HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones – READ ALONG Week 2
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 2 – Chapters 8 through 14
This week’s reading opens with Sophie mending Howl’s suit. By Chapter 14, Sophie finally learns that she’s been inadvertently charming clothes. Was it as obvious to you as everyone else in the book? Or were you as surprised as Sophie?
Beth: I knew from the start, and not just because I’ve read it before. I remember reading it the first time and making the connection between the hats and what was happening to the wearers, and absolutely loving it. I do feel a little frustrated with Sophie that she is so surprised, that she doesn’t see what’s happening around her, but it’s a pity frustration? Sophie is so caught up in this idea that she’s of no significance, that she is unimportant and there isn’t anything special about her, that it’s completely blinded her. It makes me feel so sad for her.
Nils: Ok I was taken a bit by surprise actually! In fact Beth it was you who made me realise that Sophie was unwittingly casting spells on the hats she was making, I completely missed that!
Beth: Sorry! Spoilers!
Nils: No, I’m glad you did! I was able to look back on the way she influenced each hat! However when it came to Sophie casting a spell on Howl’s suit, I thought it was really funny that it had completely the opposite effect of what she wanted!! She made her own sister fall for Howl, the very thing she was desperate to avoid as Howl has the reputation of breaking hearts.
Beth: Yes! Goes to show how careful you need to be – careful what you wish for, inadvertently or otherwise!
Nils: I do agree with you Beth, Sophie is so wrapped up in the idea that she’s the insignificant one in the family it never even occurred to her that she might have magical abilities just like both of her sisters. Although this makes me feel even more sorry for her and I was already feeling that in the opening chapters.
What do we think of Sophie’s magical ability? How do we predict she might use them to break the contract between Howl and Calcifer?
Beth: So this is an aspect that, bizarrely, I don’t remember. I’ve only read the book once before, whereas I’ve seen the film multiple times. I know the book differs quite a lot from the film, but I don’t remember exactly what happens, and when I try to remember, it’s just the film that comes to mind. It’s quite annoying lol. What do you think she might do, Nils?
Nils: I’m guessing she’ll bring life to Calcifer and he’ll turn into a human or something? I’ve watched the anime twice, but surprisingly I’m remembering very little details from it! Definitely due for a rewatch soon!
As for Sophie’s ability to bring life to things, I actually think it’s the perfect gift for her because you can tell she loves to fix things and give them a new lease of life!
Beth: I think it’s really poignant that it’s kind of born out of her loneliness? Like she talks to things because she has no-one else to talk to!
Nils: That’s an excellent point.
The scarecrow that Sophie spoke to previously has caught up with the castle and gives everyone quite a fright when it attempts to come in. Who or what do we think the scarecrow might be? And why is he so insistent on getting inside the castle?
Beth: Ok this is something I’m pretty sure I do remember, so I’m not sure whether to answer this fully in case I spoil anything…
Nils: That scarecrow was pretty freaky! I don’t blame Sophie for pushing Calcifer to his limit and asking him to move the castle away as quickly as possible! As to who the scarecrow is, I’m at a loss, I have absolutely no idea! Fancy giving us a clue Beth?? But as to why he wants to get in the castle, I’m guessing it wants Sophie or Howl to break the spell or… the Witch’s curse that’s been put upon him?
Beth: There’s most definitely a curse on him, and I agree I think he’s trying to get in to have the curse broken and to warn Howl. I’m not sure how to give a subtle enough clue though… Given Sophie’s circumstances, I’m surprised by how scared she is of him and that she doesn’t stop to question the situation more.
If you had a pair of seven-league boots, where would you go?
Beth: We Whatsapped each other about this, hence the question! I’d be straight over to the Midlands for tea and cake with you, Nils! It’s ridiculous how long we’ve known each other now and we still haven’t actually met in person!
Also, attending author events around the country would finally be feasible. I could go to Goldsboro’s Fantasy in the Court!
