Howl’s Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
Sophie is the oldest of three daughters, and she has a stepmother to boot. So of course she doesn’t expect that her life will ever offer much in the way of excitement or adventure. But then she quite accidentally gets on the wrong side of the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into a 90-year-old woman. Naturally Sophie has no choice but to head out to seek her fortune after that . . . and when she enters the moving castle of the wicked wizard Howl and finds his fire-demon Calcifer, who says he will break the age spell on Sophie in return for Sophie’s breaking his contract with Howl, Sophie decides to try for it. After all, there are definitely places less interesting to be than a castle whose door can open on four entirely different places. If only Howl weren’t so incredibly obnoxious . . . and charming . . .
This book is, quite simply, wonderful fun. The author establishes her light-hearted, at times lightly satirical narrative style right off, and the romp never slows down until the very last page. Large amounts of randomness occur — all of it eventually woven into the head-spinningly complex yet overall solid conclusion — and loveable, amusing characters wander in and out of the charming setting. Seeing the world through Sophie’s eyes is wonderfully entertaining; her old-woman’s guise allows her true self to sparkle free in wit, sarcasm, and a charming no-nonsense irony that never descends into nastiness. And there’s a brilliant usage of John Donne’s poem “Song” as a curse — even aside from the fact that anything by John Donne is automatically awesome, that poem in particular has been waiting since the 17th century for someone to employ it in a fantasy novel. But my favorite part of the book was the portrayal of Howl, who is certainly not your conventional evil wizard. He’s powerful, sure, but he’s also a vain, whiny, cowardly spoiled brat who throws temper tantrums and spends hours primping in the bathroom each morning. He also happens to be a real ladies’ man, who spends his time getting young women to fall for him and then abandoning them. Not the nicest of fellows, but a far cry from your typical Dark-Lord-esque villain, and at times really hilarious into the bargain.
Morally, it’s hard to explain my conclusions about this book without giving away lots of the plot — something which I really don’t want to do, since the book is very much worth reading and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that while there is no drastically pernicious content, I was in the end a bit disappointed with the book’s failure to distinguish much between good and evil. Calcifer (which, by the way, is an absolutely brilliant name, especially for a fire-demon!) is at times said to be an evil being who has no sense of the good, but then he’s not treated as evil, either by the characters or the author — and indeed, he’s more charming and sympathetic than otherwise. Howl’s contracting with a fire demon is portrayed as an obvious mistake; the terms of the contract definitely smack of ‘bad magic’, and the Witch of the Waste is apparently evil precisely because of her own fire-demon contract, but since Calcifer doesn’t seem particularly bad, and since, as we find out, Howl made the contract with good motives, it’s hard to understand exactly why. But . . . well, I just can’t give the whole twisted plot away. Of course I have nothing against complex characters who are not purely good or evil — quite the contrary — but I do like to feel like the author takes the conflict in her characters seriously and thinks it’s important. Basically, I found no real distinction between good and evil actions or characters (not to mention magic), except for the Witch of the Waste, who is bad because she dismembers people. A pretty good reason.
Still, all in all, the book is very enjoyable and not likely to be the least bit harmful for readers mature enough to recognize a touch of relativism when they see it. I liked it.