Witch Week Day Three: Howl’s Moving Castle (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones fantasy
US Hardcover, Greenwillow

Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) is probably Diana Wynne Jones’s best-known work, thanks to the film version by Studio Ghibli. While I appreciate the film’s artistry within its own genre, I find that the Japanese-style animated images do not match my inner pictures of the story, which is rooted in the tropes and traditions of European fairy tales and nineteenth century novels, even as it slyly pokes fun at many of them. It’s also a story about how the stories we tell ourselves can become limiting when we let them define us too narrowly, and about how powerful they can be when we use them in the service of life and freedom. All this, and some of the wittiest banter this side of Beatrice and Benedick — I haven’t yet tried reading it aloud to anyone, but I think it would be great fun.

It’s a perfect place to start with Diana Wynne Jones, as our guest blogger, Jenny, explains today. Jenny writes about books and stories from history over at Reading the End. She appreciated it when Eugenides quoted Howl that one time. Welcome, Jenny!

fairy tale sister illustration
In tales like Cinderella, older sisters get a bad rap.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the book I always recommend to Diana Wynne Jones newbies. It doesn’t baffle you in the first chapter with talk of Goons or ayewards empires or spaghetti feuds like some of her books, and its world — though ultimately as weird and wonderful as any Jones ever created — is fairy-tale familiar.

Sophie Hatter is the oldest of three daughters. As the first of three, she knows that she’s doomed to a life of relative cruddiness and disappointment, if not a turn to wickedness and jealousy of her younger two sisters. But when the Witch of the Waste comes to her hatshop and ages her by sixty years, Sophie finds herself feeling free to do exactly as she wants — which she decides is to clean house for the heartless Wizard Howl.

Like so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Howl’s Moving Castle is about the disconnect between the way people feel and the way they act. Sophie, we discover ultimately, is an impressively powerful witch in her own right, but her concept of herself as the doomed eldest hampers her from pursuing anything she wants. Living in the body of an old lady might limit what Sophie can do physically, but it doesn’t come close to the mental limits she imposed on herself in her life at the haberdashery.

Howl, meanwhile, is layers and layers of pretense and reality. His reputation in Sophie’s village is that of an utterly heartless wizard, a man who eats the souls of young women. But when Sophie meets him, she discovers that he’s far from what she imagined. Under a few strata of vanity and cowardice, Howl’s as powerful a wizard as he’s reputed to be; and to Sophie, to his apprentice Michael, and to his fire demon Calcifer, he’s a generous and loyal friend as well. 

Howl’s Moving Castle has all the charm and humor of the best of Diana Wynne Jones’s work, with a healthy side helping of deconstructing fairy tale tropes. If you’re new to her books, I can’t recommend a better place to start than this.

Jenny, thank you for summing up what makes this the perfect entry point to the world of DWJ. Tomorrow, we’re journeying into the mythical past of another imaginary world with The Spellcoats.

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post

21 thoughts on “Witch Week Day Three: Howl’s Moving Castle (Guest Post)

  1. Ah, HMC is my favourite book, and it was my introduction to all of Diana Wynne Jones's wonderful worlds. I normally seriously dislike film adaptations of my favourite books, but I have a lot of grace for Studio Ghibli's version of HMC. I went to see it with a few friends at a parent/baby showing at my local cinema when my first child was just six weeks old. I had never heard of Studio Ghibli or even seen an anime film, but I found myself completely entranced by it. Later on, when I was reading more about the film, I saw that it was based on a book. It took me seven years, but I eventually got round to reading it and became a devoted fan of DWJ. So now the book and the film have a special place in my heart. :)Thanks so much for running this Witch Week series. I am totally enjoying it. 🙂


  2. I heartily concur with your assessment, Jenny — the perfect intro to Jones' work and, though the Ghibli film is far from faithful, you can see why it was a great animation choice for the Studio — strong female lead, wondrous fantasy images and thought-provoking about the human condition. I also believe it a not so closet reflection of Diana's musings on getting older and her own position as the eldest of three sisters.


  3. This was my entry into DWJ as well because of the film. Who knew that it would lead to such an amazing reading/blogging/life journey? (And Jenny helped too with her beautiful enthusiasm for DWJ!)


  4. This sounds much more interesting than I imagined. Somehow, because my kids watched the movie with a bunch of other kids who like anime, I never got interested in what the story might actually be based on.


    1. You have a real treat in store. Think something between Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett…the anime aspect was definitely superimposed by the movie.


  5. Like many people, I was introduced to "Howl's Moving Castle" and Diana Wynne Jones's work when I saw the Studio Ghibli film. However, it wasn't until I read the book several months later that I fell in love with the story; since then, "Howl's Moving Castle" has been my absolute favorite book and reading Diana Wynne Jones's other work has been essential to the development of my own creative writing style. I love the fact that all of her stories are so different! Even stories that are technically in the same series–like the Castle Series, including "Howl's Moving Castle", "Castle in the Air", and "House of Many Ways"–all differ vastly from one another. Reading her books has inspired me to try and be versatile in my writing, not doing the same thing over and over again, and has also helped me to realize that some of the most unconventional ideas make for the best stories.There are so many things that I love about "Howl's Moving Castle" that it is difficult to articulate them! I think that probably my most favorite thing is how Diana Wynne Jones incorporated the fairy tale tropes mentioned as well as references to other literature. It took me several times reading through the book to identify every time when a part of the John Donne "Song" curse came true, and I never fail to chuckle when Howl tells Sophie that "We can't all be Mad Hatters". This is a great post on "Howl's Moving Castle", Jenny! And thanks, ECBR, for hosting Witch Week!


    1. Yes, it's one of her rare qualities that she tries something new in every book, and that even the books supposedly in a "series" are quite different from each other (as we'll learn tomorrow with The Spellcoats). I tried to show her range through the choices for this week. Glad you're enjoying it!


  6. I log both the book AND the movie… and I still can't believe I was so reluctant to read it… a lot of my friends said I would not like the book since I love the movie and, guess what? I LOVE THEM BOTH! Sure will be a book to cherish and read and reread from time to time :3


  7. "She appreciated it when Eugenides quoted Howl that one time." Could you refresh my memory? I'm sure I noticed the line you're talking about at the time, but I've since forgotten what it was. Thanks!


    1. I know, I'm wondering what the heck it was too. Jenny, are you going to give us a clue? Otherwise we have to reread all the Thief books and Howl too. (Which is not too bad of a punishment.)


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