Archive for April, 2011

As a side effect of blogging through Howl’s Moving Castle, I get that strange attraction that from time to time pulls me towards all things Welsh. To my regret I never learned to speak Cymraeg, though I did learn, in a class in ancient British and Germanic mythology, how to pronounce those sweet melodious names. (It’s merely a happy coincidence that my own dad was the professor.)

It added another layer to my interest when I finally got to read a 1955 essay by Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” which was impossible to get hold of before Lord of the Rings became a perma-seller and the Jackson films were so successful; this and other treasures such as JRRT’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters And The Critics” were collected and reissued in an affordable edition in 2006.

Tolkien makes a point that’s obvious enough now that I think of it, but of course I didn’t think of it before: with Welsh we have the closest surviving relative of the original British language. (Cornish, alas, is extinct; I’m not sure about the old language of Scotland. Gaelic evolved separately apart from the British “mainland” in Ireland.) English, derived from Anglo-Saxon, arrived later; English and Welsh are related members of the Indo-European language family, but they came from widely divergent branches.

I should add that all this about Welsh is pertinent to Howl’s Moving Castle, which if you have read it already you will know, but which you will not have got even a glimmer of if all you’ve experienced is the anime.

Anyway, you can open The White Goddess practically anywhere and discover all kinds of quoted Welsh goodness, with Graves merrily spinning away at all sorts of it-could-have-happeneds. The material is so cryptic, so fragmentary, and so old that it seems to invite just that.

Did Diana Wynne Jones have any of this in mind when she wrote HMC? I have no doubt of it. Between a love for Story, a splendid Oxford education, and a Welsh grandfather, she was bound to have internalized the matter of Wales. Those fish plop up out of the dark water and onto the pages of The Merlin Conspiracy in particular. In fact I’m willing to bet DWJ owned a copy of White Goddess, which along with Frazer’s The Golden Bough is a mythopoet’s dream. I had forgotten, until I recently reread Fire and Hemlock, that Tom Lynn sends Polly a copy of The Golden Bough just to try to get across to her the kind of horrible situation he’s in.

Which brings me fully around whatever circle this is. (It’s the week before Easter and my brain is consumed by music-think. Word-think, which is my usual mode, has been pushed aside and is not working too well. This will soon pass.)

Anyway, in Fire and Hemlock Tom, critiquing Polly’s fantasy novel, chides her that she’s letting Tolkien influence her in the wrong way: she imitating him blindly, in other words. If you want to explore Tolkienian themes, there is a better way. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Jones shows us how to do it right. And gives us a nice spin on some ancient Welsh themes as well.

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I do so love the image of Sophie sitting on the outcropping stone seat, the sun setting and lights coming on in the valley beneath. But her old life is still too near, close enough to throw a stone down the chimney pot of her own house. This frustrates her, until reality sets in:

It got cold on the stone as the sun went down. An unpleasant wind blew whichever way Sophie turned to avoid it. Now it no longer seemed so unimportant that she would be out on the hills during the night. [34]

How well DWJ expresses that moment when, having just taken on the universe, you find that the universe is not going to let your defiance go answered! There’s no going back, however.

[I]f she went back to Market Chipping, it would be the middle of the night before she got there. She might just as well go on. She sighed and stood up, creaking. It was awful. She ached all over….

“Still, I don’t think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That’s one comfort.” [34]

Grim and determined, like the wonderful tough old bat that she has become, Sophie goes on puffing and laboring and creaking and grinding up the hill. There’s more than one wolf on the prowl, though.

And, whiffling and burbling, “rumbling and bumping,” there it comes to meet her: Wizard Howl’s moving castle.

It looked tall and thin and heavy and ugly and very sinister indeed. Sophie leaned on her stick and watched it. She was not particularly frightened. She wondered how it moved. But the main thing in her mind was that all that smoke must mean a large fireside somewhere inside those tall black walls.

“Well, why not?” she said to her stick. “Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls.” [35]

What a change from the mousy gray girl she was in the beginning! Sophie’s hard-boiled recklessness may be every bit as misplaced as her earlier meekness and timidity, however. The central problem of her character, which, when the outline of this novel in thrown into the cauldron of the Dramatica theory, comes churning up, is Inaccuracy.

Sophie reads books, things, and people very carefully, but she reads them all wrong.

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"The only fortune I can think of is a comfortable chair!"

(All my screencapping efforts have gone awry today.)

Sophie keeps on slogging up into the hills, briefly entertaining, then rejecting the notion of shouting some “nasty things” down at the shepherd who’d given her a wide berth as though she were a bad witch. “But that seemed a little unkind.” [33] Another of the lessons of growing old seems to be that some things are just not worth the uproar.

