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Archive for May, 2011

It remains only for Sophie to brandish her stick and yell “Stop!” before the Castle runs right over her — or at least the reader thinks it might run right over her — and obediently, a short distance uphill from her, it stops. [35]

Up close, the castle is tall, crooked, and top-heavy. Newgrange-like, it appears to be faced with closely-set stones, but they are not the white quartz of the glass castle; instead they are misshapen lumps of coal. They exude a deathly chill, but Sophie’s not focused on that. She just wants to get to the warm fiery place inside that’s making all the smoke pouring out of the turrets.

Despite the Castle’s — or its owner’s — best efforts, Sophie doesn’t imagine some hellish soul-searing inferno within; she’s picturing “chairs and firesides.” [36] This could be owing some magical sight of her own, penetrating the outward appearance of things. Or some other intelligent will might be working upon her perceptions. In any event, she thinks she’s got the thing eating out of her hand, until she walks up to the big black door in the blank wall before her and tries to knock.

There’s a force-field in place, impervious to her prodding finger, her stick, and her order to “Open up!”

Looking for another door, she tries going around to the castle wall to her left, but she can’t even get past the corner.

At this, Sophie said a word she had learned from Martha, that neither old ladies nor young girls are supposed to know, and stumped uphill and anticlockwise to the castle’s righthand corner.

The castle forces her to go widdershins; in other words, in the direction counter to that of the sun’s motion: another way of warning anyone off who gets too close.

[I am embarrassed to admit to the Blinding Flash of the Obvious that befell me while looking into this matter: I had never quite put it together that a clock face is arrayed like a compass rose, with north at the top, east at the right, south at the bottom, and west at the left. As the sun moves from east to west the numbers get bigger and the hour gets later, until after two rounds it resets at midnight, bumping the date one day forward. Sheesh. Knock me over with a feather.]

Also, I very much doubt that Sophie’s prim younger self would have said whatever that word was out loud. [I detect, too, a faint, Austenian hint that Fanny and Martha are maybe a wee bit less refined than was Sophie and Lettie’s mum.] Growing old does liberate one’s tongue. At the same time it turns you salty and cynical about some people and things. Many people and things.

There’s another door on the right side, and another force field. In describing the castle’s outward attributes, I begin to suspect that Jones is subtly and cheekily describing its owner as well:

Black smoke blew down from the battlements in clouds. Sophie coughed. Now she was angry. She was old, frail, chilly, and aching all over, night was coming on and the castle just sat and blew smoke at her. [37]

Yes, guys do act that way, sometimes.

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After a brief interval of bad cold and general burnout, I return with one more thing to add to the topic of the Spiral Castle, and with one murky bit to clarify. The Newgrange tomb is so obviously round that it cannot very well be described as “four-cornered,” although now I think of it John Donne (who could be called Howl’s Moving Castle’s poet-in-residence) does manage to square the circle:

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go…

[From Divine Poems, Sonnet VII]

Although by Donne’s time, in the early Seventeenth Century, it was pretty much settled that we live on a spheroid planet, the metaphorical “four corners of the earth” still had legs by way of meaning every single nook and cranny thereof. And the image of the general Resurrection as the coming together of the long-decayed pieces and fragments of the dead is a powerful one.

(The science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer used Donne’s phrase To Your Scattered Bodies Go as the title for the first volume of his Riverworld series, about a realm of life after death, in 1971. And here’s another fish darting through the dark water: the phrase also puts me in mind of Sophie’s refusal to pull the scarecrow to pieces, as well as the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of two other characters in HMC.)

