HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones – READ ALONG Week 1
We’re super excited to be taking part in another Wyrd and Wonder read along!
This year, Beth and Nils will be joining in Lisa’s (Dear Geek Place) read along of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ll be sticking to the following reaching schedule, and posting a weekly discussion of that week’s chapters. Lisa will be doing the same on her blog, and everyone is welcome to join in! If you don’t have a blog, feel free to join in the conversation on Twitter or Discord.
- Week 1: Chapters 1 through 7 (hosted by Lisa)
- Week 2: Chapters 8 through 14 (hosted by the Fantasy Hive)
- Week 3: Chapters 15 through End (hosted by the Fantasy Hive)
SPOILERS AHEAD: This post is a book-club style discussion of the novel, rather than a review to tempt new readers in. We do discuss plot points, character motivations, and twists – if you have not read the book and do not want it spoiled, please do not read further!
Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate.
But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady.
Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on.
Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.
Week 1 – Chapters 1 through 7
For those who have seen the film adaptation/first time readers: these opening chapters already make it clear how much of a difference there is between the two versions of this story. How do you feel about that difference? Are you curious to read on, or has it thrown you?
Beth: I had watched the film adaptation numerous times before reading it for the first time. I came to DWJ later in life and really felt like my childhood had missed out big time on these books. I actually felt quite sad for past me. After reading Howl, I devoured the rest of the trilogy, and then her Christomanci series.
Nils: Same, Beth! I feel like my child self missed out on Diana Wynne Jones, and it’s such a shame because I would have loved it. I’m actually quite annoyed that my school library didn’t have her work!
Beth: Yes! She was a Welsh author and at no point did anyone tell me about her! But to go back to the question, I was very pleasantly surprised the first time I read Howl to discover all the differences, and then quite annoyed by the things Ghibli omitted. I can see why they did obviously, they simplified the story a great deal, and played more on aspects that an Asian audience might appreciate. But to discover that what was a beloved film had left out my favourite Welsh folk song was somewhat unforgivable… Nils were you confused by the differences or did you enjoy them like me?
Nils: I’ve previously watched Howl’s Moving Castle but it’s been awhile so I’m honestly hazy with the details. In a way I enjoyed reading the beginning without having to compare the similarities and differences too much, I could enjoy the story with fresh eyes. I do wish that the song had been included in the anime though, it felt important. I also wish they had captured the characters more accurately to their descriptions in the book—Calcifer was an array of colours in the book and Howl wore much more eccentric clothes. Did you find that too Beth?
Beth: That’s an excellent point Nils! They made Calcifer cute instead of interesting and scary, and movie-Howl is really quite one note, miserable and vain! Rereading it for the second time, after being even more familiar with the film as it’s now a favourite of my children, I couldn’t help but constantly compare the two. I even struggled to remember some aspects of the story because I was remembering the film instead.
I guess a very key difference is the fact there’s a war going on in the movie and Howl is quite monstrous as a result. Do you think this was their attempt at aiming it towards older audiences?
Nils: Oh definitely. I find that Studio Ghibli like to add a darker, more sinister atmosphere to all their movies and I believe it’s so they can appeal to a wider audience. After all, they want everyone to watch it.
In terms of tone and/or subject matter, this is perhaps not your average young person’s book. How are you finding these factors – do they work for you as a reader?
Beth: I love that DWJ has a more mature tone, I always preferred books like that as a child, and I know children appreciate being spoken to as equals, rather than down to. DWJ’s tone is very much “I know that you know what I’m talking about here”. Just like adults don’t like infodumps because they’re boring and patronising, children are the same. There’s a strong feeling of fairy tales throughout the narrative tone, and it’s something I’ll always love.
Nils: I feel Jones caters for both children and adults in her tone and style: there’s a level of maturity and depth that adults can appreciate and enough whimsy for children to find entertaining. I feel that if an adult is reading this to a child, there’s a lot for them both to discuss and in my opinion that’s a fantastic element, for a book to encourage conversations. So yes, Jones’ style definitely works for me, it’s what makes this book so enjoyable.
Sophie has quite the ordeal dropped on her early on – or does she? She seems to be handling her sudden transformation surprisingly well. What do you make of Old Lady Sophie so far?
