I was thrilled when I learned that Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is based on a novel written by Diana Wynne Jones, and originally published in 1986. While the narrative structure differs between the two, both are enchanting tales about success, happiness, and the journey to find these. I feel like this book is also a reminder that we’re all entitled to our own forms of success and a genuine sense of joy, whatever the source may be. Sophie, our protagonist, immediately introduces us to the themes of success and finding your fortune in life. She consistently tells us throughout the novel that she is the eldest of three sisters, so she is expected to fail. In fact, Sophie may have turned this mantra into a self-fulfilling prophecy if she had never been transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and found the initiative to invite herself into Howl’s mysterious castle that roams the countryside.
Sophie feels safe in her aged state as she’s under the Witch’s spell. Calcifer, the fire demon who lives in Howl’s fireplace genuinely asks the “Old Sophie,” “Don’t you want your heart eaten?” It seems a revolting concept to Sophie, but not enough to prevent her from seeking shelter in his home.
The novel opens with a somewhat startling theme of accosting young girls and the inability to avoid being pursued if you’re a girl. Young women are instructed not to go out alone at night, especially because Howl will steal and eat your soul, an idea mildly suggestive of rape, ravaging, and violence. Howl is described as “heartless,” so this estimation makes sense.
I really enjoy this theme of hearts–being heartless, following your heart, or appropriating the heart of another for your own selfish desires. Sophie frequently checks the castle for the chewed up hearts of young girls, unaware that this is simply a metaphor used by those who have pursued Howl for his romantic misdeeds. Yes, Howl leaves girls after he makes them fall in love with him, so he indeed must have quite a collection of ravaged hearts.
When Sophie absently accuses Calcifer of lacking a heart because he’s a lowly fire demon, he swiftly replies, “Yes I have, down in the glowing part under the logs.” We also notice that Old Sophie complains about her heart giving her trouble since she’s been aged about 60 years due to the spell placed upon her.
A poetic moment happens when Michael, Howl’s teenaged apprentice, attempts to catch a falling star while working an advanced, and hence rather confusing, spell. In accordance with much fantasy and science fiction literature, we find many unexpected things anthropomorphized for our reading delight. When Michael pleads with the star that he only wants to catch it, it shrieks back, “No! No! That’s wrong! I’m supposed to die!” The star actually chooses death by falling willingly into a black marsh pool rather than being captured by human hands; the star knows its time is up, and nothing can change that. My favorite scene by far. Again, we see the theme of hearts when Michael, saddened, tells Sophie that his heart went out to the poor little star. We later find out that Calcifer, who controls, heats, and moves the castle, is in fact a fallen star caught by Howl a long time ago.
Howl impatiently tells Sophie that there’s no cure for a cold as he’s sneezing and carrying on like a baby. Sophie sees his magic as an easy fix for every conflict that arises since he’s a powerful and charming wizard. In fact, his charm and good looks may be his magic–the source of all his power with the girls. The detail about his cold is interesting to read at a time when everyone is sick–if not with allergy trouble, sinusitis, or a stomach bag. Most of my students spend our current class meetings (really, since Spring began) covering their sneezes and courteously telling one another, “Bless you!” However, a cold must run its course, just as anything in the natural world, Wizard Howl reminds us.
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Calcifer is in fact Howl’s heart:
Calcifer did not seem very hot. He was milky blue with shock. Sophie could feel that the dark lump of Howl’s heart was only beating very faintly between her fingers. It had to be Howl’s heart she was holding. He had given it away to Calcifer as his part of the contract, to keep Calcifer alive. He must have been sorry for Calcifer, but, all the same, what a silly thing to do!
After chapters upon chapters of Sophie warning herself and resisting the urge to love Howl (after all, he’s quite vain, demanding, and childish), instead of allowing him to eat her heart–which, really, points to the destruction of women–she finds herself holding his heart, whereupon she places it back into his body where it belongs. However, another reading of this concept can be that when your heart is “eaten,” you become part of that person forever, something that once lived inside of you now nourishes another, and they gladly offer up their heart as well.
Because Calcifer serves as Howl’s heart, it’s easy to see in retrospect why he allowed Sophie into the castle uninvited. The story also concludes with Calcifer returning to the castle, even though his contract with Howl was broken by Sophie. This is where we see the old adage, “If you love something, set it free.” Calcifer is not gone for long, and I was glad for that; as he steers the castle, I feel like he carries much of the story. Although he can be a bit frightening in the novel, he’s downright adorable in Miyazaki’s film version. Voiced by Billy Crystal, he sort of can’t help but be sarcastic, charming, and delightful. It’s also confirmed that not only does Calcifer possess a heart, he is the pulse of Jones’s lovely book.