Nils: I’d take a trip to Wales to see you Beth! We’re besties who have never met in person and that’s just not fair 😭
I’d also attend author events, but I’d really love to do a bookshop crawl around London!
Beth: It really isn’t fair! A bookshop crawl would be amazing, we could do a shop or two in London, then zip over to Oxford, then pop along to Toppings in Bath… it would be so fun!
Nils: Yes please!
Let’s talk about Michael’s ‘spell’, which turns out to be Howl’s nephew’s English homework, the poem Catch a Falling Star by John Donne. Did anyone recognise it straight away?
Beth: I didn’t, and again this was an aspect of the book that I was super hazy on and didn’t remember at all. Did anyone else Google it? It turns out it’s about unfaithful women, which makes a lot of sense why the Witch of the Waste would use it as her curse against Howl!
Nils: I didn’t recognise it either. I thought it was really clever of Jones to include that though, as like you said Beth, it’s an appropriate poem to use as a curse on Howl. I love the way Jones injects little nods to other literature, like calling Howl’s home Rivendell.
Beth: Yes! I thought it was really clever too, because it’s only if you know about that poem or research it, that you’d understand its importance to the story. And that in itself is something that poems like John Donne’s used to do, they’d allude to other works like in-jokes for poets, so I love the layers of it!
Whilst still trying to work out the ‘spell’, Michael and Sophie head out to the marshes to try and catch a falling star. It’s quite a beautiful and poignant moment, but why do we think the star would rather die than be caught?
Beth: Um, Nils? (We’ve come to a bit I remember!)
Nils: This was my question and I actually don’t have an answer Beth! It was a really sad moment though and it felt significant. At a wild guess perhaps the star is a soul that would rather be free than captured.
Beth: Something very very significant would have happened had Michael caught it!
Nils: Ok now I’m desperate to read on and find out!!
Calcifer claims to have dropped hints for Sophie during these chapters. What do you think? Did you pick up on any of them?
Beth: There are lots of hints, but I’m not sure how obvious they were the first time round. Reading through a second time I can appreciate the various connections, but I think Jones has done a great job of keeping it mysterious, of keeping readers guessing! Do you have any theories, Nils?
Nils: It’s definitely linked to Sophie’s own magical abilities but I think the hints have gone over my head. I think when it’s revealed I’ll have one of those lightbulb moments and all the hints will suddenly pop out to me and fit into place. I do believe this book will be a fantastic one to reread, because like you said Beth, you can see the connections clearer along the way.
Beth: It’s been SO much fun rereading, re-discovering it. There really is a lot to appreciate a second time round, it’s very complex. I don’t think people give children’s books enough credit for their complexity.
Nils: I totally agree!
Sophie finally gets to discover where the ‘black blob down’ door leads to! Were you surprised to find yourself in the Valleys? What did you make of the journey into Wales?
Beth: Unsurprisingly, I loved this part. I remember the first time reading it, and realising that Calcifer’s ‘silly little song about saucepans’ was the Welsh folk song Sospan Fach.
Again, I thought this quite a sad element of the story.
Nils: Thank you so much for telling me about the song, I absolutely loved learning about the meaning behind the lyrics and seeing that it wasn’t just a whimsical song but a very sad and poignant one.
Beth: Howell discovers he can do magic, but (presumably) only in Ingary. It’s like a non-transferable skill. So his family think he’s wasted his education and is doing nothing with his life; Howell can’t tell them about the famous Howl and everything he’s actually achieved. It’s no wonder he’s a ‘slitherer outer’, as Sophie calls him; it’s like something he had to do out of necessity has now become habit.
How incredibly sad is it that his bedroom looks down on the garden of his home? He clearly cares a great deal about his family and misses them. It’s quite an interesting commentary on the whole issue of leaving home to make your fortune, and the disconnect that then entails with the family that’s left behind.