Beth: Oh it’s always tricky doing these questions on a reread… I remember the first time reading this accepting Sophie’s, well, acceptance of her fate, as making sense. Sophie puts a great deal of importance in the tradition of stories and fairy tales – as the oldest, nothing interesting would ever happen to her, because that is the Rule of Stories. So when she is turned into an old woman before her time, Sophie accepts this because in her mind, her life should be the boring one of an old woman, so she might as well skip the middle bit. The contradiction that being cursed by a wicked witch is most definitely having Something Happen To You is utterly and completely lost on her.
Nils: That’s a really interesting point Beth. Sophie doesn’t even realise that her life has become extremely eventful because she’s been cursed, her life doesn’t stay boring, it becomes an adventure.
Beth: And I find myself thinking, Only Sophie would think being cursed doesn’t qualify as an adventure.
Nils: I think Jones also doesn’t have Sophie wallow in self pity at her turning into an old woman because well… that’s not fun to read.
Nils: It’s much more fun to have a character accept their situation and move on to trying to fix it or just make the best of it, which is exactly what Sophie does.
Perhaps less admirable (advisable?) is the way she wanders so blithely into a bargain with a demon, even one as entertaining as Calcifer. Do you think Sophie ought to be a bit more wary of Calcifer, or can she handle herself?
Beth: I think Sophie’s innocence and naivety come into play here. I had to remind myself constantly that she is actually only seventeen. I was an idiot at seventeen too.
Nils: Who wasn’t an idiot at seventeen?! Who isn’t fearless at that age?
Beth: Also, at this point, what exactly does she have to lose, anyway? I don’t for a second think she can handle herself, or at least, she’s not aware that she might be able to… But she’s so focused on being afraid of Howl and the Witch of the Wastes, that I don’t think it even occurs to her to fear anything else.
Nils: I think Sophie jumps at any chance she can get to rid herself of the curse because she’s desperate. She doesn’t trust Howl, and with the other Wizard missing, what choices does she have? Calcifer seems the safer option because he needs something in return, something important so at least until she fills her end of the bargain he won’t be able to hurt her.
Beth: That’s very true Nils!
The Wizard Howl: Lovably misguided, or dangerously ignorant? Discuss.
Beth: I think there’s a lot going on with Howl at first… Nils what were your first impressions of him?
Nils: Immediately I loved how flamboyant and dramatic Howl is! From his dialogue, to his appearance, and to the way he treats others, Howl is exactly the kind of quirky character I enjoy. I was pretty surprised by Sophie’s reaction to Howl, because despite the rumours circulating that he steals young girls’ souls, it’s very clear he isn’t sinister!
Beth: She really does cling to that notion, doesn’t she. I expected he wasn’t going to be any kind of villain, and I love how completely opposite to that he actually is. He’s no saint, obviously, he is something of a Romeo, but it’s frustrating how much Sophie clings to her preconceptions.
Nils: To Sophie’s he’s just a “slither-outer” but we know he’s not!
Beth: This was the perfect choice for a magical themed W&W, so what do you make of DWJ’s representation of magic so far?
Nils: The magic is very prominent in Ingary, there’s a wizard in the king’s castle, there’s a terrifying witch, and then there’s Howl’s Castle, his moving castle where every door leads to somewhere different. We know magic is present in various ways right from the beginning and it shows up even more as we read on.
Beth: I love that it’s just a part of life there; there are witches and wizards and castles that move along the hilltops. You can send your youngest daughter off to train to become a witch. But magic isn’t a part of the ordinary day-to-day running of things (like, say, in the Weasley’s house in Harry Potter). It’s a lovely in-between kind of balance. I think you can find yourself relating to Sophie better because of this; despite there being magic in her world, her life is as ordinary as yours.
Nils: Exactly, with Sophie, she’s just as awed and intrigued by the magic as we are, so we instantly feel connected to her.
Beth: Having said that, there’s certainly something out of the ordinary about her hats! Did you suspect anything was happening there Nils?
Nils: I did not!! Not until you mentioned it to me on WhatsApp!! But those hats are our first clue to Sophie being far more than just the oldest sister!
We hope you enjoyed our first discussion!
Next week, we’ll be discussing chapters eight through 14.