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Literature / Howl's Moving Castle

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The first book in the Wizard's Castle series of young adult fantasy novels by Diana Wynne Jones, which gleefully lampshades and parodies many tropes common to the Fairy Tale genre.

Sophie Hatter is a sensible young woman who utterly lacks any confidence in herself. She works in a hat store owned by her late father, where she feels resigned to spend the rest of her days, until one day an encounter with the dashing and handsome young wizard Howl marks her as a target of the Witch of the Waste, a jilted former lover of Howl's. Mistaking Sophie for her sister Lettie, the Witch places a curse on Sophie which turns her into an old woman. After this transformation, Sophie exiles herself from her hometown and happens to become a house cleaner for Howl - who lives inside a moving castle with magic doors leading all over the country. The castle is powered by the grumpy fire demon, Calcifer, who is linked to Howl in a mysterious magical contract. Calcifer, however, has grown to resent Howl over the years and agrees to free Sophie from her curse if she can, in turn, somehow void his own agreement with Howl. As Sophie and Howl grow closer, it becomes more and more apparent that all is not as it seems.

Indeed, the main theme of the book is that basically everyone and everything in the story is literally something other than what they first seem, having all been transformed by magic.

The book was adapted into an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, which took significant liberties with its setting, themes, and characters.

The book kicked off a series. The first sequel, Castle in the Air (not to be confused with Miyazaki's other film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky), continues the story from the point of view of a new character, in the midst of a war, wherein most of the characters he runs across are characters from the first book, only (a) disguised or otherwise once again transformed into forms different from both their true natures and their initial cursed appearances and/or (b) described in such a way as to make the reader unaware of the connection (seeing as the sequel's hero doesn't know any of them, he can't very well recognize them for us, either). It uses tropes and settings from the Arabian Nights.

The second sequel, titled House of Many Ways, is set a couple of years after its predecessor. Again, a new protagonist is introduced as the book follows the story of Charmain, a sheltered bookworm who is assigned to care for a cottage for her Great Uncle (who is also the Royal Wizard) but soon discovers the cottage is a magical labyrinth in disguise. The cast of the first book are given more involved roles than their cameo appearances in Castle in the Air, but still stay secondary to Charmain's plot.

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     Tropes Present in the Series as a Whole 

The series as a whole provides examples of:

  • Agent Peacock: Girly boy badass Howl is this.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other:
    • Howl and Sophie bicker and argue like there's no tomorrow but when it really comes down to it, they really do love each other. The reason why they argue so much is because they want to. It keeps them on their toes.
    • Michael pointed out to Sophie the day that Howl, as vain and obsessed with beauty that he was, forgets to take 2 hours every morning to dress up and make himself look handsome would be the day that he's truly in love. So when Sophie was kidnapped by the Witch of the Waste, Howl arrives to her castle, disheveled and ungroomed.
  • Base on Wheels: The titular castle moves on feet, then later wings.
  • Beta Couple:
    • In the first book we have Michael and Martha (as well as Lettie and Ben at the end), to the main couple Howl and Sophie. They have less drama than our alpha couple.
    • In the second book it's main couple Abdullah and Flower in the Night, with Beta Couple place going to Justin and Beatrice, with some of the couples from the original also making appearances.
    • In the third book we have Odd Couple Peter and Charmain and some glimpses of Howl and Sophie.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The castle has doors that lead to other places and rooms that change size.
  • Brainy Brunette: Lettie. Reading between the lines a bit shows that Howl is one as well; Calcifer mentions that his hair is naturally 'mud-coloured', and a throw-away line to Miss Angorian implies that he has some sort of doctorate.
  • Companion Cube: Sophie discovers she has the magical ability to bring to life inanimate objects if she treats them like they weren't inanimate.
  • The Dandy: Howl spends two hours every morning to look fashionable. He says it's for business but everyone knows he's vain.
  • Death Is Such an Odd Thing: A mild version shows up when Sophie reacts to Mrs. Pentstemmon's murder by first being shocked that the passing was so sudden, and then realizing that "that's how it was, wasn't it? People are alive right up until they die."
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Ingary is roughly equivalent to England. Rajpuht, in Castle in the Air is somewhere between Arabian, Persian, and Indian. High Norland, in which House of Many Ways is set, is quite Switzerland-like—with the rolling, snowy mountains and meadows, the cuckoo clocks/sleds, tiny impish creatures, and all.
  • Fiery Redhead: Sophie, after character development lets her gain several levels in self-confidence.
  • Gentleman Snarker: As in everything else, Howl has to be classy even when he's being condescending.
  • Gentleman Wizard: Howl is an eccentric magic scholar who lives in a floating castle he made himself and always looks appropriate for polite society.
  • Good Stepmother: Living in a world filled by fairy tale tropes, lampshades, and aversions, Sophie's stepmother Fanny initially shows antagonistic shades before her good intentions towards both her own daughter Martha and her step-daughters Sophie and Lettie are revealed. She loves her daughters equally, even though her judgement is flawed.
  • Happily Married: Sophie and Howl, in every book after the first. They bicker constantly, which leads most onlookers to wonder what they see in each other. However, they love to argue, since it keeps them both on their toes, and it's great fun, of course.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Sophie, in her natural age and form, has flowing red hair, and is the only girl that womanizer Howl is truly interested in.
  • The Illegible: In both Howl's Moving Castle and House of Many Ways there are references to Howl' handwriting being horrible - both Sophie and Charmain wonder to themselves if he uses a pen or a poker when he's writing.
  • Large Ham: Howl is called a "drama queen" by his own author.
  • Mama Bear: Sophie in Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Do NOT harm Morgan Jenkins if you know what's good for you.
  • Morality Pet: From a distance, Howl is a wicked wizard that eats people's hearts. When you get to know him he's a hammy and selfish fop but then you see him with children. Whatever other flaws he may have, he absolutely loves his sister's children and they in kind. In the sequels, this extends to his own son Morgan, suggesting Howl may have a Friend to All Children streak.
  • The Multiverse: This trope shows up again in DWJ's work in a minor way — Howl turns out to be from an Alternate Universe, which turns out to be modern-day Earth (specifically Wales in the 1970s), which passes by without much comment from the other characters.
  • No Accounting for Taste: This is generally how outsiders view Howl and Sophie's relationship in every book after the first. In reality, they're Happily Married, since they enjoy fighting with each other. It keeps them both on their toes.
  • Noble Demon: Calcifer is a demon who looks very scary but he has a good relationship with the rest of the Castle 'family'.
  • Opposites Attract: Sensible woman lacking in confidence and eccentric man with an excess of confidence.
  • Papa Wolf: Howl also has a moment in House of Many Ways when Prince Ludovic threatens Morgan, leading Howl to punch him in the face. Twice. He's also an Uncle Wolf to his sister's kids, as the Witch discovers.
  • Portal Door: There is a door in the castle that Howl enchanted to lead to different places ( and times) depending on the color its dial points toward.
  • Put on a Bus: Michael, in every book after the first. Castle In the Air explains that Michael, and a new unnamed apprentice, were sent away when Howl found out that the moving castle was in danger.
  • Rule of Cool: Let's face it - moving castles are cool. It's justified in the first book as a means of eluding the Witch, but Sophie and Howl still have the moving castle at the very end of the third book.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Spoofed. Princess Valeria of Ingary is still a small child, and her father wouldn't dream of marrying her off until she's much older — which proves embarrassing for several people over the course of the series who expect the Standard Reward without bothering to find out how old she is first.
  • Technicolor Fire: Calcifer, as demonstrated in the above cover, is a demon of many different colors.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Mentioned repeatedly, such as Happily Ever After at the end of the story or the thing about three daughters.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: In all three books, people meeting Howl for the first time comment on his strange "glass-marble" eyes.

