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Archive for June, 2011

…the old nag goes lame. Mr. Iolanthe has been ill since Thursday and had to go to Urgent Care tonight. Some kind of hand injury at work. So there won’t be a post tonight. But I’m working on the next one.

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Well, you’ve come to the right place! I’m in the eaten hearts business, and have I got a deal for you!

Now that she and the face in the fire have, so to speak, connected, Sophie is businesslike and direct. Of course she doesn’t want her heart eaten! Who would? She fires back with a question of her own: “What are you?”

“A fire demon,” answered the purple mouth. There was more whine than spit to its voice as it said, “I’m bound to this hearth by contract. I can’t move from this spot.” Then its voice became brisk and crackling. “And what are you?” it asked. “I can see you’re under a spell.”

This roused Sophie from her dreamlike state. “You see!” she exclaimed. “Can you take the spell off?” [44]

And, as Ingary is a prosperous kingdom with a great deal of commerce, barter, and trade going on, the two proceed to negotiate the terms upon which their relationship is to proceed. It’s not unlike “leading up to the right hat,” as Fanny had instructed Sophie back in Sophie’s hat-making days. In that case, the exchange was strictly commercial: in return for your increasing my buying power/wealth by giving me money, I will give you a hat that helps you reach your apogee of feeling cute/attractive/rich: the sort of cut-and-dried transaction that goes on every day, even in our world.

But Sophie has left the Everyday. Here, in the Special World, that which we lack, and that which we must win or steal or earn in order to remedy that lack, is elemental, fundamental, transcendent: far more consequential to the health of our bodies and souls than merely buying a new hat — although the latter has been known to be a good cure for a minor bout of depression.

As the demon reminds her, Sophie’s spell hasn’t just robbed her of her girlish good looks; it’s robbed her of about sixty years of her life! All the talent, promise, and potential that is Sophie Hatter is locked up tight in that curse — every bit as tightly as it was in the hat shop workroom, but with a whole lot less time to put it back to rights.

What about the fire demon? (Note that Sophie doesn’t learn his name for another ten pages, and neither does the first-time reader.) What’s up with him? What is a fire demon, exactly?

“Fire” is self-explanatory in this case, but a look at the word “demon” might be helpful. From House of Many Ways, Jones’s third novel set in the same story universe as HMC, we get a definition straight from the encyclopedia no wizard can be without, the multivolume work Res Magica, which loosely translated is All Things Magical. Volume 7 of that noble set of reference books is dedicated to Potentes, or “Powers.”

“Demon: powerful and sometimes dangerous being…often confused with an Elemental, qv.” [HMW, p. 98]

We don’t go on to look up “Elemental,” but we do get a definition of “Devil: a creature of hell.” Not the same thing as a demon at all, as a demon is not necessarily evil. Nor is it necessarily good. Ambiguous or amoral, quite possibly.

Just to get a little more information, I followed Res Magica up with a quick dip in The Oxford English Dictionary.* (The OED is another one of those indispensible reference tools; DWJ, with the splendid Oxford education have mentioned before and will probably mention again, because it wows me and I wish I had one myself, althought on the whole I am quite happy with the education I got, must surely have known it well.)

Power: (Definition 7) “A celestial or spiritual being having control or influence, a deity, a divinity; chiefly in plural.”

Demon: (Definition 1) “In ancient Greek mythology, a supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men; an inferior divinity, spirit, genius.”

Elemental: (Definition 4) “Pertaining to the powers or agencies of physical nature, such as elemental spirits, gods, etc., which are personifications of natural phenomena, or are associated with particular departments of nature.”

(Definition 5) “Pertaining to the sky; also, governed by celestial influences.”

So. Although he’s non-corporeal through and through, this fire demon nevertheless is confined to one physical place — a chimney in what appears to be the back room of an enchanted castle — and is compelled “by contract” not to budge from that spot. That surely must be onerous for a creature made of light and flame.

He, like Sophie, suffers from an essence that is unbearably reduced and constrained.

~

*A special shout-out to Mr. Iolanthe for dictating to me the preceding definitions from the eentsy-print compact edition the OED that I own.

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What comes next — the introduction of Calcifer, and Sophie’s initial conversation with him — is so wonderfully written that it’s hard to think of anything to say about it that hasn’t been said before, and said better, by someone else.

