In a huge coincidence, I find myself finishing Howl’s Moving Castle just as the announcement of Studio Ghibli’s closing has rocked certain parts of the internet. While I’ve heard that the “closing” is in fact a “restructuring,” I can’t help but find it odd that I am just now approaching the source material of one of my favorite films, just as the makers of the film may possibly be closing up shop. Even more odd, I’ve been a Diana Wynne Jones fan for years and have waited this long to get around to what may be one of her most famous titles.
My first experience with Jones was her Dalemark Quartet, which was a formative reading experience for me in middle school. Before the internet became a legitimate tool in my life, I used to simply pull books off the library shelf, almost at random, and read willy-nilly. This technique actually worked brilliantly- I was not a terribly discerning reader, and thus I discovered a lot of titles that my older self would have scorned. This isn’t to say I didn’t run into a lot of sub-par books, but fortunately I also learned that you don’t have to finish every book that you start. But boy was I glad I started Dalemark! I must have read the quartet three or four times within a year or two; they essentially became the definition of good fantasy for me, and led me to explore a lot of other great writers (Katharine Kerr, Jane Yolen and Tanith Lee were definitely discovered as a result of Jones).
Re-reading Dalemark years later, I discovered some issues I never would have noticed- the most glaring of which is Jones’ tendency to rush her endings. After discussing her work with some friends who are also fantasy readers, I found that it seems to be a common weakness in most of her work. And, to at least a small degree, it was also a shortcoming in Howl’s Moving Castle.
However, I suppose it would defeat the purpose to start at the end- so let’s rewind a little. Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of Sophie Hatter, the lonely, ill-fated oldest of a trio of sisters. Cursed by the Witch of the Waste, Sophie is transformed into a 90-year-old woman and driven from home by fear that no one will believe her. While wandering, she stumbles upon the wandering castle of the mysterious wizard Howl, said to prey on young girls and eat their hearts.
What she actually finds is a selfish, cowardly, pretty-boy wizard with a penchant for falling in love and spending way too much time preening in the bathroom. This is not your typical fantasy adventure.
Along with Howl, Sophie meets Calcifer, the fire demon who is contractually obligated to serve the wizard, and Howl’s apprentice Michael, who is in love with one of Sophie’s younger sisters- which one Sophie can’t tell because they have magically swapped identities. It gets a bit complicated; even more so when Howl decides to woo one of the Hatter sisters-possibly the same one- as well. Add in a dangerous prophecy by the Witch of the Waste and inter-dimensional travel to Wales, and you have this wonderful book.
I mentioned the weakness in Jones’ endings, so let’s get to the strengths. Diana Wynne Jones writes brilliant characters, full of contradictions and imperfections that make them believable in even the most outlandish scenarios. She also has a penchant for balancing the tone of her book- maintaining it as a light comedy for the most part, but also allowing just enough darkness in to give the story weight. Howl is a funny, exasperating and even pathetic creation. His vanity and his habit of playing all his cards tightly to his chest make him very difficult to pin down. Sophie, too, has her idiosyncrasies. She’s nosy and opinionated but also full of self-doubt and trepidation. All of the characters, even the most minor, are fleshed out and feel like more than stock figures.
The plot is multifaceted, with many misdirections and misunderstandings that pull the reader in different directions before coming together in the final confrontation of Howl and the Witch of the Waste. This, however, brings us back to the issue with endings. The ending isn’t a bad one- it isn’t weak or tacked on; the problem lies in the pacing. Sudden understandings and revelations are uncovered too quickly, and some of the final confrontations are likewise resolved too quickly to be entirely satisfying. Information that has been veiled and slowly discovered in the previous chapters is suddenly revealed in a rush of exposition masked as conversation. This was the same issue I had with the final volume of the Dalemark Quartet, and I’m not sure if it’s a “weakness” per se, or if it is somewhat in the nature of young adult-oriented fiction to rush headlong into a conclusion. As a kid/teenager, I wasn’t bothered by it, but I can’t say if that is a quality of youth, or if I just wasn’t an experienced enough reader to really appreciate the beauty that is a well-paced ending. Overall, though, it isn’t a deal breaker. I still found so much to enjoy in this story, and even more so because it influenced one of my favorite films.
For those who haven’t seen the Ghibli film “adaptation,” you really should. But don’t expect a perfect translation from book to film. Miyazaki is a visionary filmmaker, and on the rare occasion that he uses outside source material, he will often use the bare bones to serve as the foundation for a story all his own, which is exactly the case with Howl’s Moving Castle. Both the book and the film stand alone as works of art, each with their own way of telling a brilliant story.