Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three girls, and when her father died, her (step-)mother did not have the financial means to provide for all three, so she sent the youngest two to apprenticeships and gave Sophie the apprenticeship in the family hat store, since it would eventually become hers. She worked diligently, and started talking to the hats as she made them, predicting their future. One day, a woman came in complaining and Sophie, quite uncharacteristically, spoke her mind. Unfortunately, the woman was the Witch of the Waste, and vented her anger by turning Sophie into an old woman. Despite feeling knowing that the eldest of the three is destined to failure, she set out to seek her fortune, because, what other options did she have?
As she slowly climbed the hill out of town, she frees a dog entangled in the bushes, and then later, helps a scarecrow, which she wishes could come to life and help her out. Being old, she went very slowly and became tired much more quickly than she expected. As night was fell she really wanted a warm fire. The wizard Howl’s castle, which was constantly moving from place to place, rumbled by. Desperate, she told it to stop, which it did, and it let her in.
Once inside, she saw that Howl was out, and that there was only his apprentice Michael. She stayed the night by the cozy fire. She woke up in the middle of the night, and discovered that the fire was actually a fire-demon named Calcifer, which had made some contract with Howl that it wanted to get out of, only it could not reveal the nature of the contract. Since Sophie wanted to have her spell removed, they made a bargain that she would try to discover and break the contract, and he would study her spell and try to break it. Since Howl did not come back in the morning, she started cleaning the place to perhaps earn her keep (as well as to try to find the hearts of young girls he was said to eat). Howl eventually came back, not entirely happy with the cleaning, but did not kick her out. He did not specifically allow her to stay, but Michael said that Howl had never officially let him stay, either, so she kept on doing the cleaning and cooking.
On the inside, the castle was fairly cozy, the size of a small house. The door had a wheel with four colors, which opened onto different locations depending on which color was selected. Calcifer kept the castle moving. Michael mostly practiced spells, and occasionally handled sales of spells to the people at some of the locations. Depending on his mood, Howl was either making high-powered spells for the King, or more frequently, was out courting young girls. He was very charming, but heartless: he would pursue them non-stop until they fell in love with him, at which point he lost interest. Currently he was interested in Lettie, Sophie’s sister. She and Michael had taken the seven-league boots (seven leagues in one step) and tried to visit the with that Lettie was apprenticing with before Howl got there, but arrived too late. Michael was in love with her other sister, who was charmed with him as well.
Disaster shortly overtook Howl: the seven-league boots he had made for the King’s army had worked splendidly, and the King was contemplating appointing him the Royal Wizard and sending him out to look for the King’s brother. Prince Justin had vanished looking for Wizard Suliman, who had also vanished, and Howl had no desire to vanish, too. Besides, he was trying to avoid the Witch of the Waste, who had put a curse on him last year. So he needed someone to blacken his name to the King, so that he would appoint someone else. Sophie seemed perfect: she could be his mother, and say all sorts of nasty things about him, since she seemed to always be in a bit of a row with him anyway.
Michael had been practicing a spell which he could not get right. Sophie tried to help him, with it, not having much success, although they did try to catch a falling star. It said it was wrong to be caught and avoided them to plunge to its death in the water. So Michael had to admit to Howl that he could not figure out the spell. Howl looked at it, saw it was the wrong spell, and he hastily took them to the fourth location in the door (which turned out to go to Wales). His spell had been swapped with his nephew’s homework paper, which he went to retrieve from the teacher. Miss Angorian had recognized it as a spell and saved it. She gave it back to him. Howl asked about the homework poem that Michael assumed was a spell; Miss Angorian quoted the rest of it, and Howl realized that it was the curse. The Witch had caught up with him.
Howl took Sophie to Kingsbridge to blacken his name, but before taking her to the King, he brought her to his teacher, Mrs. Pentstemmon. She told Sophie that she was a witch, that she spoke life into things. The discussion also revealed that Howl had a similar level of magic to the Witch of the Waste, and seemed to be going bad just as she had, which was probably related to both of them having a contract with a fire-demon. Then, Sophie went to the King, told him about Howl’s failings, which convinced the King that Howl was the right man for the job: Howl had agreed to do it too quickly, but the fact that he sent someone to blacken his name to get out of it showed that he was a capable man. After seeing the King, Sophie runs into the Witch, who had just killed Mrs. Pentstemmon.