The hedgerows have ended, and there’s not much ahead but “heathery upland, with a lot of steepness beyond that covered with yellow, rattling grass.” [33] It’s getting late, it’s getting cold and windy, and she’s getting tired and sore.

She sits down to rest on an outcropping boulder off to one side of the road. It’s on a headland that commands a “magnificent view” of where she has just been:

There was most of the valley spread out beneath her in the setting sun, all fields and walls and hedges, the windings of the river, and the fine mansions of rich people glowing out from clumps of trees, right down to blue mountains in the far distance. Just below her was Market Chipping. Sophie could look down into its well-known streets. There was Market Square and Cesari’s. She could have tossed a stone down the chimney pots of the house next to the hat shop.

“How near it still is!” Sophie told her stick in dismay. “All that walking just to get above my own rooftop!”[33-34]

I find this passage wonderfully evocative, both visually and emotionally.

At this juncture I must call up another of my favorite crazy old books, in this case Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth. The White Goddess is the female principle, the double-sided axe of creation and destruction, life and death, etc. She is the source of all art and religion.

Since I first read it, TWG has become a controversial book; it has launched a thousand neo-pagan rites, and Graves has been both praised and vilified for single-handedly inventing/discovering a matriarchal prehistory for humankind. (In fact the idea has been kicking around in archaelogical circles since the 19th century, but what ‘proofs’ have been dug up — notably at the ancient city of Cätälhüyük, on the Anatolian plain in Turkey — have been ambiguous and debatable.)

At the same time Graves insists that, because the Muse/Goddess must be wooed and won, only men can be the true poets and artists. If you are a woman, you can never* win the White Goddess; you can only aspire to be the White Goddess — some guy’s Muse, in other words.

This technicality, however, has failed to stop myself, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Austen, and many, many others from Playing The Role of poet.

I find it helpful to think of The White Goddess as being like an entire ocean full of what DWJ calls “fish in dark water” — the flickering bits in the ooze at the bottom of the mind, comprising your unconscious, the world’s unconscious, and the sum totall of everything you’ve ever read or dreamed or imagined. Graves’s personal entry into this murky world was in attempting to solve several ancient Welsh riddling poems. Here he recollects a a passage in the poem Hanes Taliesin:

I have been in an uneasy chair
Above Caer Sidin,
And the whirling round without motion
Between three elements….

There is a stone seat at the top of Caer Idris, ‘the chair of Idris,’ where according to local legend, whoever spends the night is found in the morning either dead, mad, or a poet. [TWG, p. 91]

It’s beginning to look as though Sophie might indeed spend the night sitting on that seat; “now it no longer seemed so unimportant that she would be out on the hills during the night.” [34] If Robert Graves were there, he might assure her that she will not find herself dead, mad, or a poet by morning, because Caer Sidin, mentioned in the poem above, is quite near, and within Caer Sidin, which means revolving castle, a “perfect chair” awaits her.


*Sappho might be one exception to this rule.

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It seems as though I had another point to make about Sophie, Oz, dogs, scarecrows, witches, and Sophie’s unique ability to appear to be a threat when really she wouldn’t hurt a flea. Well, she would, she’s that powerful; all unknowing, she is a witch with the power to alter human destinies with a word. The random shepherd meeting her as he heads down the hill for home sees it immediately.

So until that gift of hers comes under her conscious control, she’s dangerous.

Oh, now I remember. A geographical note. Having seen the anime before I read the book, I got a really confused sense of the geography of Ingary. I think I have it straight now. I only wish I could draw well enough to mock up a map, or better yet, use some of that software that lets you make terrain.

Since I have neither, I’ll use words. This is just an outline; the novel later goes into much more detail, but I have been gathering data for Taxman all day long and am brain-dead. Here’s the layout, somewhat simplified, as I understand it:

Ingary is among several countries in an alternative Europe. Market Chipping, Sophie’s home city, is inland and probably centrally located. It lies along a river in a valley, which I believe is named the Chipping Valley in one of the sequels, or else I made that up. The valley is dotted with country estates, one particularly splendid one at Vale’s End. This estate is uninhabited at the time of the story.

To the north of the Chipping Valley the land rises to an elevation high enough to be called a moor. (Moors, according to Karen Wynn Fonstad, author of The Atlas of Middle-earth, are “poorly drained uplands that can occur on granite.” [p. 73]) This means that the topsoil is thin, and though moors at high altitude may get plenty of rainfall, they are not forested and can support only subshrub and scrub vegetation. Moorland terrain occurs all over the world, but that of the British Isles is particularly atmospheric and romantic, having been immortalized in any number of novels. Moors tend to be foggy, stormy, and peaty (constantly burping up bog people who have been submerged for centuries); they may provoke certain literarily inclined young women to feel intense, gorgeous, and desperate while letting their long hair get thoroughly soaked. And they feature heather, at least in the UK.

