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.
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.
Oh my goodness, how has it taken until my forty-eighth year to read this book – to read it at bedtime with my daughter. It is utterly charming! And very knowing as a book.
Sophie Hatter is – or at least appears to be – that staple of fairy tales and middle years’ fantasy: an orphan forced into a life of drudgery as an apprentice hatter by a wicked step mother who exploits her skills whilst gallivanting around town. So far, so many echoes of Cinderella. But Wynne Jones shows herself unable to resist turning a trope, a convention onto its head.
Sophie is worn down, anxious and lacks self confidence at the start of the novel, a fate associated with being the eldest child, apparently, until she is cursed by the Witch of the Waste with old age – and a concomitant loss of life expectancy. She flees to the hills and the moving castle where Wizard Howl lives, despite his fearsome reputation. There she meets Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer the fire demon and installs herself in the castle before Howl returns.
Howl does not consume her heart or her soul as his reputation suggests, but instead accepts her as a cleaner, albeit somewhat begrudgingly and she becomes part of the castle household.
The plot is oddly rather loose and episodic and gentle – with a lot of cleaning and domesticity taking the foreground and the missing Prince and the wizard sent to find him rumble along in the background – and yet also incredibly tautly structured. Not one detail or sentence from the opening chapters is unimportant. Nothing is random. Did Sophie collect a walking stick, prop up a scarecrow or rescue a dog? All critical characters by the end. The final chapter felt a little rushed perhaps, but it was so incredibly satisfying as every tiny detail comes together.
I loved almost everything in the book: Howl should have been difficult to love with his tendency towards melodrama, self-indulgence and, well, green slime, but he was gorgeous; I loved that the resolution did not change or compromise him; I loved Sophie and her sisters; I loved the sudden, unsettling revelation that a real-world Wales lay beyond the Castle’s magic door; I loved Calcifer, and his final line in the story.
And what I was absolutely blown away by was my daughter. When we discovered that Howl had given his heart to Calcifer – sorry for the minor spoiler – my daughter stopped me reading, laid the book down on my lap and looks intently into my face. “That’s why Calcifer called him “Heartless Howl”,” she said. And yes, he does. Once. And she had remembered that – for all her additional educational needs – and connected the metaphorical to the literal image. And I, an English teacher, had not noticed that particular detail! I was just enjoying the ride!
This really was an exquisite and charming novel – and I am so glad the my daughter has reached an age to let me read it, finally!
What I Liked
- Absolutely every single character – every one! Howl and Sophie, obviously, but also Lettie and Martha, Fanny, Michael and Calcifer; even the Witch of the Waste, Mrs Pentstemmon and the King.
- The incredibly taut structures, all without feeling forced or pressured.
- The challenge of the genre conventions.
- The magical battles between Howl and The Witch of the Waste which were actually some of the best magical battles I’ve read!
What Could Have Been Different
- Maybe there could have been a little more time spent on the final chapters…