Howl’s Moving Castle: Always More To Discover
Warning: contains spoilers for the books and film.
This year’s theme at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is “Back to the Movies”. I’ve decided to go as a character from one of my favourite films ever: Howl’s Moving Castle.
For that reason (as if I needed a reason!) I’ve been re-watching the film and re-reading the sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. And as with the moving castle itself, there is always more to discover. Here are some of them.
The Magician’s Cape
I’ve been reading this Swedish fairy tale by Anna Wahlenberg as part of my ongoing quest for asexual fairy tales. I think it could well qualify! But I couldn’t help noticing the similarities to Howl’s Moving Castle. The titular magician has a castle high on a mountain, in front of which “he conjured a wonderful garden where magnificent flowers glowed… There the magician would lie on a velvet couch under the branches watching beautiful young girls dance on the lawn, and sing and play the guitar.” Furthermore, when he gets bored with one girl and fancies another, “he would put on the fine velvet robes of a distinguished gentleman, dab his lips with honey to make words come out sweetly, drip magic dew in his eyes to make them look gentle and sparkling. Then he would don his black flying cape, which he could change into enormous wings, and fly out to find another victim.”
If that doesn’t remind me of Howl, I don’t know what does! In the first chapter of the book, Howl’s castle appears “roving about the hills.” We read that Howl “was known to amuse himself by collecting young girls and sucking their souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts. He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own”.
Of course, this is only Howl’s reputation. We know he’s a vain, cowardly man-baby who only keeps a guitar because it looks good. Underneath, he’s a pussy-cat. (Which is ironic, because he transforms Sophie into…never mind. Spoilers). Like the fairy tale magician (who really is evil), he is defeated by the only girl who doesn’t fall for his flirtations. I would love to know if Diana Wynne Jones was influenced by this fairy tale. The enormous, black wings belong to the film version, of course, not the book. Which brings me onto my next discovery.
I don’t think I would have discovered this, had I not recently re-read Lian Herne’s Tale of Shikanoko series, which features a tengu. But I spotted a small, background detail in the scene where Sophie is talking with Lettie at the bakery.
You can clearly see the word tengu on the label. A tengu is a creature from Japanese folklore. As with most folkloric things, it has a long and shifting history. But from that history, several things leap out that make sense of Hayao Miyazaki’s portrayal of Howl.
- The word tengu may come from the Chinese tiangou. This is a demon sometimes said to resemble a shooting star or comet.
- Early portrayals of tengu show a man-bird, like a crow or a black kite.
- In some stories, tengu abduct people.
- 11th-century legends tell of tengu tricking Buddhist priests into gaining power from a tengu rather than gaining enlightenment. By the 12th century, the idea came about that a bad priest became a tengu after death.
- Tengu are associated with vanity. According to Wikipedia: the Japanese expression tengu ni naru (becoming a tengu) is used to describe a conceited person.
All this makes perfect sense of the way Howl turns into a bird-like monster in the film. (And of the conversation he has with Calcifer about wizards who turn themselves into monsters for the king and won’t be able to turn back). I always had the sense that it expressed something about Howl’s inner self, but now it makes much more sense when it comes to Howl’s vanity and sometimes immature behaviour. I’m not surprised that Hayao Miyazaki would think of the tengu.
In the DVD extras, there is an interview with Diana Wynne Jones in which she talks about the film and her meeting with Hayao Miyazaki. She speaks of a long conversation they had (through an interpreter) and how she was left feeling that he understood her books in a way no one else did. Which brings me to…
House of Many Ways
This is the third book in the series, which Diana Wynne Jones wrote after the film. I’m sure the film influenced her in the writing of it. There are some aspects in which the world of the film melts into that of the book.
The main one is the house of many ways itself. The description of it is almost exactly like the cottage among the flowers that Howl gives to Sophie in the film.
A brown, one-storey house (apparently!), high in the mountains. “The grass was greener than any she had seen in town. Fresh scents blew off it…from hundreds and hundreds of tiny, exquisite flowers.” (Yes, I know the expanse of flowers in the film comes straight from the Howl’s Moving Castle book, but the cottage doesn’t). In the film, Howl tells Sophie, “My uncle, who was a wizard gave it to me for my private study.” Now, we know that book-Howl comes from our world - from a strange land called Wales - so he can’t have had a wizard uncle . But very cleverly, in House of Many Ways, Diana Wynne Jones makes this apparently simple cottage (spoiler:it isn’t!) the home of the main character Charmain’s great-great uncle William. Not only that, but there is a letter to Uncle William from Howl that says, “Your book, Crucual Cantrips, has been a great help to me in my dimensional…work”, making Uncle William a kind of mentor to Howl after all.
Also like in the film, in Chapter Three the mountain idyll is invaded by a scary, flying creature. The Lubbock is described as “dark purple and man-shaped… It had small see-through purple wings on its back.” Could this description be influenced by some of the weird creatures from the film?
Finally - for now - there is the dog, Waif. Diana Wynne Jones said in the interview that one of her favourite parts of the film that was not in the book, was the bit where Sophie and the Witch of the Waste are struggling up the palace stairs, insulting each other. And Sophie is carrying a dog. Could this by why Charmain arrives at the Royal Mansion with Waif in her arms? And has Waif licking her chin as “she was climbing the steps to the heavy front door of the Mansion”? I like to think so.
I’m only halfway through my House of Many Ways re-read. Like Charmain, I might discover more as I go along. (I’m already starting to wonder about Twinkle and those golden-haired page boys in the film). In the meantime, I’ll work on my fancy dress. I won’t say who I’m going as, but I bought these earrings…
An Illustrated Treasury of Swedish Folk and Fairy Tales. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2019.
Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle. London: Methuen, 1986.
Diana Wynne Jones, House of Many Ways. London: Harper Collins, 2008.
Hayao Miyazaki dir. Howl’s Moving Castle. Studio Ghibli, 2004.