Flashback Fridays: On the other hand, it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair . . .

You’re the eldest daughter of three, so you know you’ll never amount to much if you go and seek your fortune.  You’re content to make hats and remain quiet and unobtrusive . . .until a strange witch inexplicably curses you and turns you into an old woman.  Now that you’ve been cursed to be in the twilight of your life, you realize your adventures are just beginning . . .

Do you remember: 

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, c1986)

Today’s flashback is hardly obscure to most fantasy readers.  And I’m hoping Diana Wynne Jones continues to have staying power for generations to come.  I first encountered this book just when the author was pretty new on the scene–her books were flooding the library shelves and we even had a computer  book quiz game that featured several of her works.   She was my introduction to British fantasy and was the reason it took me several years to get into the Harry Potter books since I couldn’t understand all the hype when I’d been reading British  fantasy for years.  This is one of two favorite titles by this author, and one of her best known works.

Sophie lives in the kingdom of Ingary, where things based in magic and fairy tale are commonplace.  She is an eldest daughter of three which means that she has little expectation of getting much out of life, preferring to focus on her sister’s fortunes instead.  She’s quiet and considers herself plain, hiding away in the hat shop and blocking and sewing hats for customers.  When a witch comes into the shop and curses her, turning her into an old woman, Sophie decides to leave rather than upset her family.  She figures she’ll head toward the castle of the dread wizard Howl, since he can hardly do any worse to her, and maybe she can get him to reverse the curse.  Her new appearance allows Sophie to embrace her brazen and stubborn side, leaving behind her former timidity.  But Wizard Howl isn’t at all what she expects him to be, and between getting Howl to behave decently, striking a bargain with a demon and trying to help her sisters, Sophie’s life is suddenly quite full of crazy adventures!

This is Diana Wynne Jones at her best. Quirky fantasy with flawed characters you can’t help but like,  intricately involved plots of spells and curses where noone is quite who they seem to be, and a perfectly fitting ending.  Sophie is one of my favorite characters in fiction, with a sharp temper hidden by her quieter spirit and a strange gift of magic all her own.  She becomes a character in her own right by the end of the story, being the one to rescue Howl and solve the riddle.  Sophie’s adventures and misadventures only serve to make her more solid as a person.  Sophie was not only a character I wanted to be, but in many ways a character I thought I could be.  As a shy and bookish kid with tons of awkwardness around people, it was nice to read about a character who faced these struggles and overcame them.

This story has two loosely connected sequels where our characters make appearances: Castle in the Air (c1990) and House of Many Ways (2008).  I personally don’t feel either book quite lives up to the first, but it can be fun to see them pop up in other adventures.  What really gave this book new life was Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie of the same title.  Despite the reinterpretation of much of the story to fit his vision and themes, it still manages to capture the charm of the book and renders some stunning imagery of the story. (The ooze is particularly well done).  I’d recommend reading the book prior to seeing the movie, but the two are different enough that I think it possible to enjoy both.

Ms. Jones was on my mind this week as I read through her last novel, coming out this year. Islands of Chaldea (expected publication Febrary 2014) was the author’s work in progress that wound up being completed by her sister, Ursula Jones.  I can’t in all honesty say it lives up to Diana Wynne Jone’s best work, but it’s nice to pick up a new book with her name one last time.

We lost Diana Wynne Jones in 2011, but fortunately she left us with a wealth of books to share and allow other readers to discover.  She had a gift of storytelling, a real sense of flawed character and a down-to-earth tone to her writing that made the fantastic feel like it was right around the corner.  And that the most awful curses and situations could be made a bit better by tea and toast.

What’s your favorite Diana Wynne Jones title?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on January 18, 2014, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. So hard to pick a favorite…but I think the one I’ve re-read most often is A Sudden Wild Magic, which just tickles me to death.

    • I like that one–but my other favorites include Tale of Time City and Dogsbody. A Sudden Wild Magic was a delightfully more adult reading experience from her–I still remember finding it in the bookstore . . .

  2. Sophie is one of my favorite characters in fiction, with a sharp temper hidden by her quieter spirit and a strange gift of magic all her own. She becomes a character in her own right by the end of the story, being the one to rescue Howl and solve the riddle. Sophie’s adventures and misadventures only serve to make her more solid as a person. Sophie was not only a character I wanted to be, but in many ways a character I thought I could be. As a shy and bookish kid with tons of awkwardness around people, it was nice to read about a character who faced these struggles and overcame them.

    SO THIS. I could have written this very paragraph. Actually I may have come close: http://rockinlibrarian.livejournal.com/213777.html

    (I have to admit I couldn’t forgive the movie for completely messing up and boring-i-fying the complex and hilarious character that had been Howl, though)

    • I think I got through the movie by regarding it as a Miyazaki creation in the Jones’ universe. Howl is admittedly way too one-note in the movie, but I think it would have been hard to demonstrate his fickle and mercurial character more completely in such a short movie. It’s something books tend to be better at.

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