     Tropes in Howl's Moving Castle 

Howl's Moving Castle provides examples of:

  • Anger Born of Worry: Howl yells a storm at Sophie when he rescues her from the Witch of the Waste. Namely, he tells her he didn't expect she would be nice enough to rescue a woman she disliked from his dreaded enemy.
  • Beautiful All Along: Sophie never saw herself as pretty because her sisters were so much prettier. It takes a curse and the building up of her confidence to make her see that she is.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The Hatter sisters - Sophie (redhead), Lettie (brunette), and Martha (blonde).
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Subverted. Sophie thinks she can just walk by the Witch of the Waste because the witch has probably cursed so many people that she won't even remember Sophie. It doesn't work.
  • Can't Live Without You: If Calcifer dies, so does Howl because of their contract. Sophie breaks the curse, gives Calcifer a thousand years and restores Howl back to life.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Every object, character and throwaway line of dialogue, in the first book at least.
  • Conversation Hog: Mrs Fairfax tends to ramble on about whatever the topic of conversation is, and whoever she's talking to has to watch for a good moment to insert their comment or else be obliviously talked over. The narration compares it to judging the right moment to jump into a moving skipping-rope.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Subverted — Sophie's curse is genuinely terrible but it is only as an old woman that she is finally able to feel confident in herself.
  • Deal with the Devil: Wizards and witches can make these with fire demons to gain greater power. The exchange involves the human's heart and therefore their continued existence.
  • Dressing Down: Michael remarks that he'll know Howl has fallen truly in love only if Howl doesn't spend hours in the bathroom, making himself prettier before meeting a girl. When Sophie is captured by the Witch of the Waste, Howl rushes to rescue her, looking disheveled and unkempt.
  • Earth All Along: A major reveal in the middle of the story is that one of the castle's possible locations (the one marked in black on the doorknob) is an Alternate Universe, specifically Wales in the 1970s, and this is Howl's original home (where he was born as "Howell Jenkins"). Sophie treats the technology and customs of the real world as just more weirdness associated with Howl that she politely lets pass, and the details of how Howl came to Ingary have only been revealed in interviews.
  • Everyone Join the Party: Sort of happens in the book, when an amazing number of secondary characters independently show up right before the climax; subverted in that they don't know they're supposed to be reinforcements (really - that was Howl's plan) and so are bewilderedly commentating on the fight and swapping stories rather than really helping - afterward, this continues and serves as an Infodump about what's really been going on for the entire book.
  • Evil Plan: The Witch of the Waste wants to claim Howl's heart, metaphorically. This is why she chases him and curses a rival (Sophie) into old age. The demon contracted to her, Miss Angorian, wants to claim his heart, literally. This is why she arranges a series of events that will allow her to get inside the castle and grab Calicifer.
  • First Girl Wins: Gender-flipped with Sophie and Howl, Howl being the first guy that Sophie meets. Howl on the other hand has met plenty of other girls before Sophie.
  • Foreshadowing :
    • Michael muses that the day Howl doesn't spend at least two hours in the bathroom, making himself gorgeous before he goes out, is the day they'll know he's fallen in love. During the climax when he turns up at the Witch of the Waste's castle, he's unshaven with dark shadows under his eyes, and frankly looks a mess. Sophie sadly thinks he must love Miss Angorian very much; unable to realise that Howl loves her.
    • When Percival, a man pieced from two different men, talks about the Witch taking his head off and sitting on a shelf looking at himself, Michael protests that this would have killed him. Howl reveals that strong magic would allow him, for example, to take any part of Michael's body he wanted and leave Michael alive. Very soon after this, it's revealed that both Howl and the Witch of the Waste have removed their own hearts to give them to their respective fire demons.
    • Regarding Sophie's sisters, it's mentioned early on in chapter 1 that Martha and Lettie used to fight due to envying the other's destiny. In chapter 2 Sophie learns they have concocted a scheme to magically take on each other's identity, so as to take on the other's role.