In any event, Graves has no problem with the seeming contradiction. It may or may not be helpful to mention that, throughout The White Goddess, Graves ties the ancient Greeks to the ancient British at several points, with ties both historical and poetical. Ariadne and the Labyrinth of Knossos, from which the hero Theseus returns alive, are similar enough to Arianrhod and her Spiral Castle as to make no nevermind. The four-corneredness may refer the pre-Grecian Bronze Age burial custom of placing the body in a crouching or fetal position and placing it in a squarish box called a kist; this practice later migrated to western Europe along with its practitioners. [TWG, p. 107]

Alternatively, it may refer to the arrangement of the passage-tomb within Newgrange and similar monuments:

The ground plan is the shape of a Celtic cross; one enters by a dolmen door at the base of the shaft. The shaft consists of a narrow passage, sixty feet long, through which one has to crawl on hands and knees. It leads it a small circular chamber, with a bee-hive corbelled vault twenty feet high; and there are three recesses which make the arms if the cross. [TWG, p. 102]

There is a further association of Arianrhod’s Spiral Castle with the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. It may have been the ancients’ belief that, while the bodies of the royal dead repose in the round passage-graves, their souls may have flown to the stars, to that chilly celestial place at the Back of the North Wind. [TWG, p. 103] This is worth exploring, but I’ll have to do it another time. I want to get to the point of today’s post:

Which is, that everything about Wizard Howl’s castle, before which Sophie now stands, is redolent of death.

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Spiral Castellations: the Newgrange megalithic passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Ireland.

One of the most enjoyable, suspenseful passages in Howl’s Moving Castle, both book and anime, is Sophie’s arrival at the Moving Castle, or rather the Moving Castle’s arrival at Sophie.

According to Jones’s epigraph to the novel, the title was suggested by a student who wanted her to write a story called The Moving Castle. How long it took the story and its castle to incubate after her subconscious “primordial sludge” went to work on the title I do not know; she may have written about it somewhere. I can make a good guess that Castle’s nearest nearest literary antecedent may be the mythical fortress Caer Sidi, to which Robert Graves devotes an entire chapter, “A Visit To Spiral Castle,” of The White Goddess.

(You can also find Spiral Castle in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. My list of books to reread is growing longer by the minute.)

Please bear in mind that Graves is using a 19th century translation, by Lady Charlotte Guest, of a 17th century retelling by Llywelyn Siôn, of a 14th century work attributed to Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Fuellt, which is possibly connected to a 9th century historical work by Nennius, about an actual 6th century bard named Taliesin. Poetry, legend, and myth lie deeply layered upon this material. In it Caer Sidi, “the revolving castle,” has an ominous connotation:

‘[E]xcept seven none have escaped from Caer Sidi.'[106] ‘…The castle that they entered — revolving, remote, royal, gloomy, lofty, cold, the abode of the Perfect Ones, with four corners, entered by a dark door on the shelving side of a hill — was the castle of death or the Tomb, the [same] Dark Tower to which Childe Roland came in the ballad.’ [107]

(Though he does not know who the seven lucky escapees were, Graves lists as possible candidates Theseus, Hercules, Amathaon, Arthur, Gwydion, Harpocrates, Kay, Owain, Daedalus, Orpheus, and Cuchulain. [106] Sophie’s in good company.)

Newgrange, pictured above, is an example of the ancient British castle of death. Tower-like, it is about 50 feet tall and sits on what looks from aerial photos like the highest ground in the district. And it can be said to revolve, not in the sense of spinning like a top, but over the stately course of an astronomical year: at the winter solstice the rising sun, shining through an opening over the entrance, illuminates the entire passage within for as long as 17 minutes.

The ancient spiral design, long associated with the Celts (although Newgrange predates the arrival of that culture), can be seen on the large “kerbstones” that surround the monument, and the restored facing of white quartz calls to mind “princess on the glass hill” stories. This ancient earthwork would seem to have entered our collective imagination, or else it takes its design from the same parts of that imagination.

The point is, though Howl’s castle doesn’t look like Newgrange, there is a definite vibe of fear and death emanating from it, a coldness. But Sophie, or so it seems, doesn’t even fear death at this point. Certainly not deathliness. She just wants to get in out of the cold.

So when that dark door opens, what is she going to find?

As you might expect, not what you might expect.

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