Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (Greenwillow, 1986)
There’s plenty of great reading in the realms of realistic fiction, to be sure; but there is nothing quite like the pleasure of opening a book and stepping into a world that is purely of the imagination, yet inwardly coherent and recognizably real. Something in the human mind and spirit, something of its boundless possibilities, can perhaps best be expressed thus. Some authors, we can feel, are not so much painstakingly inventing a world full of cumbersome accoutrements, but discovering one that reveals a hidden aspect of ourselves.
Such a world is given to us by Diana Wynne Jones in Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her blithest and most enchanting novels. “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,” she begins, and immediately we are caught up in the realm of fairy-tale logic, where everyone knows the eldest of three is doomed to failure, should three siblings set out to seek their fortunes.
Sophie Hatter, who happens to be the eldest of three sisters, never questions this law of existence. She resigns herself to a mundane existence in the family hat shop (not even being “the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”). Her determination to be ordinary is disrupted by a call from the wicked Witch of the Waste, who casts a very inconvenient spell on her; and by the fearsome Wizard Howl, who, in spite of his reputation for sucking out the souls of young girls, allows her in to his mysterious moving castle, and seems to be in need of some saving himself.
As Sophie puzzles through the riddle posed by witch, wizard and castle, she finds that all is not as it seems, including her assumptions about herself. Is magic all about showy transformations and fiery battles? Or is there even more power in the stories we tell ourselves?
Creating a fairy-tale pastiche that brings something new to the old tales in a satisfying way is not so easy. Jones succeeds brilliantly with a comic tone from somewhere between Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett, starting with the chapter headings: “In which Sophie talks to hats.” “In which a Royal Wizard catches a cold.” “In which Sophie expresses her feelings with weed-killer.”
Jones is a master at creating fast-moving stories full of surprises. Unlike some of her rivals, though, she never leaves us feeling empty or cheated at the end. Her books have a quality I can only refer to as “heart,” not in any cheaply sentimental sense, but springing from shrewd and compassionate observation of human relationships. Howl and Sophie are one of my favorite examples of this. Their bickering could rival that of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick.
‘By the way,’ Howl said, ‘Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon’s the name I go under here.’
‘Whatever for?’ said Sophie.
‘For disguise,’ said Howl. ‘Pendragon’s a lovely name, much better than Jenkins.’
‘I get by quite well with a plain name,’ Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.
‘We can’t all be Mad Hatters,’ said Howl.
How they work through to an understanding of themselves and each other is literally the “heart” of the story. (Read it to find out why.)
Once you enter the land of Ingary, I’m sure that you won’t want to leave. Fortunately, Jones has obliged us with a sequel, Castle in the Air, in which tales from the Arabian Nights are given the same lovingly irreverent treatment.