Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle, #1) (2024)

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones opens in a picturesque little village, in a country and a world where magic—gifts and curses, fairies and witches—are not just real, but taken for granted. The people around them manage to have almost tediously normal lives.

Our protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is the eldest of three sisters, so she knows her youngest sister will have luck and adventure while she herself will have a dull and obscure existence, probably as an old maid tending her father’s hat shop. At nineteen, Sophie is clever but painfully shy.

On a festival day she dares to leave the hat shop and is pursued by a handsome youth she has never seen before. Irrationally frightened, Sophie flees the young man’s advances, only to irritate a mysterious old woman—and suddenly Sophie herself is transformed into an infirm old hag.

Unable to explain her metamorphosis and afraid to approach her family in this altered form, Sophie decides to leave town in pursuit of the one person who can help her: the great wizard Howl, whose moving castle recently appeared as an ominous blot on the horizon.

Why ominous?

Because Howl is said to kidnap beautiful girls and eat their hearts, or perhaps their souls.
No longer young and never (to herself, at least) beautiful, Sophie reasons she has nothing to fear.

Jones sets the stage early on, as much with her narration as with her description. The narrator is an arch observer in the tradition of Jane Austen and L.M. Montgomery, and the world she describes could be any rural town and surrounding countryside in the eighteenth or nineteenth century—with the small addition of magic.

Magic here is a respectable enough line of work, usually, but a powerful witch or wizard is still feared.

Propriety is of utmost concern in the land of Ingary. Out-of-towners are not trusted, and the wizard Howl, whom no one in the village of Market Chipping has ever (as far as they know) laid eyes on, is particularly suspicious due to his mode of travel and the scandalous rumors that run before him.

Howl’s Castle itself, where most of the book takes place, is a marvel of imagination, but I will say no more. It’s not a plot spoiler per se, but I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s delighted surprise at the thing’s operations and abilities.

Once installed as the moving Castle’s housekeeper, Sophie befriends Calcifer, the fire demon whose energy sustains the building. From Calcifer she gathers hints of a terrible secret about Howl. She spends most of the book trying to piece together the nature of her own curse, and the secret that Calcifer cannot fully reveal.

At first Howl, a handsome but rather foppish young man, appears to enjoy a carefree existence of fine clothes, using magic for fun, breaking the heart of every girl he meets, and shirking the responsibilities that come with his accomplished wizard status. He repeatedly clashes with this apparently random old lady who barged into his house demanding a job, but as he gets to know her, he begins to suspect she might not be so random at all…

Meanwhile, the King’s younger brother is missing, as is one of Howl’s high-ranking wizard colleagues, and a powerful being from Howl’s past is scheming to destroy him, but if I elaborate on any of this, it will ruin the fun.

If you were starting to think that all YA heroines are either brassy Amazon warrior princesses or sniveling Bella Swans, allow Sophie Hatter to break you out of your funk.

Sophie starts out as a painfully timid girl who wears only plain, grey dresses and rarely ventures outside the family hat shop. She is so convinced of her own plainness that when a handsome stranger approaches her on May Day, she assumes the young man is mocking her and runs away. I think a lot of us can relate to this.

As an old lady, Sophie takes about twenty levels in chutzpah. She is assertive, no-nonsense, and occasionally cantankerous, but never truly unkind. She becomes the only being in the universe who can make Howl Pendragon obey.

For Howl is a flighty, easily-frightened creature, who has built a fearsome reputation for himself in the hope of avoiding conflict. He is the most accomplished wizard in the land—since Suliman disappeared, at any rate—but he shirks the responsibilities that must inevitably come with that status. He craves love, but flits from one girl to the next with no intention of settling down anytime soon.

He is also vain, compulsively dying his hair, only wearing the finest (re: flashiest) clothes, and pitching epic tantrums when his beauty regimen is disturbed

But don’t let the temperamental glam rock exterior fool you. Howl is one of the very cleverest—and kindest, and gentlest—men you will ever meet in YA, and a lot of his theatrics are cover for his dastardly, altruistic, foolhardy plans…if you want a book boyfriend, look no further!

Then there’s Calcifer—a snide, secretive little lump of talking flame in a fireplace, who has a hilariously close-but-vitriolic friendship with Howl. I can’t say much more about Calcifer without giving the whole thing away.

The other characters:
•Lettie, Sophie’s vivacious and magically-gifted sister
•Martha, Sophie’s stepsister
•Fanny, Sophie’s kindly stepmother
•A sentient Scarecrow who follows Sophie around
•An enchanted dog
•Michael, Howl’s fifteen-year-old apprentice
•The King of Ingary
•Mrs. Pentstemmon, the great witch who trained Suliman and Howl
•Megan, Howl’s disapproving sister (who lives in Wales. Howl comes from our world!)
•Neil and Mari, Howl’s nephew and little niece
•Miss Angorian, Neil’s pretty teacher on whom Howl has a crush
•The Witch of the Waste, a sinister and powerful being who makes her home on the edge of Ingary

All the supporting characters are engaging. One gets the impression that they are all fully formed characters, but we don’t see all the facets of their personalities because this isn’t their story.

