KP Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

“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. Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success!”howlsmovingcastlepinteres

This is the marvelous beginning of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, Howl’s Moving Castle. Drawing heavily on different fairy tale tropes and delightfully subverting them, Jones relates the story of Sophie, the eldest of three sisters who gets into trouble when she angers a powerful witch and gets turned into an old woman. With little else to do, Sophie ends up working as a maid for the wizard Howl, who lives in a moving, trans-dimensional castle. There she discovers that her curse can be removed—but only if she manages to learn how to free Howl’s fire elemental from his contract to Howl so that it can release her from the curse.

Sounds simple, right?

Howl’s Moving Castle is a perfect example of how a clear and compelling voice can define and unify a story. Its winsome and light-hearted tone can make it seem more like a children’s novel, and a younger audience would certainly appreciate that, but Jones writes in a way that is just as entertaining and intriguing to older readers.

Because much of this story is built upon the compelling nature of its tone and voice, the best way to gauge your own interest in the book is to read the first couple chapters. Although the characters are intriguing and there’s some good conflict between them, and the plot has some good twists and turns, the story is largely driven by its tone and voice. If the voice doesn’t grip you, the story probably won’t engage you much. It will certainly be a decent story and have some good elements, but my guess is that it won’t be your favorite.

On the other hand, if the voice grabs you from the get-go like it did with me, you’ll probably enjoy it a fair bit. Perhaps even a lot. Few stories have a voice that’s so compelling and unique. And few use humor in such an effective way. Jones presents a unique story with Howl’s Moving Castle and a unique tone to go with it. Both of these aspects make it a story worth reading.

Discussion Questions:

What makes the voice of this novel compelling? How does Jones craft a compelling tone for this novel?

Examine the character dynamic between Howl and Sophie. Why do they struggle to get along? What resolves this conflict? From a writer’s point of view, how does their character conflict drive the story?

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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  1. Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely one of my favorite books of all time!
    I agree that the voice, (and humor) was what made it such an enjoyable read!

  2. Hi Josiah! I didn’t want to say anything, honest I didn’t, but I have to. Witches, wizards, curses and elemental spirits are real, and it bothers me when these evil things are made into a children’s story and portrayed as innocent, unreal, fictional. Of course evil should not be avoided in fiction, but Sophie isn’t fighting the witch’s curse with the power of God; she’s teaming up with an elemental spirit, which is a demon. There are real wizards today, and they use elemental spirits (there are four main categories- earth elementals, air elementals, fire elementals, and water elementals) to do their will. One wizard I know encountered the power of God and became a strong Christian, and he has shed a lot of light on what really goes on in the occult. He used to work with elemental spirits; they are real, they are powerful, and they are demonic. Witches and their ability to curse people are also real, but I think everyone knows that. Sadly, most people don’t realize that when they play around with witchcraft, even for entertainment, it opens doors in their lives for Satan to mess with them. For example, if someone has a book that contains/ promotes witchcraft, like this one, in their home, it creates an open door for demons to invade that home. Of course God’s power is greater, but if a person hasn’t submitted part of their life to God, Satan still has power there. Besides all of this, stories like this one do not give glory to God in the least; they only glorify Satan, and make his realm look appealing. Of course Jesus loves us no matter what we read, but we should love him enough to stay away from the things He hates. Jesus hates witchcraft, especially when it’s targeted at children.
    I’m sure you wouldn’t promote wizards, witches and elemental spirits unless you thought they were pure fantasy. I know that you are a sincere Christian, and you aren’t trying to promote witchcraft. Please just pray about this, and see what God shows you about it.

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for your thoughts! I appreciate your concerns about this topic. Magic in fantasy is a tricky issue to deal with as Christians and I’m glad that you’re forming your own convictions about the topic and wrestling through this issue. I certainly do not want to promote real-life witchcraft in any way, either in the books I write or the books I read and review here.
      I wrote an article a couple years back that discussed a lot of the questions that you raise in your comment about the use of magic in fantasy. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but you can read it here if you want to understand what perspective I’m coming from:
      In terms of this book in particular, because this book is set in an alternate universe, I think this distinguishes the magic contained in the book from the demonic magic of this world. In our world, all magic and witchcraft is certainly wrong because it stems from demonic powers. In this story world, however, elemental spirits are not demons, and so the magic practiced here is not essentially demonic in the context of the story world. Because of this, I personally don’t think the magic in this book is the same as magic/witchcraft in this world.
      All that being said, you are certainly free to disagree with me about whether or not fiction writers have the right to do this in alternate story worlds. I know that this subject matter can be controversial among Christians and certainly respect the fact that you may have different views on the subject. 🙂 Your concern that Christians not be led into the sin of witchcraft is a noble concern, so while we may disagree on whether or not this book promotes witchcraft, I am grateful that you care about this enough to share your beliefs about this topic.

      • Hi Josiah! Thank you for your reply. I hope I didn’t insult you by saying what I said. I have a lot of respect for you.
        I remember reading your article shortly after I joined Kingdom Pen. I didn’t agree with it, but it was very well-written, and I do understand your point of view. It’s just that, while putting these things in an alternate universe might set it apart in our minds, it has been my experience that the supernatural realm sees it as witchcraft, regardless. God still is displeased with it, and demons still use it against people. I suppose I should explain myself; I realize that it looks like I’m saying these things off the top of my head. As part of a missionary family, I have been exposed to and involved in a lot of spiritual warfare. I have come to realize just how real the supernatural realm is, because it affects my life in one way or another all the time. Hearing God’s voice, combating witchcraft, and dealing with demons is just part of everyday life, and so a lot of the things that I believe about the supernatural come from what God has told us, and from experience. I can remember several people who were being oppressed by the enemy, and God wanted to free them, but they were reading witchcrafty fiction like Harry Potter, and because they refused to let that go, the demons had a right to stay in their lives. It was really sad. People think that because something is fiction, then it’s not really witchcraft. That just isn’t true. I was homeschooled, as you know, and through the years the Lord would tell my parents not to let us read certain books that all the other homeschoolers were reading, like LotR, because of the witchcraft in it. No one else saw it as witchcraft, because the author was a Christian, but the Holy Spirit revealed to us that it was not pleasing to Him, and He wanted us to stay away from it. I’m only sharing these things because I want you to understand why I believe what I believe so strongly, and I really and truly don’t mean to argue about it. I can hardly ask you to believe something that the Lord has shown me, when He hasn’t shown you that. This is something I am very passionate about, but I also respect your viewpoint.

        • Don’t worry; I wasn’t offended. 🙂 It sounds like a lot of our disagreement may stem from our experiences. I haven’t seen these kinds of books influence others that way, and I totally understand how the things you’ve seen would lead you to see this matter very differently! It’s quite possible that if I was in your shoes, my view of magic in literature might be quite different, so I appreciate hearing about your own experiences with this as a missionary. 🙂

  3. Howl’s Moving Castle is my jam! Seriously loved how Jones makes fun of so many common fairy tale tropes. Thanks for sharing, Josiah!

    • I know, right? I just learned the other day that she wrote a whole book deconstructing and mocking fantasy tropes called ‘Tough Guide to Fantasyland.’ Have you read/heard of it?

  4. Tamar Lindsay says:

    The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is required reading for writers, and not just for writers of fantasy. If possible, get the updated version – she added several new sections.

  5. ‘Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ sounds intriguing! I’ll have to look that up!

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