Since I am here to talk about HMC, however, I had better talk about it. And in fact there hasn’t been all that much said about this conversation or any other. There is a dreadful dearth of HMC commentary out there! A tragedy, because the story seems to present something new at each reading. Tonight’s was no exception:

[Sophie] settled herself more comfortably, putting her knobby feet on the fender and her head into a corner of the chair, where she could stare into the colored flames, and began dreamily considering what she ought to do in the morning. But she was sidetracked a little by imagining a face in the flames. “It would be a thin blue face,” she murmured, “very long and thin, with a thin blue nose. But those curly green flames on top are most definitely your hair….” [43]

It strikes me that this an invocation of sorts, particularly as Sophie has a way of talking things into life and existence even when completely unaware that she is doing it. At this point the reader knows that there was something sentient about the fireplace prior to Sophie’s arrival, because we observed Michael asking it a question and getting an answer while Sophie was asleep. Now, right before our eyes, the fireplace entity comes clearly into focus even as Sophie is describing aloud what she sees:

“…And those purple flames near the bottom make the mouth — you have savage teeth, my friend. You have two green tufts of flame for eyebrows….” Curiously enough, the only orange flames in the fire were under the green eyebrow flames, just like eyes, and they each had a little purple glint in the middle that Sophie could almost imagine was looking at her, like the pupil of an eye. [43-44]

Even as the face in the flames is manifesting, Sophie is also thinking out loud about what she will do tomorrow. The white lie she had told Michael, the “false pretense” under which she invited herself into the castle for the night, no longer seems so far-fetched:

“Suppose I didn’t go until Howl gets back? Wizards can lift spells, I suppose…On the other hand,” Sophie continued, looking into the orange flames, “if the spell was off, I’d have my heart eaten before I could turn around.” [43-44]

While she is looking into the flames, the flames and the sentience within are looking back at her. And they in turn are manifesting in Sophie that which they are wishing and expecting and hoping to see: the power of her voice, of course, but also her need, her yearning to give her heart to someone even though she knows that that may mean losing it forever.

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In the deeps of the night Sophie’s own snoring wakes her. (I hate it when that happens. Soooo embarrassing.) Believing she has dozed off only for a few minutes, she assumes that Michael has vanished in a flash: “No doubt a wizard’s apprentice learned to do that kind of thing in his first week.” [42]

In fact, she’s been asleep for an hour or two. Jones, mercifully, gives us a paragraph or two of omniscient narration so that, even though Sophie misses it, we get to watch adorable Michael adorably burning his fingers and biting back a cussword as he plays (adorably) the role of Hapless Sorceror’s Apprentice. We observe Michael getting himself a midnight snack, knocking Sophie’s cane over with a clatter and politely replacing it by her side, then putting a log on the fire. We overhear his brief conversation with the fireplace, after which he toddles off to bed. [42]

It appears he’s taken all the light and warmth with him. The room is dark and cold because the fire has burned down and is now “giving out irritating hissings and poppings.” And Sophie remembers the human skull, sitting right there on a shelf.

I have got to confess that just being in a darkened room with a skull on hand would creep me out big-time. I’m a great fan of popular science, but I can’t look at a paleoanthro book right before bedtime because I might turn a page and find Homo habilis, or one of Lucy’s Australopithecine chums, or Neanderthal Man, all hairless, skinless, and neckless, grinning skullfully at me. (And I’m not even going to mention my childhood bogey: a little bony hand reaching out from beneath the bed and grabbing my ankle if I don’t get my feet under the covers double-quick…)

I believe that most people, unless they have a special interest, special training, or both, have a natural aversion to skellingtons and similar mortality mementoes, just as they do to spiders and snakes. Or maybe that’s just me. But I’ll say it again: I would not care to wake up in a creepy castle with a skull somewhere behind me in darkness from whence a cold draft is blowing.

In such a situation, though, I guess I would do what Sophie does, which is to mutter something about needing more light, then reach over and grab a log to throw on the fire. I mean, it’s just a skull, right? It can’t really do anything. Can it?

Sophie’s expecting her voice to echo hollowly throughout the vast vaulted chambers of the now-silent castle, but it doesn’t. A little nervously, she watches the newly revived firelight dancing on the skull.

The room was quite small. There was no one in it but Sophie and the skull.

“He’s got both feet in the grave and I’ve only got one,” she consoled herself. She turned back to the fire, which was now flaring up into blue and green flames. “Must be salt in that wood,” Sophie murmured. [43]

I have noticed two things about this passage, which I will mention only briefly because it is late and I’ve got to go to bed soon and I saw two skull pictures on the Internet just a few minutes ago when I hit the search engine up for the correct spelling of “Australopithecine” and “habilis,” but they didn’t really bother me, at least I think they didn’t…

Thing One: “No one in the room but Sophie and the skull.” He may have both feet in the grave, but he’s still a human presence as far as Sophie’s concerned. And not a haunting or spooky presence; here, I believe, she is simply referring to his humanity.