Content Advisory
Violence here is mild and mostly symbolic.

Howl makes a lot of “conquests” among the local girls, but it is never stated how far he has gotten, if you will, with any of these conquests. Given that

Howl goes back to Wales to attend a rugby event, at which he so drunk that he is unable to properly climb into bed upon returning to the Castle.

Calcifer is called a fire demon—although nothing about him suggests the diabolical.

There is no harsh language.

The Movie
A lot of people only know about this book because of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime film adaptation, which was well-received by critics and audiences alike. Before I say anything more, I should note that this is the only anime I have ever watched all the way through. I know nothing about the conventions of the genre.

That said, I thought the movie was a beautiful piece of visual art, with stunning panoramic shots (we forget how gorgeous well-done 2-D animation can be), lovely music, and high-quality voice acting.

There’s only one problem: it has almost no connection to the book it’s supposedly based on.

Granted, there is a shy young hatter named Sophie who is cursed into the form of a crone. There is a dashing young wizard named Howl who lives in a castle that moves. There is a snarky fire demon named Calcifer who keeps the castle moving.

And that’s about it.

The movie’s characterizations—except Calcifer and Old!Sophie—are far off-base. Young!Sophie is sweet and mild-mannered. Howl has one or two memorable outbursts, but is far more subdued than the drama king of the novel. The Witch of the Waste turns out to be mostly harmless, and Suliman is an older woman—in the book he is a strapping fellow, only a few years older than Howl.

Also, movie!Sophie is brunette. She is drawn with long braids and a hat, so maybe they changed her red hair brown so she wouldn’t be mistaken for Anne Shirley, a hugely popular character in Japan. But then the movie keeps Howl’s accidental red hair tantrum,

But these are minor quibbles. Miyazaki completely changed the emphasis and conflict of the story. Drawing on the Iraq War, the pacifist Miyazaki extracted a hint from the book (literally one sentence long) about a war between Ingary and a neighboring country and turned it into the main plot. The King wants Howl to fly a bomber or something, but Howl, now transformed from a vain and lazy guy into a noble conscientious objector, would rather turn himself into a man-sized black bird and attack both sides’ fighter planes. (The presence of airplanes in the first place is jarring). Then there’s a subplot about how it gets harder every time for him to turn back from bird to man.

I respect Miyazaki’s antiwar beliefs, and of course, as the director of the film, he has the right to take the story in whatever direction he wants. But I personally wish he had expressed them in a different film.

Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t about war any more than Mansfield Park is about slavery—another case of one sentence of the book devouring the plot of the movie. (The MP movie also had a lot of other problems, but that's a story for another review). War is awful, slavery is evil, and happy romances about shy girls in grey dresses and handsome young men (who may or may not be wizards) should be allowed to remain happy.

But that’s my opinion. Yours may be entirely different.

A treat for everybody ages 10 and up—and younger as a family read-aloud—Howl’s Moving Castle delivers adventure, magic, mystery, romance, and humor in a literate, subtly detailed style. It’s a timeless story that begs to be reread, and will surely join The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Dark is Rising series as classics of the genre.

There are two indirect sequels that feature Howl and Sophie, though they focus on new main characters and different settings. The first is Castle in the Air, an Arabian Nights-style adventure that might partly be a stealth parody of Disney’s Aladdin. The second is House of Many Ways, which read like a first draft (albeit an intriguing first draft from a deft and seasoned writer) to me, but a lot of other people enjoyed it.
Also recommended:

•The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery—not a fantasy, but Anne and Sophie have much in common

•The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis—a similar mix of fairytale tropes, space/time-bending adventures, and down-to-earth protagonists with a witty narrator

•A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket—also features a witty narrator, a mock nineteenth-century feel, and delightful poetry quoting and literary references

•The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. Not superficially similar, but Howl and Eugenides are soul brothers. These books are violent and complicated. Teens and up.

•The Crown & Court duology by Sherwood Smith. Also features a courtly, long-haired hero, a redheaded spitfire of a heroine, a touch of earthy magic, and an industrial truckload of snark.

•The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett. Similar fairytale parody with a spunky heroine and very English sense of humor. These books contain some off-color humor. Teens and up.

•The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud. A much darker—although similarly humorous—look at a human and magical-being partnership like that of Howl and Calcifer. These books contain both violence and off-color humor, and are also extremely long. Teens and up.

•The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale. The tone of these books is more serious than HMC, and the plots are more straightforward—but they share strong, feminine heroines and organic magic. These books can get dark. Teens and up.