This moorish upland to the north of town is where Wizard Howl’s moving castle likes to move about. Should you manage to avoid Wizard Howl and get safely over the hills, you would find yourself in the next valley over, called the Folding. Again, a tautology: “fold” is one of several dozen synonyms for valleys of various configurations in the English and native British languages. As in the British Isles, the rivers of Ingary may end in long deep fjords or firths clawed out by glaciation.

This rainy, windy highland between the Chipping and Folding Valleys is called the Waste in the anime, but in the novel the Waste, Mordor-like, is located far to the south and east, in a vast desert with a protective mountain range between it and Ingary. Ingary’s capital city, Kingsbury, is in a pleasanter, subtropical area in the southern part of the country, while Porthaven, another town we will be visiting, lies far to the north, where “the trees are bent sideways and there’s no shelter for miles.” [223]

As for the distances between these places, that’s anyone’s guess.

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By this point Sophie is almost beginning to have fun with her new situation.

“There’s two encounters,” she said, “and not a scrap of magical gratitude from either. Still, you’re a good stick. I’m not grumbling. But I’m surely due to have a third encounter, magical or not. In fact, I insist on one. I wonder what it will be.” [31-32]

If this were a normal fairy tale, the dog might have been a prince in disguise who grants Sophie a boon right there on the spot in return for saving its life. As it is, she gets nothing from it but a growl. Nor does the scarecrow offer to accompany her to Oz or anywhere else.

The third encounter does occur, however, “toward the end of the afternoon when Sophie had worked her way quite high into the hills.” [31] She meets a herdsman on his way down from the heights, a lad of forty or so. Sophie, mumbling to herself, is astonished at the change in her point of view, now that she’s old: the fellow looks positively youthful to her.

Yet when he greets her politely as “Mother,” an old-fashioned way of addressing an older woman one hasn’t been introduced to, she seems surprised. While she’s standing there working it out to herself, he tries to edge past her on the road, saying:

“I was only meaning a polite inquiry, seeing you walking into the hills at the end of the day. You won’t get down into Upper Folding before nightfall, will you?”

If you recall, Upper Folding is the village where Sophie’s sister Martha went to be apprentice to Mrs. Fairfax, the white witch. Should she manage to get over the crest of the hill and partway down into the next valley, Sophie might find shelter for the night there. Presumably she would find Lettie-disguised-as-Martha there also. But it’s still a long way, and anyway she seems not to have thought of this.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” she said, half to herself. “You can’t be fussy when you’re off to seek your fortune.”

“Can’t you indeed, Mother?” said the shepherd. He had now edged himself downhill of Sophie and seemed to feel better for it. “Then I wish you good luck, Mother, provided your fortune don’t have nothing to do with charming folks’ cattle.” And he took off down the road in great strides, almost running, but not quite.

Sophie stared after him indignantly. “He thought I was a witch!” she said to her stick. [32-33]


In my post of March 18, titled “Playing a Role,” I spoke of the theory of Story called Dramatica, first developed by writers Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley while they were students at the USC Film School. Their theory is like music theory in that it was derived from analysis of the anatomy and physiology of thousands of examples. Like myself and the one or two pairs of eyes who are reading this blog, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Aristotle and Diana Wynne Jones and all the other storytellers the world has known, Huntley and Phillips really wanted to understand why there are some stories we just can’t get enough of, that we keep reading or watching again and again.

Because Howl’s Moving Castle has fascinated me since I first encountered it four years ago, I knew it would be an interesting study through the lens of the Dramatica theory. And so it has been. As time goes on I hope to go into detail about this.

But here’s the point of today’s post: each of the two central characters of any fully-realized story has a sort of secret weapon, a quality to their personality that makes them uniquely invincible. Dramatica calls it Unique Ability; it is complementary to the Critical Flaw that is prominent in tragic heroes, but is actually present in every well-realized character in any genre. The two qualities, Unique Ability and Critical Flaw, are in tension with one another throughout the story.

After carefully sorting through HMC’s various story threads and crunching its various attributes (you can do this with Dramatica software, which is a tremendous aid in writing your own stories), Sophie’s Unique Ability pops up as “Threat.” She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s quite formidable. In fact, she scares some people half to death. Which might prove useful, but only if her Critical Flaw, Confidence (in herself), doesn’t get in the way.

