Don’t you think that we all need a bit of wizardry from time to time? I sometimes find it delightful to go back in time, and it’s easier to do than you might think. No need of a magic wand, simply one of those book that you read a long time ago. One of those bewitched books whose worlds feel like weird but mesmerizing places you visited with a pounding heart but that you know so well that they are now as many shelters. However, the book I would like to talk about contains its share of mystery, involving a wizard with odd habits, a door opening to four different places, a sweaty young-looking witch, a young girl in disguise and even a fire-demon…
Have you ever heard of Howl’s Moving Castle? Maybe you have, but I would be surprised if it really was about the book and not the equally wonderful but rather different motion picture created by the internationally acclamed Hayao Miyazaki. The movie you may know was actually inspired by a British book written by Diana Wynne Jones, who published over 30 books.
The protagonist of this story is seventeen-years-old Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters. Their father owns a a hat shop in the town of Market Chipping, in Ingrary. For Sophie, being born eldest of three is just enough to be the beginning of her troubles. You see, as everyone in this land knows, succeeding in the role of fortune-seeker is reserved to the youngest children and the eldest are merely those who fail first, if not even worse… Actually, we first hear of our eponymous wizard in the first chapter, where Jones teases the well-known clichés of the fantastic genre, as the land of Ingary is depicted as a place « where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist« . Sophie is resigning herself to live a dull life making hats as it will follow for sure, while her sisters both live exciting existences, until a moving castle appears on the hills above the town and refuses to stay motionless. At first afraid that it would belong to the dreadful Witch of the Waste, the townspeople are then soon saying that its owner is the wizard Howl, who can’t help but have fun « collecting young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts. »
Nonetheless, Sophie unwillingly attracts the Witch of the Waste’s anger and finds herself stuck into an old lady’s body. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the always-moving castle seenable from her hat shop: the Wizard Howl’s Castle. And since she aged so much, she isn’t scared anymore. Furthermore, she will have to handle Howl himself, who is so vain that he spends hours in the bathroom before going out, his young helper Michael and Calcifer, the talking fire… Becoming Howl’s housemaid only becomes possible after setting an uncanny bargain with the demon-fire in the hearth: although she can’t speak about the spell she is under, Calcifer knows it and agrees to give her back her appearance if she manages to discover and break the contract that links him up with Howl. But who is really Howl? Why is he so difficult to pin down? Can Sophie trust this mischievous fire crackling on the hearth? How does the castle manage to be in 4 locations in the same time? And does the jars in the bathroom labelled HAIR, SKIN and EYES contain limbs of unfortunate girls who came too close to the wizard?
It may just sounds like a foolish little tale, but it’s more than that. It would be nearly impossible to write about all of the astonishing surprises and elements that this story incorporates, so I will tell those I am the most amazed of.
First of all, there are many fairytales connections. But Jones knows them so well, that she easily explores them, reshuffes them and goes even further by subverting them, which is truly refreshing and remarkable to me. To begin with, doesn’t the name of the Witch of the Waste remind you of someone? It could be this other sorceress straight out from « The Wonderful Wizard of Oz » whose name is interestingly the Witch of the West. Furthermore, the opening chapter about Sophie’s life is reminiscent of Cinderella‘s tale, without Sophie having bad relationships with her relatives and siblings, fated to create hats her whole life long. Similarly, Howl and Sophie seem to embody the roles of the Beauty and the Beast alternately- Sophie is both the Beauty and the Beast at times, just like Howl is- and they can’t be easily defined. Also, Howl is a very interesting hero, who has qualities but is so far away from the perfect character that he becomes very human. He is vain, sees himself as a drama queen (or king) but also incredibly coward at times, he often throws a fit because of meaningless matters: he catches the flu, or his hair’s colour is wrong…Although it isn’t a humorous story, there are many really funny moments.
“I feel ill, » [Howl] announced. « I’m going to bed, where I may die.”
Then, it is also such an optimistic story! Although Sophie ages prematurely, she is never down and always sees things as the part of the bottle that is half-full. Judging that this new appearance represents her true self better than her former youthful one, she just keeps going and overcomes every obstacle, finally daring to take charge of her own destiny. Jones also doesn’t mollycoddle her readers, she doesn’t look down on them, as she doesn’t explain everything but let us put every part of the puzzle together on our own. She trusts us. Which brings me to my last point: she words her sentences wonderfully, cleverly as well.
“Things are going round and round in my head–or maybe my head is going round and round in things.”
And it’s also the way this book can be perceived: its story is a story of words. Different kind of words: songs, curses, words that save or hurt, harm imposed after believing in words… This is a book that tells the importance of words, or how magical they can be.
Thank you very much Manon for buying it to me 😉