooner the lady discovered the hats were wrong for her, the sooner this odd pair would go. She followed Fanny’s advice and got out the wrongest first.


The lady began rejecting hats instantly. “Dimples,” she said to the pink bonnet, and “Youth” to the caterpillar-green one. To the one of twinkles and veils she said, “Mysterious allure. How very obvious. What else have you?”


Sophie got out the modish black-and-white, which was the only hat even remotely likely to interest this lady.


The lady looked at it with contempt. “This one doesn’t do anything for anybody. You’re wasting my time, Miss Hatter.”


“Only because you came in and asked for hats,” Sophie said. “This is only a small shop in a small town, Madam. Why did you—” Behind the lady, the man gasped and seemed to be trying to signal warningly. “—bother to come in?” Sophie finished, wondering what was going on.


“I always bother when someone tries to set themselves up against the Witch of the Waste,” said the lady. “I’ve heard of you, Miss Hatter, and I don’t care for your competition or your attitude. I came to put a stop to you. There.” She spread out her hand in a flinging motion toward Sophie’s face.


“You mean you’re the Witch of the Waste?” Sophie quavered. Her voice seemed to have gone strange with fear and astonishment.


“I am,” said the lady. “And let that teach you to meddle with things that belong to me.”


“I don’t think I did. There must be some mistake,” Sophie croaked. The man was now staring at her in utter horror, though she could not see why.


“No mistake, Miss Hatter,” said the Witch. “Come, Gaston.” She turned and swept to the shop door. While the man was humbly opening it for her, she turned back to Sophie. “By the way, you won’t be able to tell anyone you’re under a spell,” she said. The shop door tolled like a funeral bell as she left.


Sophie put her hands to her face, wondering what the man had stared at. She felt soft, leathery wrinkles. She looked at her hands. They were wrinkled too, and skinny, with large veins in the back and knuckles like knobs. She pulled her gray skirt against her legs and looked down at skinny, decrepit ankles and feet which had made her shoes all knobbly. They were the legs of someone about ninety and they seemed to be real.


Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm, because it was what she expected to see. It was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.


“Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.

Teach me to hear the mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

And find

What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

Decide what this is about

Write a second verse yourself.”


“If thou beest born to strange sights,

Things invisible to see,

Ride ten thousand days and nights

Till age snow white hairs on thee.

Thou, when thou returnest, wilt tell me

All strange wonders that befell thee,

And swear

No where

Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou— ”

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