Monday, January 10, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle (first the book)

As part of my anime education, I received a dvd of Howl's Moving Castle as a Christmas gift.

Reading the credits on the back of the box informed me that the Hayao Miyazaki film is based on the novel Howl's Moving Castle by Daina Wynne Jones.  I had heard of the film, and I had heard of the author, but I had not heard of the novel.  As I have wanted to read something by Ms. Jones for some time but had simply not made a selection, I decided that this was my chance, and picked up a copy from my favorite haunt.

By the time I had made it through chapter two, I was convinced that this was yet another instance of finding and reading the right book at the right time.  The literary stars aligned, and knowing better than to ignore the signs, off I went on a delightful adventure.

(It turns out that there are two other "Howl" books -- Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways.  My local library had both of them, so I can continue my exploration when the time comes, but I decided to begin at the beginning.)

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and she is left to work for her step mother (who is by no means wicked, although perhaps a bit self-centered and exploitive) in her father's hat shop after her father passes away, and her sisters are sent off to apprentice, one to a witch and the other to a bakery.

Despite a gift for trimming hats, Sophie's life is frightfully dull and sheltered until one day she displeases the Witch of the Waste, who turns Sophie into an old woman as punishment for her honesty.  (She tells the vain witch that a particular hat to which she has taken a fancy does not suit her at all.)

Afraid to face her family and tell them what has happened, Sophie strikes out on her own.  On her way out of town, she rescues a dog who is tangled in a hedge and rights a fallen and somewhat dilapidated scarecrow.  (Pay attention.  These things become important later on in the story.)  When night falls and she finds herself out in the cold, Sophie takes refuge in the moving castle of the wizard Howl, who has a reputation for eating the hearts or stealing the souls (the stories are never quite clear) of innocent young girls, a fact which would have terrified Sophie as the young woman she had been but does nothing to deter her as an old crone as she seeks out a comfortable seat beside a warm fire.  Besides, in addition to the comfortable seat beside a warm fire, Howl might be able to lift the witch's curse.

Once inside the castle, which turns out to be far less impressive on the inside, she talks her way past Howl's apprentice, Michael, and befriends -- well, strikes a bargain with -- Calcifer, the fire demon who is bound to Howl and living in his fireplace.

Yes, I understand.  It sounds a bit far fetched -- an old woman striking out on her own and preferring to take her chances with wizards and demons than stay with her own family, but Jones infuses Sophie with a great sense of purpose and determination, even if she is not entirely sure of her direction or destiny, that you can't help but be on her side both to support her on her journey and to follow her to see where it leads.

Besides, that is just the beginning.  There are kings and princes and other wizards and lady loves, and it turns out that the same witch who put the spell on Sophie (who can't tell anyone about it, by the way) is after Howl as well, which is why Calcifer has to keep the castle on the move in the first place.

The elements of an entertaining story are all here -- a varied and engaging cast of characters, complete with mistaken and confused identities, and a plot rife with plans (good and evil), accidents, mishaps, magic, mayhem, and a bit of romance.  There is even a visit or two to a mythical place called Wales, where people travel by loud horseless carriages and children entertain themselves with magical boxes plugged into walls.

The ending itself works out well, even if the final approach to it becomes more than a little convoluted.  I had trouble keeping track of characters' goals and motivations, especially the hidden ones which I got the feeling I was somehow expected to figure out before the final revelations, but I have never been good at that sort of thing.  The solutions to mysteries are often a surprise to me, but then I don't put a lot of time and effort trying to get to the end before I, well, get to the end.  I read to be told a story, not to second guess one or write it myself.

The next bit of fun will be to see what Miyazaki's film adaptation has to offer.  Stay tuned.

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