  • Genre Savvy: Subverted. The book opens with a description of how the protagonist, who lives in "the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist", knows what to expect from life because everyone in Ingary knows how fairy stories work. The first dent appears before the end of the first chapter, with the introduction of two not-at-all ugly step-sisters (well, half-sisters) and a perfectly kind and loving step-mother, and as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that a lot of what 'everyone knows' is really just superstition or self-fulfilling prophecy (people make plans according to what everyone knows will happen, so that's what does happen). A major theme of the book is that life isn't as simple as in stories, even in a kingdom where fairy-story magic really exists.
  • Handsome Lech: Howl falls for Sophie the first time he sees her, but he maintains the appearance of a womanizer while trying to find out more about Sophie from her sister.
  • Heart Trauma: Howl, who is frequently described as "heartless", turns out to literally lack a heart, having given it to Calcifer as part of a magical deal. When he gets it back at the end of the novel, he improves — a bit. The trope is being played with; it's implied that although his literal heartlessness is wonderfully symbolic, his selfishness is just how he is, and was even before he met Calcifer.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: All the chapter titles, with a slight variation in the case of Chapter 5, "Which is far too full of washing".
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When she learns that the Witch is holding Miss Angorian, Howl's latest crush, hostage, Sophie commits to rescuing her despite feeling miserable about the prospect. When Howl comes to the castle, he shouts at Sophie that Miss Angorian was the demon trying to kill Calcifer and how was she oblivious for not realizing that Howl was in love with Sophie?
  • The Jinx: Subverted. Sophie assumes she's bad luck because she's the oldest of three daughters and a step-child at that. Howl tells her that she's not doomed for failure while they're going to rescue Calcifer, and she just has to learn not to be so impulsive
  • Ladykiller in Love: Howl is well known as a womanizer before, during, and after meeting Sophie.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Before Sophie, Howl's castle was amazingly dirty. Justified as Howl liked it dirty (the spiders are so helpful!) and was upset when Sophie cleaned it.
  • Moving Buildings: Howl's castle, as the title suggests; it glides across the ground with no visible means of propulsion.
  • Multi Stage Teleport: Parodied with the seven-league boots. Sophie only wants to travel a short distance, so she wears just one boot (to go three and a half leagues) and walks round two sides of a triangle. Then she has to backtrack when she overshoots.
  • My Hair Came Out Green: Howl's blonde hair goes pink when Sophie messes with his hair products.
  • No Loves Intersect: Surprisingly, this turns out to be the case with Howl, Lettie and Sophie. Rather than pursuing Lettie, Howl was only trying to gain information about Sophie through her, since he noticed they looked alike. Lettie only humoured him because she was worried about him asking about Sophie.
  • Ominous Knocking: Happens many times; Justified, since after Sophie is scared half to death by a living scarecrow at the door, she gets alarmed every time someone knocks in fear of seeing the scarecrow again. Then the Witch starts an open war with the castle's inhabitants, and Sophie and Michael often get frightened she might start knocking on the door. All the knocking-related alarms turn out to be false.
  • One Degree of Separation: In the book, Sophie eventually learns that every single encounter she's had after the first few pages and everything that's happened to her has been directly caused by Howl's actions. This only reason this isn't Chessmastering is that while Howl had the prerequisite knowledge, he's been winging it instead.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The King of Ingary. We see little of him but he seems like a decent fellow. For instance he's not adverse to giving a Standard Hero Reward for a sufficient job but not as long as his daughter is a toddler.
  • Rescue Romance: Howl and Sophie have Belligerent Sexual Tension even when she's under the curse, but they solidify their attraction for each other when he saves her from the Witch of Waste and she restores his heart while saving Calcifer.
  • Rewatch Bonus: A lot of past scenes are put in a different light once you find out in the last chapters Calcifer saw Sophie's curse and her magic power immediately, told Howl about it, and they were both hoping she could break Calcifer's contract; that Howl's flirtations with Lettie and Miss Angorian were both put-on for strategy; and that Howl is conducting a complicated, deceptive plan over not only the Witch of the Waste and Miss Angorian - who both have their own conflicting gambits - but over Sophie, the entire kingdom, and himself. Almost the only action of Sophie's he didn't predict was her being decent to Miss Angorian.
