|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!
|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.