Thing Two: “Must be salt in that wood.” Whether from school or from Inglish folk science, Sophie knows some chemistry. When she threw the log on, the fire “sent a spray of blue and green sparks flying up the chimney,” and the light it now casts is “blue-purple.”

Coincidentally, my latest pop-sci bedtime storybook is called Cycles of Fire. It features beautiful artists’ renderings of stars of all colors and stages of development. I have another book somewhere that explains stellar spectroscopy; I’ll have to get that one out.

Calcifer has already given us a clue, and we didn’t even know it!

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Now for an entertaining cascade of contradictions, as salty Old Sophie and terrified Young Sophie duke it out while attempting to come to terms with their new situation.

Sophie notices at once that from inside the castle, there is no sensation of movement, “not even the ghost of a rumble or the tiniest shaking:”

“Tell Wizard Howl,” she said to the boy [Michael], “that this castle’s going to come apart round his ears if it travels much further.”

“The castle’s bespelled to hold together,” the boy said. “But I’m afraid Howl’s not here just at the moment.”

This was good news to Sophie. “When will he be back?” she asked a little nervously.

“Probably not till tomorrow now,” the boy said. “What do you want? Can I help you instead?”….

This was better news than ever. “I’m afraid only the Wizard can possibly help me,” Sophie said quickly and firmly. It was probably true, too….

“Tell him the name’s Sophie,” she murmured. “Old Sophie,” she added, to be on the safe side.[40]

Things are beginning not to add up. There’s powerful mojo holding together a rattling top-heavy building that from inside seems not to be moving at all. Michael, the wicked wizard’s own apprentice, is quite visibly annoyed that she’s invited herself in, but he shows no sign of carving her up or eating her alive. Nor does he seem to be the numbed and battered slave of a psychopath. And Sophie is a bit surprised at her own rudeness, when all she really wanted was to be in out of the dark and cold:

So she would have a whole night’s shelter, even if it was on slightly false pretenses, Sophie thought drowsily. Since Howl was such a wicked man, it probably served him right to be imposed upon. But she intended to be well away from here by the time Howl came back and raised objections…. And this kitchen, or workshop, was beautifully cozy and very peaceful. [41]

The “false pretenses” are, of course, that only Howl can help her, which is why she’ll have to wait out the night there in spite of Michael’s objections. I suspect that at this point Sophie’s conscious intent is to set out the next morning, getting well away from the Castle before Howl gets back from whatever mayhem he’s been up to — by which time Sophie will be over the hills and down into the Folding Valley, where the warmer, safer, cuddlier old-family-friend Mrs. Fairfax can have a go at lifting the Witch’s spell.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Sophie has been yearning to talk to Lettie, whom she has not seen since the sisters parted immediately after Mr. Hatter’s death some six or seven weeks before. Now that Martha has assumed Lettie’s identity and is playing the role of apprentice to the Cesari’s, Sophie can look forward to a reunion and a good long sisterly talk with the “real” Lettie when she’s made it to Mrs. F.’s and things have been put to rights.

Then Sophie can get on with seeking her fortune, which for tonight is a warm spot by a fire, but which by tomorrow may be — well, she doesn’t know yet what it will be, merely that it will involve something more interesting than trimming hats for a living. [12]

What she does not realize is that this Special World, this preternatural realm she entered so light-heartedly the night before, is one she will find it difficult, if not impossible, to leave.

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When I’m not here I am usually off drowning in my own work.* Plotting has always been the cliff I crash against. I have no difficulty in finding characters, names, or settings — in fact, they usually find me. But putting them into a series of events that will cause a reader to be as delighted with them as I am is a different matter. (And yes, I know that plot is supposedly nothing but Character Revealed, or Character In Action, or some such, but, in terms of nuts and bolts, for me that just is not very helpful.)

What is helpful is going through a story I already know and like, such as HMC, with copies of fiction manuals and structural theories such as Dramatica by my side. Studying the inner workings of a book that has delighted me is useful. I would compare it to an artist learning drawing from life, in doing so learning that the human wrist joint (taken as a unit) is half the size of the elbow, which is half the size of the shoulder. The same goes for ankles, knees, and hips. There is a pattern and a symmetry to things, which you can figure out if you study it carefully.