Howl received a long-winded message from the King informing him that he was appointed Royal Wizard with the task of finding Prince Justin. He promptly left to court the very beautiful Miss Angorian. While he was away, a man arrives and gives a brief message before transforming back into a dog.
Howl, terrified of the Witch finding him, decided to move the physical location of the castle to the Hatter’s shop, which was for sale, and was a location that the Witch was not familiar with. He asked Sophie her preferences, she said that she wanted something with flowers. Then he insisted on attending his teacher’s funeral, but did so disguised as a black dog to avoid the Witch. It did not work, and the Witch and Howl had a long fight magical clouds whirling about above the ocean. The battle was mostly about creating illusions to fool the other into attacking the illusion. Howl ended up successfully fooling the Witch, despite her greater experience and escapes.
Howl successfully moved the castle, but the procedure involved taking Calcifer out of the fireplace. During that time, Sophie recognized him as a falling star. He later told her that he was scared of dying and Howl offered to help him live, so they made a contract. The new location had a door to a vast field of flowers, which they picked and sold in the hat store, which became a flower store. Miss Angorian visited while everyone is a way, and Sophie was very suspicious.
Sophie got into another row with Howl and ended up cursing some daffodils. The next day the water with the nutrition spell they were in turned into very caustic weed-killer, which Sophie angrily sprayed onto the weeds in the mansion that is one of the new door locations. While there, her mother showed up to the mansion. Her mother married someone rich, and was wearing the hat that Sophie said would find wealth. Her mother recognized her. Her sisters arrive as well. While her family toured the castle, the scarecrow that Sophie met the first day came in the door, and fell onto the skull that Howl and Michael used for spells. Now having a mouth, he delivered a message from the Witch that Miss Angorian is being held at her castle.
As pandemonium ensued, Sophie realizes that she was the cause of Miss Angorian’s capture, which would certainly bring Howl to the Witch and to his doom, so she grabed the seven-league boots and went to the castle, where she was promptly immobilized. The scarecrow showed up and began a magic battle with the Witch like that with Howl. Then Howl arrived, and together they destroyed the Witch. Sophie had freed herself with her walking stick which she has talked to so much that it has, unbeknownst to her, become alive.
They went back to the castle, where Miss Angorian appeared. She was the Witch’s fire-demon, and she was in need of a new human. She took Calcifer out of the fireplace and squeezed him. Both he and Howl cried out in pain. Sophie perceived that the bargain was that Howl gave Calcifer his heart, presumably in exchange for adding to his magic. She told her staff to beat Miss Angorian, which it proceeded to do, causing Miss Angorian to drop Calcifer. By then, Sophie had realized that her magic is that she speaks life into things, so she spoke a thousand years of life to Calcifer and took Howl’s heart from him. Calcifer realized the contract was ended, so he joyfully flew up the chimney. Sophie put Howl’s heart back in him, and he cast a spell that destroyed Miss Angorian. Upon her death, all the Witch’s spells ended. The scarecrow turned into Wizard Suliman, the dog turned back into Prince Justin, and Sophie returned to her true age. The book ends with Prince Justin and Lettie, Michael and Sophie’s other sister, and Howl and Sophie happily in love. Calcifer returned, partly because it was raining outside.
The magic in this book is different from most fantasy books. Usually, it is a simple matter of doing the right procedure and getting
the expected result. Jones may have incorporated some actual
concepts from witchcraft, as the relational magic is guided by relational
rules, secrecy, and is almost always harmful and controlling. Other
magic is a combination of right procedure and innate power. Magic
must be learned, and seems to be learnable by anyone—Michael and Lettie
(apprenticed to a witch specializing in honey spells) seem to have no
innate ability. However, some people seem to have a certain innate
ability, and these people become the powerful Witches and Wizards. Magic users can generally identify magic, even who’s style of magic a
particular spell is, although research is often necessary to figure out
the spell enough to break it. Spells seem to have a gag-order
component, so that the one under the spell cannot tell someone that they
are enchanted, although they are free to talk about things the other
person already knows. The gag order can be enforced by events
happening, seemingly naturally, that prevent the enchanted from having a
chance to say anything.
