‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones

I have had a mixed reaction to the novels of Diana Wynne Jones so far. I enjoyed Dogsbody, I thought Charmed Life was okay, I loathed Fire and Hemlock. I was also a bit put off by DWJ’s fans, some of whom display almost religious levels of devotion to her. This obliges them to not only promote her work assiduously, but also disparage anyone else who’s had the audacity to write children’s fantasy, especially if those writers manage to sell more books than their idol. (I mean, didn’t J. K. Rowling realise that Diana Wynne Jones was the only British author ever allowed to write about orphans attending magic school?)

'Howl's Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne JonesHowever, I’ve just finished Howl’s Moving Castle and finally understand what DWJ’s fans are going on about, because this book was utterly charming – funny, clever, warm-hearted and featuring some of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in children’s fantasy. The dreaded Wizard Howl, rumoured to suck the souls from innocent young girls or maybe eat their hearts, turns out to be far less evil than suspected, although with enough flaws to fill a (moving) castle. There’s also Calcifer, his adorably grumpy demon, Michael, the anxious apprentice and Sophie, the valiant heroine placed under a curse by a wicked witch. The author has a lot of fun playing with fantasy conventions – seven-league boots, magical disguises, mysterious spells, supernatural battles, kings sending magicians on dangerous quests and so on – although my favourite part was when the magical world collided with the real one. In one chapter, Sophie and Michael accompany Howl to his original home in the “land of Wales”. Sophie is baffled by the clothes (Howl dons a baggy jacket with the strange inscription “WELSH RUGBY”) and by the technology, which includes magical boxes with moving pictures, the boxes growing “on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall”. Throughout, the plot twists and turns in a very inventive and complicated manner, but it all ends as it should, with evil vanquished and the good living happily ever after.

The edition I read had some excellent illustrations by Tim Stevens (the scarecrow is especially creepy) and a lovely cover with Howl looking supernaturally handsome and his castle looming darkly in the background. But then I remembered this book was made into a much-loved animated film and went looking for the trailer and it looks TERRIBLE. The castle is all wrong! Everyone speaks American! The story looks more like a Disney princess romance than anything else! It doesn’t seem like the sort of film that even mentions “WELSH RUGBY”. However, if any of you have seen it and think it worth watching, I may give it a try. Also, if you have any recommendations for Diana Wynne Jones books that are just like Howl’s Moving Castle but nothing like Fire and Hemlock, I would be very interested to hear them.

13 thoughts on “‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones”

  1. Hi, there are other books in the Howl world, and the Chrestomanci series are my go to books when feeling poorly and in need of a comfort read, but based on what you liked in Howl I’d suggest giving the Power of Three a go. It’s at heart about family and relationships, and is wonderfully plotted so would heartily recommend it.
    Also have you seen there is now a publication date confirmed at start of November (this year!) for next Rivers of London 🙂

    1. Thanks, Thalia. I will look out for Power of Three. I’ve also heard good things about Archer’s Goon, so maybe I should try that. I did like Charmed Life, but not enough to want to read the rest of the Chrestomanci books (although possibly I started with the wrong book). I must admit I don’t read much fantasy and when I do, I prefer it to be funny and charming and have a happy ending (and ideally have interesting girl characters).

      That is very exciting news about The Hanging Tree! I hope it arrives in Australia in time for Christmas.

    1. I am happy to report that Howl’s Moving Castle is NOTHING like Fire and Hemlock. (And I’m relieved to find another reader who didn’t appreciate the ‘brilliance’ of Fire and Hemlock.)

  2. You may already be aware of this, but there are two sequels to Howl’s Moving Castle: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. I never read House of Many Ways, because it was published much later, but I can vouch for Castle in the Air being utterly charming and fun and hilarious! 🙂

  3. Argh, I hit post too soon!

    Outside of the other Howl books, I’d recommend Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel, Year of the Griffin. They’re both hilarious, light-hearted fantasy that poke fun at standard fantasy tropes, and they’ve both got excellent female characters (as supporting characters in DLoD and as both protagonist and supporting characters in YotG).

  4. I personally love the animated film. As with all Studio Ghibli movies, it’s best in the original Japanese, with subtitles–the dubbing is always a little off. The animation is really cool, especially the castle itself, pulsing with strange machinations. One of my favourite aspects was the touches of Japanese culture added on to DWJ’s quintessential Britishness. It’s such an interesting medley and you really feel transported to another world. Not comparing it to the book is difficult, but it’s much more rewarding when enjoyed on its own terms 🙂

    1. Thank you for that information, it’s very useful. It sounds as though I need to approach the film as one ‘inspired by’ the book, rather than a faithful adaptation – and I will definitely try to find the subtitled version! The dubbed-into-American-English trailer was really jarring to me.

  5. I will admit, I have a REALLY REALLY hard time separating the movie from the book enough to appreciate it on its own terms. I’ve heard so many people say the movie’s just LOVELY if you think of it as something else entirely, but there’s just too many similarities for me to pretend it’s not a really really inaccurate adaptation. Some of the changes I kind of liked– Iike, I LIKED the castle– but they completely BUTCHERED Howl’s character almost beyond recognition and I just can’t forgive that. He’s such a unique character! How could they get him so WRONG? So, I can’t give an honest YAY for the movie.

    The other commenters have already suggested most of the DWJ I’d suggest. I do like some other of the Chrestomanci books better than Charmed Life, so you might want to push on.

    1. Judging by the trailer, the film castle is a kind of mechanical animal on legs – when the charm and humour of the book’s castle for me was in it being an actual solid BUILDING (albeit one with unusual doors) that could drift around the countryside at will. So if the filmmakers also change Howl’s character significantly (and if they leave out WELSH RUGBY), I’m not sure the film will contain the things I most loved about the book. I might leave my viewing of it for a while, so that my memory of the book isn’t so fresh…

      1. Yeah, no more Welsh Rugby. It seemed like such a little thing to gripe about, that Howl was no longer Welsh– there are enough other major changes in his character to be offended by, but somehow his not being Welsh really grated on me. Particularly when I found out his English Overdub actor actually WAS Welsh, and they had him do an American accent!

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