Howl's Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones
Howl's Moving Castle Cover

Howl's Moving Castle


Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle (1986) is a smart fairy tale with a postmodern twist. The story's opening tells the readers about the three daughters of a hatter. Sophie is the oldest and knows that she will never succeed because only the youngest daughter is able to seek her fortune and succeed. You see, she has been reading fairy tales. When her father dies, her stepmother (not exactly a wicked one) has to break up the family. She sends the other two daughters out to become apprentices, but has Sophie remain at the hat shop because it is her legacy. Lettie, the second daughter, is apprenticed to a pastry shop, and Martha, the youngest, is apprenticed to Mrs. Fairfax, a local witch. Unfortunately, the Witch of the Waste (yes, a wicked one, unlike Mrs. Fairfax) visits the hat shop and mistakes Sophie for one of her sisters, who has angered the Witch. She turns Sophie into an old woman, at which point Sophie decides she must go on a quest to find a remedy to the spell.

This brings her to Howl's moving castle and its strange inhabitants: Howl, a fickle and self-centered young wizard, who is always falling in love with a different young woman; Calcifer, a trapped fire demon, who lives in the fireplace; and Michael, a young apprentice. Howl's multidimensional castle flies around in within the magical kingdom of Ingary. It has a "square wooden knob above the door, set into the lintel, with a dab of paint on each of its four sides" which allows one to open the door into four different locations. Because Sophie has nowhere else to go, she insinuates herself into Howl's household, in the guise of a meddling old woman. Most of the book focuses on the domestic situation within the castle. Calcifer begs Sophie to help him break the magical contract he has with Howl that keeps him imprisoned; yet, he can't tell her anything about the terms of the contract because that is against the contract. Sophie is in a similar situation: she can't discuss the spell she's under unless someone recognizes that she is under a spell. Sophie learns how hard it is to get a self-possessed wizard, one who spends hours a day working on his own appearance, to look earnestly at an old woman.

Yet, very little is as it seems in Ingary or Howl's castle. The story contains misdirection, misunderstandings, disguise and plenty of enchantment. Jones is very successful in playing with the common tropes of fairytales and making a story that is familiar yet different enough to surprise the reader.