"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. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes."
'Howl's Moving Castle' is a fairy tale that plays with the conventions and tropes of fairy tales. Diana Wynne Jones goes for broke, creating the wonderful land of Ingary, a world rich in wizards, evil witches, fire demons, mermaids, animated scarecrows, people who turn into dogs and magical castles. It is clearly a book that comes from a deep love and understanding of fairy tales and what makes them appealing. However it isn't afraid to play with these tropes and turn them on their heads. From its choice of protagonist, the eldest daughter, usually doomed to fail in order to set up the success of the more usual youngest daughter heroine, to its deconstruction of its male romantic lead and the inversion of the damsel in distress rescued by the dashing prince, Jones takes joy in questioning the assumptions and generalisations that fairy tales tend to be built on. 'Howl's Moving Castle' still respects the structural demands of the fairy tale; indeed it is so elegantly designed that every thing that happens in the book ties up with that meticulous tidy logic only found in fairy tales. But it is a mature enough tale to leave its characters emotional space at the end, even as it satisfyingly concludes their character arcs.
'Howl's Moving Castle' tells the story of Sophie Hatter, who works in her mother's hat shop in the town of Market Chipping until one day she is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turned into an old woman. Compelled to seek her fortune, she takes shelter in the magical moving castle which roams the hills above the town and belongs to the wizard Howl, who is rumoured to devour the hearts of pretty young maidens. Once there she strikes up a bargain with Calcifer, Howl's fire demon, who says he will release Sophie from the Witch's spell if she breaks the contract binding Calcifer to Howl. The nature of magical curses being what they are, neither Sophie nor Calcifer and Howl are able to tell the other what the curse they are under is.
'Howl's Moving Castle' sets up all these resonant, comfortable fairy tale elements only to joyously subvert them. Many stories flirt with the idea that nothing is ever as it seems, while providing us with characters and situations that fold out in a tired and predictable way. Jones gleefully inverts all the Fantasy tropes she can get her hands on. Sophie, instead of being rescued by the dashing male hero, rescues Howl and winds up freeing herself from her curse in the process. Calcifer, despite being a demon, is not evil, and Sophie's bargain with him is not a Faustian pact that dooms her, but allows her to save Howl and Calcifer and release herself from her curse. Ingary and its surrounding lands exist in a separate dimension to ours, but rather than showing it to us through the eyes of a protagonist from our world, as would happen in your standard portal Fantasy, we experience the world through Sophie, who has lived in Ingary all her life. Later on it is revealed that one of the doors of the moving castle opens on to Howl's hometown in Wales, and there's a fantastic sequence in which Sophie visits Howl's family, and we see what would be normal and mundane distorted into something Fantastical and mysterious through her eyes.
One of the things that makes 'Howl's Moving Castle' so compelling is how well-drawn and fully-realised its characters are. The ending only works as well as it does because, while all the loose ends are nicely tied up and various character pairings are implied, all of those characters have been given enough depth and agency to show that they have an existence outside of their pairings. But while it has a wealth of memorable supporting characters, the book truly belongs to Howl and Sophie. The two leads work so well because they are drawn with believable flaws, and their relationship feels all the more well earned because neither character idealises the other. Howl may be dashing and charming, but he is also a cad, a skirt chaser, vain, sulky, selfish and prone to 'slithering out' of things. The nature of his contract with Calcifer has made it impossible for him to truly love someone until he meets Sophie, and the horrific fate of the Witch of the Waste, her will and life essence almost entirely consumed by her demon, is a chilling reminder of where he could have ended up without Sophie's involvement.Yet despite all his flaws, underneath his blustery front Howl does genuinely care for other people and about doing the right thing. He always helps the people who come to him asking for spells or charms, for free if they can't afford to pay, and despite his protestations he was planning all along to rescue Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman from the Witch of the Waste. Indeed, he has the strength of character to find Sophie attractive from the force of her personality alone.
Sophie is no less complex. Aside from her nosiness, which gets her into trouble often enough, her main flaw is being utterly unable to see things clearly where she herself is concerned. Her journey over the course of the book is her slowly starting to realise that she is a powerful young woman with agency who is able to influence the world and the people around her, and her taking control of that power. Because of her position as the eldest child, and staying at home and being put upon by her stepmother, she has no real sense of self-worth, and 'Howl's Moving Castle' is ultimately the story of how she comes to gain this. Her appearance as an old woman is not so much a metaphor as her coping mechanism; being prematurely old allows Sophie to forego the social niceties expected of her as a young woman and to ask the perceptive and probing questions that cause so much trouble. In this it is a reflection of Howl's desire to appear bad. Getting Sophie to blacken his name to the King, or having Michael spread the rumours about him eating young girls' hearts, is Howl's way of ducking out of society's expectations of him. Sophie discovers that she is a powerful witch in her own right. and that much of the curse is her holding onto the appearance of an old woman because it's convenient for her. Her major blindspot is her feelings for Howl, which lead to her misreading the situation and putting herself and him in danger. But part of what makes her so well suited to him is that she is one of the only characters who doesn't put up with his nonsense.
Beyond its fine character work and subversion of fairy tale tropes, 'Howl's Moving Castle' has moments of pure wonder and marvelous humour. From its inventive and compelling description of the use of seven-league boots, to the wondrous manifestations of the Witch of the Waste's curse on Howl, which features catching falling stars, mermaids and mandrakes right out of a John Donne poem, to the formalised ritual of the King's palace, Ingary is suffused with Jones' vivid imagination. But it's Jones' humour that provides many of my favourite moments. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which Howl goes into a massive sulk by oozing green slime everywhere, and another one where he kicks up a ridiculous fuss over having a cold. These touches demonstrate just how good Jones is at writing books that are both complex and thought-provoking art and loads of fun.