So it is with stories. I have now blogged about one-eighth of the way through Howl’s Moving Castle. (I thought at first it was one-fourth, but then I compared the pagination of the hardcover versus the paperback. The hardcover is 212 pages, which neatly divides into fourths, if not quite so neatly into eighths. The paperback is 329 pages, which doesn’t. (That seems an enormous difference to me, but either way, it’s all there. The U.S. hardcover’s taller, bigger pages have space for half again as many words as the U.S. paperback’s. I used to know a formula for calculating the word count in a printed book, but I have forgotten it. For one’s own writing, the software counts for you, of course. Blessed software!)

In any event, Sophie’s arrival at the castle seems as though it ought to be a significant point, both in the Hero’s Journey and in the book’s structure as a novel. And so it is. She has left the Everyday World and entered the Special World of the Castle. It is a realm of tests, trials, and ordeals, of confronting forces that even in the contemporary demythologized daylight world are easily recognized as bigger than anything we can imagine. Attempting to form a good habit or break a bad one is a good example, as is the nagging drive to be doing-whatever-it-is-you-know-you’re-supposed-to-be-doing every single day. As the saying goes, if you write/floss/practice the clarinet every day, the Universe gets behind you. And if you don’t write/floss/practice the clarinet every day, the Universe gets behind you.

At the same time, life is pretty much one broken thread after another. Which is why, if we are EVER to get on with our quest, we need a cranky witch waltzing in and flinging a curse on us, or our beloved family wizard stopping by with really bad news about that Ring we inherited.

* First line edited in an attempt to fix an egregious mixed metaphor!

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So Sophie gets a foothold and a grip on the Moving Castle as it tries to move off down the hill, and finally manages to throw herself inside. There’s someone standing right in front of her, holding the door:

He was a head taller than Sophie, but she could see he was the merest child, only a little older than Martha. And he seemed to be trying to shut the door on her and push her out of the warm, lamplit, low-beamed room beyond him, into the night again.

“Don’t you have the impudence to shut the door on me, my boy!” she said.

“I wasn’t going to, but you’re keeping the door open,” he protested. “What do you want?” [38-39]

Thinking he’s no doubt a pushover (he is), she pushes right past him, looks about the place for signs of anything menacing, cannibalistic, horrifying, etc. There’s a human skull sitting on a shelf, but otherwise the decor seems to be typical Early Wizard. The room is small and not very castle-y, but since she came in through the back door this of course must be a little back room.

Spying a fire in a grate with a comfy chair beside it, Sophie dives straight for the chair. “Ah! My fortune!” she says, leaving the boy to sort things out on his own.

He does his best to make Sophie comfortable, albeit with a pained expression and a distinct air of wishing she’d just go away because he’s got no idea who she is or what do to with her. We soon learn that he is Howl’s apprentice, Michael.

But what kind of parent would apprentice their child to a soul-stealing, heart-eating villain like Howl? Michael certainly doesn’t behave like a psychopath-in-training:

It rather surprised her to find him such a nice, polite boy… Perhaps Howl kept him in abject servility. But Michael did not look servile. He was a tall, dark boy with a pleasant, open sort of face, and he was most respectably dressed. In fact, if Sophie had not seen him at that moment carefully pouring green fluid out of a crooked flask onto black powder in a bent glass jar, she would have taken him for the son of a prosperous farmer. [41]

“The son of a prosperous farmer.” I have noticed, based on fan comments and stories, that many readers overlook this small and very telling detail about Michael: he’s well-cared-for and well-dressed.

At the same time, the universal affection that HMC readers feel for this character is a tribute not merely to Michael himself but to Diana Wynne Jones’s artistry as well. In her essay “Heroes” she writes,

For a long time I couldn’t write a story with a female hero. The identification was too close, and I kept getting caught up in the actual tactile sensations of being a girl…[I]n order to see my hero as a real person, I had to be slightly more distant than that. There were other factors here too… My own children were all boys, and I knew not only how they felt and behaved, but what they needed in a book as well.

As I’ve read my way through Jones’s books, I’ve noticed and admired how well, how sweetly she writes boys and young men. She likes them and seems to understand them: their unique vulnerability, the seemingly stoic manner in which they bear their feelings, and their instinct to protect and defend, which under the wrong conditions can all too readily turn predatory.

Not so with Michael, however. In a story in which hardly anyone is what they appear to be, Michael is the real deal. But of course there is much more to him than meets the eye.

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