This is one of those young adult books that is a fun read for all ages. I was reminded of it when I chanced on the google.uk logo looked like the Miyazaki movie of the same title; the day was Jone’s birthday. Since the movie was good, I decided to read the actual book. The movie follows the book reasonably closely, although the book obviously has a few more details and the movie takes some liberties with the end. The main theme is that, as an old woman, Sophie has nothing to lose and acts herself, which results in her becoming her true, lovable, successful self. A related sub-theme is that Howl is not the evil man he seems to be, which I expect is sort of formulaic in love stories. There is also a sub-theme either that making deals for magical powers inevitably corrupts, regardless of the original quality of the heart, or that a person without a heart inevitably becomes heartless. The Witch was apparently not originally evil, and both Calcifer and Howl realize that the contract is having a negative effect on them. They would like to get out of the contract, but since the contract included not telling anyone, they cannot. One could see this as a Faustian bargain rescued by the life-giving power of femininity, were one inclined to that viewpoint.This is definitely a nicely crafted story, worthy of a Google Doodle.
|Sophie Hatter||Eldest of three daughers. Has the gift of giving life, but does not realize it and thinks she is of little value. Being old gives her the freedom to act herself without concerning herself with what other people think. Is very forceful when the occasion arises.|
|Howell Jenkins||Known as Howl, he grew up in Wales, researched magic for his thesis, and apparently found a way into an entirely different world. Although he has a reputation for eating young girl’s hearts, it is only figuratively true. He cannot love because he has no heart, and is extremely vain to try to win girl’s hearts. His true heart is quite soft, as Calcifer points out. He seems to have a large amount of innate magical ability, but it seems that he and Calcifer can use their combined magic together.|
||Usually called a fire-demon, he is a
falling star that was rescued from death by Howl. He powers
much of Howl’s magic, as well as giving him otherwise unobtainable
information. He generally simply moves the castle and provides
a heat source for hot water and cooking.
|Michael||An orphan boy that was let into the
castle by Calcifer, and whom Howl took on as his apprentice.
|The King||Seems to be a good king, with a young
daughter that plays around the throne. Has reasonable insight
into human nature, enough to want to find out whether Howl’s
immediate answer means he is a charlatan or simply not being able to
say no to a king.
|Mrs. Pentstemmon||Howl’s retired teacher. She
quickly identifies that Sophie is under a spell, and does her best
to inform Sophie of her abilities.
|Miss Angorian||The Witch of the Waste’s fire-demon.
|Fanny Hatter||Sophie’s step-mother. She seems
to have a genuine concern for the two older girls, who are not
hers. Is very pretty and seems... upwardly mobile
|Howl and Calcifer’s Contract||Seems to be that Howl gives Calcifer his heart, which keeps Calcifer alive, and in exchange Calcifer must use his magic for Howl. The contract forbids them from discussion the terms of the contract. Seems to create a symbiosis whereby the human and the star are, in some fashion, the same entity, as they work together and knew each other’s thoughts.|
|Sophie’s spell||Her body outwardly becomes that of an old woman. Her joints are aged as well, although not entirely—she is quite obviously an unusually spry old woman.|
|Sophie’s words||When Sophie absentmindedly talks to things, her words become the literal reality.|
|Castle||The inside of the castle is physically located in one actually location. The castle resizes itself to that location. The door can open to multiple locations, selectable via a color wheel from inside. The door can be opened by magic by Howl (and Miss Angorian), as well as from the inside by Calcifer. The castle has a physical exterior that Calcifer moves around, although it has some strange properties. Moving it quickly tires Calcifer.|
|Sophie’s walking stick||Has been talked to and given life so much that it became alive and will obey commands.|
|Howl’s clothes||The clothes are not created by magic, but can be repaired by magic, resized, and recolored. The recoloring seems to be a coating over the original material.|
|Spells of power||Spells of power usually have intentional errors or riddles to prevent them from being used thoughtlessly.|
|Seven league boots||Boots that take the wearer seven leagues in one step, enabling fast travel. These have an element of design, and can be produced en-masse.|
|Disguise cloak||When worn, the face of the wearer has a different appearance.|