•The Secret Country trilogy by Pamela Dean. Similar wit, character development, and inter-world travel element.

•The Safe-Keeper’s trilogy by Sharon Shinn. Similar faux-English feel and small-town courtships with a hint of deception and magic. Some mature issues including rape, murder, and various forms of child abuse are referenced, though never seen. Teens and up.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. A Cinderella story of similarly blithe heart and subtle snark.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle, #1) (2024)


Who is Howl's first love? ›

Howl is in love with Sophie for who she is not what she is. Besides, she's only eighteen, so he's the cradle-snatcher! It is hinted throught the book that Howl knew Sophie was really a young woman from very early on.

What was the first thing Howl said to Sophie? ›

So, when Howl's first words upon meeting Sophie are "There you are, sweetheart, sorry I'm late. I was looking everywhere for you," it isn't just a ruse to get her away from the soldiers. He has actually been looking for her all this time.

Why did Calcifer take Howl's heart? ›

Howl had given his heart to Calcifer. This was the contract between them; the heart kept Calcifer alive, and in return Calcifer put his magic at Howl's disposal. Sophie uses her ability of bringing things to life to free Calcifer, thus breaking the contract between him and Howl.

Why did Heen go with Sophie? ›

At the end of the movie, Madame Suliman is shown looking into the orb in her staff to see him, asking him why he did not report in earlier, implying that she sent him to go with Sophie to act as a spy in Howl's Castle.

Did Turnip Head love Sophie? ›

However, the curse that makes him a scarecrow is broken when Turnip Head receives a kiss from his true love… Sophie, who ends up with Howl.

Do Howl and Sophie have a baby? ›

Howl & Sophie Had A Son Named Morgan

She wound up having a son, whom she named Morgan.

Why is Sophie's hair still grey? ›

While I was looking for a screenshot of Howl's Moving Castle, I stumbled across the same question spread over the internet: “Why is Sophie's hair still silver at the end?” I was surprised that the answer most readily given was, “because she still has the curse.”

Why did Howl's hair turn black? ›

Everyone has had a bad hair day. However, few people gave up on life over an easily fixable mistake. Thanks to Sophie's cleaning, Howl's potions got mixed around, leading his hair to change from blond to ginger. Howl accuses Sophie of ruining him and proceeds to throw a tantrum as his hair changes to black.

Is the Witch of the Waste Howl's ex? ›

Howl & The Witch Dated In The Past

While it initially seems that she does this simply because she's jealous and a generally bad person, Howl's Moving Castle explained that the Witch of the Waste and Howl used to date, but once Howl realized who she was, and what an ugly personality she had, he left her.

Why did Howl eat girls hearts? ›

Most people believe he's evil, as he supposedly eats girls' hearts. This is, however, exaggerated: Howl regularly breaks girls' hearts, but he doesn't eat them. Rather, Howl is trying to make himself look bad so the King doesn't send him to look for Prince Justin or Wizard Suliman.

Why did Calcifer eat Sophie's hair? ›

By consuming Sophie's hair, he is able to have enough power to move the castle across The Wastes to find Howl.

Why was Calcifer dying? ›

He is a fallen star who was supposed to die once he hit earth.

Did Howl love Miss Angorian? ›

Howl, Sophie and Michael visit the nephew's teacher in order to learn the rest of the poem. Howl is terrified when he discovers that the poem completes the rest of the Witch of the Waste's curse. Immediately Howl appears to fall in love with Miss Angorian, his nephew's teacher. He begins to woo her instead of Lettie.

Did Howl know Sophie the whole time? ›

Howl met Sophie when he was a child, and since then, he was looking for her. In the end, Howl gave her a ring saying, “For your safe return.” But he meant not only to his Castle but also to his past. Howl knew she would go back to his childhood, and they would meet again!

Does Sophie fall in love with Howl in the book? ›

Another fairy tale trope plays out, as well: Sophie and Howl fall in love. But the book dances between falling for and subverting this cliche. It's Sophie who saves the wizard, by returning his heart to him; their love is not swooning but a realization borne of time spent growing closer to each other.

How did Howl fall in love with Sophie if he didn't have a heart? ›

As Sophie began her journey of self-growth, Howl fell in love with Sophie because she was a witch with the power to make him feel alive. Howl didn't have his heart anymore, and she was filling that emptiness. This enabled her to free herself, Howl, and her friends from sorcery.

Who did Howl date before Sophie? ›

Howl fell in love with Sophie when he met her on May Day, back before she was cursed. He was courting Lettie to find out more about Sophie.

Did Howl love the Witch of the Waste? ›

7 The Witch Of The Waste & Sophie Are Opposites

Howl loves Sophie when she appears older but is very young. In contrast, Howl does not love the Witch of the Waste when she appears young, but hides her true age.

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