Nils: It was quite a surprise to me that we ended up in Wales as for the majority of the book we’ve been in fantastical lands. However there was so much I loved about this chapter. We saw a more caring side to Howl as the way he greets his niece and nephew is incredibly sweet. I also liked the injections of technology such as the strange computer his nephew and friends play on and how Howl promises to get him a new one. It was also fun to see Sophie’s reaction to it all, as she had absolutely no idea where they were and why everything was different from Ingary! Of course it was also great to see Sophie brush off Howl’s over critical sister, Megan!
And yes Beth, it is so sad that Howl’s bedroom window looks out onto his sister’s garden. Like he is always on the inside looking out at the family he can’t be with.
Beth: I loved Sophie’s descriptions of things and working out what they actually were!
What do we make of Sophie’s meeting with the King? Has Howl manipulated her here to get exactly what he wanted?
Nils: This was another chapter I found was so much fun! Every time Sophie tried to “blacken” Howl’s name it just made the king more determined to have Howl as the palace’s magician!
Beth: I did wonder if this was Howl’s plan all along? Like actually, he does want to be the palace magician, but if he’d have gone up to the king and said yes, i want to be your palace magician, then the king wouldn’t have trusted him. It’s that catch 22 situation of the perfect leader is the leader who doesn’t want to be leader? So he’s manipulated the king through Sophie?
I think there’s a lot going on with Howl that Sophie, being unbelievably unobservant, just isn’t aware of and can’t begin to see,
Nils: That’s an interesting point Beth, I hadn’t considered that maybe Howl wanted to be palace magician. But I did think that despite his reluctance to help find Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin that did actually want to help find them, and that perhaps Sophie putting the King off Howl was a way to throw the Witch off the scent that Howl was on her case?
Beth: Ah ok that makes much more sense Nils!
The dreaded Witch of the Waste finally makes a reappearance, with dire consequences for poor Mrs Pentstemmon! Were you expecting that?
Nils: We had a great discussion on this one on WhatsApp, didn’t we Beth? My feelings on Mrs Pentsmemmon’s death were that it came out of nowhere and didn’t really have an impact on me emotionally. We don’t actually see the murder, not that I expect to see a brutal murder scene in a children’s book, but it’s through Sophie telling us that the Witch killed her and it’s delivered so matter of factly that there’s not much emotion behind it. I also felt it didn’t convey how evil the Witch is, again because there wasn’t a build up of threat or foreboding behind it. That’s how I felt anyway, what about you Beth?
Beth: It’s a really good point Nils, but on the flip side, I found it quite malevolent just how flippant the Witch was about the murder. I also liked the way Jones does the opposite of what Roald Dahl famously claimed, and she has this beautiful, gorgeous woman who is actually cold and ruthlessly evil. It’s the very lack of emotion which made it seem quite evil to me. It was quite sudden though, which made it hard to connect with.
Nils: Great point Beth, it also gives a good message to kids I guess. You can’t always recognise a bad person by the way they look.
What did we think of Howl comparing Sophie to his sister Megan? Was that a fair comparison?
Beth: I mean, to be fair to Howl, I don’t think he’s far off. Sophie continues to have a particular impression of Howl that doesn’t exactly meet the evidence before her, and Megan is very much the same. She’s developed a set of assumptions on Howl’s life which are completely false.
Nils: I agree here. It was funny to me that Sophie could see how unfairly Megan was treating Howl but can’t quite see her own treatment of him.
Beth: Ha! Yes! Very good point Nils, that is quite hypocritical of her!
Nils: She’s sticking to one opinion of Howl and though she gets to know him much better and by now should know he’s actually not a bad person, that initial opinion still hasn’t changed. Though now she knows Howl’s treatment of the girls he falls in love with is down to the curse perhaps she’ll begin to soften?
Beth: At the end of the day, Sophie is very much a human character in her flaws and jealousies, isn’t she!
We hope you enjoyed our second discussion!
Next week, we’ll be discussing chapters 15 through to the end.