Saturday, June 16, 2012
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I was pleased to see Diana Wynne Jones' name pop up on the list, because I haven't read anywhere near enough of this wonderful writer. I read at least one of the Dalemark series when I was a kid (Cart and Cwidder, spent ages trying to work out exactly what a cwidder was too), and then I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, followed by the work that inspired them; The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
I'd seen the film of Howl's Moving Castle, but not read the book. I don't remember the film particularly well, mostly Billy Crystal's performance as the fire demon; Calcifer, although I do remember liking it. I had been told the book was very different.
What Diana Wynne Jones has done in Howl's Moving Castle is take many of the elements from a classic fairytale (rather idealised medieval setting, an evil witch, a good wizard, a plucky heroine, a magical assistant and various magical items including seven league boots and a moving castle), mixed them up and added in some elements of her own, then bound them all in to a totally delightful and thoroughly enjoyable confection of a story.
One of Jones' strengths is her heroines; and Sophie Hatter is a great one. She's a practical and intelligent young woman who strangely enough seems more at home in the appearance of a crotchety old lady than she ever was as the young woman who ran her late father's hat shop, in the process raising her younger sisters and ensuring that her stepmother had a decent life. She goes from doing that to finding herself in the company of the fearsome wizard Howl, who despite his power and reputation is really rather like a teenage boy that never properly grew up. In the course of the book Sophie will have to sort out Howl's love life and that of his young apprentice Michael, lift curses from Calcifer, a dog who is an enchanted man, and herself, all while trying to defeat the Witch of the Waste and restore order to the fairytale kingdoms in which Howl lives and operates in.
The idea of making the castle itself a sort of inter dimensional portal which enables Howl to easily move between kingdoms on Sophie's world, that are really many miles apart and in between that world and our own. Howl is actually a young Welshman, and while this was never covered in the film I really wish it had been, because it was one of the most enchanting parts of the book.
Howl's Moving Castle, like all good fairytales, has a happy ending, but there were a couple of sequels written. I don't believe they're necessary to read, but Jones was a wonderful writer and any of her work is hugely readable by all ages. Classic fairytales, if you hadn't already read them are in a very similar vein, and part of the fun of reading Howl's Moving Castle is trying to work out where Diana Wynne Jones got many of the elements in the book from. The aforementioned Tough Guide to Fantasyland, The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin also deal with the concept of people from this world going to a magical world. Frank L. Baum's classic Oz series has the same idea at it's heart, too. Some of Enid Blyton's work (The Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair series) also does this, although for much younger readers.