  • Romantic False Lead: In the book, Miss Angorian arouses Sophie's jealousy when Howl becomes attracted to her.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Played with; Sophie finds the animated scarecrow frightening, but when it gets a chance to explain itself without her running away, it turns out to be friendly and helpful. It also turns out to be some of what's left of Wizard Suliman, who cast all the spare magic he could upon it when the Witch of the Waste caught him in the hopes it would get help.
  • Secret Secret-Keeper: By the end of the book, pretty much everyone knows Sophie is cursed, despite the secrecy clause.
  • Shapeshifter Showdown: When the Witch of the Waste finds Howl in Porthaven, they engage each other as monsters.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The first book has lots of them to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The main antagonist is the Witch of the Waste. Sophie goes on a journey to gain a wizard's help, and meets a dog, a scarecrow, a man who has been cut up and put back together due to a witch's curse (Percival and/or his incomplete counterpart), and a being who self-describes as a coward but is brave when it really matters (Howl). The same set of characters could alternatively be described as one who lacks a brain (Percival's counterpart, who needs a head to complete him), one who lacks a heart (Howl, who donated his heart to Calcifer), and one who lacks courage (Percival, whose inability to stand up to the Witch is what gets Sophie dragged into things in the first place). Howl is a wizard who deliberately cultivates an image of being a lot more terrible and powerful than he really is, and was born in our world.
    • Howl says "We can't all be Mad Hatters" when teasing Sophie.
    • When holding up a human skull Howl says "Alas, poor Yorick!".
    • Howl's sister's house in Wales is named "Rivendell".
  • Shrouded in Myth: Many are the mysterious and frightening rumours that circulate about the Wizard Howl. It turns out that he started most of them himself.
  • Threat Backfire
    Witch of the Waste: ...she told me 'over my dead body'. So I took her at her word.
  • Tired of Running: At the climax Howl stops avoiding the Witch of the Waste and instead goes to her lair to confronts her and rescue Sophie.
  • Tongue-Tied: Part of the curse on Sophie is that she is prevented from telling anyone that she's under the curse. Nothing stopping anyone from figuring it out themselves, though (Calcifer, for one, can tell just by looking at her), and once someone else figures it out, that someone else is at full liberty to talk about it to whoever they wish. This also means that Sophie is free to talk about the curse with anyone who figured it out on their own.
  • Trash of the Titans: Howl's castle had rotten, dirty dishes, spiders and cobwebs, and other filth because no one cleaned.
  • Twin Switch: Mrs Hatter places Martha and Lettie in apprenticeships based on her expectations for their futures, but they each prefer the career path the other has been given. Martha finds a magic spell that lets them switch appearances, and they swap places. By the end of the book they are able to each continue their preferred apprenticeships openly.
  • Vain Sorceress: Howl is a male example. He flips out after Sophie does something to his hair products and causes his roots to go natural. Also, Michael tells Sophie the day that Howl doesn't spend two hours in the bathroom to make himself beautiful for a girl is the day that he is truly in love.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Howl knew along that Sophie was cursed. Even with the Witch's Geas, you can't fool a lazy magician. In the hopes of helping her and saving himself and Calcifer, he took her in and under protest lets her clean the castle, all the while trying to hide his true feelings for her.
  • Working Through the Cold: Howl has to cast a difficult spell, go to a funeral in disguise, and fight the evil Witch of the Waste, all while he has a bad cold.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Defied. When the Witch of the Waste holds Sophie hostage, Howl arrives in a flurry, defeats the Witch in a Curb-Stomp Battle, and most definitely kills her.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: The root of Sophie's major problems is that she thinks she is genre savvy enough to know that being the eldest of three children she will be doomed to a boring life without glamour or success. As such she completely fails to see that she is an extremely potent witch with the ability to ensure a happy ending for herself as well as everyone around her.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Lampshaded and averted; Sophie (the eldest) believes this is the case but all three of them live Happily Ever After.