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Although she feels the need for a walking stick, Sophie leaves the scarecrow, pole and all, set up against the hedge, and walks on for another mile or so. Squeakings and rustlings in the hedge attract her attention, and she crawls in amongst the flowers and thorns “on her bony knees” [30] to investigate.

It’s a dog, thin and gray and very hostile, with a rope tied around its neck into which a stout stick has been twisted. The dog has been left there either to choke to death or starve.

We learn that Sophie was afraid of dogs as a child and is not all that fond of them now. Even a small dog can do all kinds of damage with its “two rows of white fangs.” [30] Sophie does not have the fellow feeling for it that she had for the scarecrow with the withered turnip face, but she sees the gratuitous cruelty with which it has been treated and she saws through the rope with her sewing scissors. This takes some time because the dog is half mad with terror. When she finally gets it free she offers it some of her bread and cheese. The dog merely growls at her and slinks away.

“There’s gratitude for you!” Sophie said, rubbing her prickled arms. “But you left me a gift in spite of yourself.” She pulled the stick that had trapped the dog out of the hedge and found it was a proper walking stick, well trimmed and tipped with iron…. The lane became steeper and steeper and she found the stick a great help. It was also something to talk to…. [31]

I can’t help but think of myself and all the artistic children I’ve ever known, lonely beyond belief and wanting so desperately to talk to someone, to turn their pain into pearls: art, or music, or magic. When you’re a child this is called autism or Asperger’s, and you’re an outcast simply because you don’t pick up on the social cues that everybody else seems to know innately; you know there is a game being played and that the game has rules, but you don’t know how on earth you can ever find out what those rules are.

But when you grow old, assuming you survive the lonely hell of youth [I have known too many who didn’t], the problem seems to smooths itself out:

[Sophie] cackled again as she walked on. Perhaps she was a little mad, but then old women often were…. [30]

Sophie thumped along with a will, chatting to her stick. After all, old people often talk to themselves. [31]

It’s poignantly indicative of the extent to which Sophie has removed herself from all hopes of ever having a normal life when she sees the dog’s wild panic and its bared fangs and decides to help it anyway:

“The way I am now, it’s scarcely worth worrying about….” [30-31]

This is remarkable for an 18-year-old girl. The dog can maul her, tear her face to shreds, and it won’t matter. No more May Days for her; she’s out of the competition. She’s an old woman, her life is pretty much over, so what does it matter?

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We’ve met the wicked Witch of the Waste, we’ve met a scarecrow, and we’re about to meet a dog, though not a cute cuddly one. The hommages to Oz in Howl’s Moving Castle are plain in both the novel and the anime, and others besides myself have remarked about them.

I haven’t given as much thought to the matter as I might have, mostly because I wanted to reread Baum’s novel before looking for deeper connections, if any. This I began doing last evening. As it is one of about five books I am attempting to read at the moment, it will have to take its place in the queue.

Off the top of my head I did recall that Baum intended The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be a “modern” fairy tale for the children of his day, not dark and gruesome like the Märchen, or traditional stories/fairy tales, collected in Germany by the Brothers Grimm, with equivalents in the folklore of other languages and cultures. Many of these stories are very old, are upwellings of the collective human unconscious, and were never intended for children at all. Anyone who’s ever had a look at some of the alternate tellings of “Cinderella” will recall that one stepsister tried to get her foot in the slipper (which was fur, not glass) by cutting off her heel, the other by cutting off her toes. In both cases the gore gave away the game.

I thought I might have a lengthy search for a citation regarding Baum’s intent for Oz, since I have a habit of squirreling away bits of information in my brain from sources that I can never find again. Luckily enough, though, it’s right there in the author’s introduction on page one:

[T]he old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for a time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900

Hmmmm. There are some astounding assumptions in those two short paragraphs. “Modern education includes morality” but traditional stories do not? Oh, right. Their morality may be subliminally sexual and symbolic, but it’s there in the Grimms’ version of “Aschenputtel,” or Cinderella: don’t mutilate yourself in order to get something you never had a right to in the first place!

But I don’t want to be too critical of dear old Baum. He really did give us some new and distinctive archetypes (“Don’t make me get my flying monkeys” is all over t-shirts and coffee mugs) or maybe it would be more accurate to say characters. Diana Wynne Jones takes a few of them up in HMC, thereby honoring them and at the same time using them to add further zest to the rich soup that is Story.

Also, like Baum, she has also given us another “modernized” fairy tale, full of twists and inversions of traditional material.

And both authors give us wonderment and joy — and heartache and nightmare too, whatever Baum may have had to say about it, though both manage to do it with a defter, lighter touch.

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