Archive for September, 2011

A few days ago I mentioned the bizarre conference center run by Diana Wynne Jones’s parents that inspired the slovenly house-keeping, particularly the narly bathroom, in HMC. I can’t find, in my own collection, the DWJ interview in which she describes it. I’m thinking now that I must have run across it in a book I had ordered from the library. I ordered the book again, so we’ll see.

She does mention the conference center in “The Profession of Science Fiction,” linked at the right (with title corrected, aarrgh!), though not the bathroom:

The as-it-were conference centre my parents ran added to the general peculiarity [of the Essex village Jones grew up in], both by importing mad musicians and insane actors and causing myself and my sisters to have to live, as one of the guests described it, ‘in the margins of a dirty postcard,’and by employing a succession of local eccentrics. The gardener there had had a vision on the Sampford road in which an angel descended to him and told him always to go to Chapel and never to join a Trade Union.

It was only as a student that I realised that these things were not normal.

I think the sort of postcard Jones is talking about is the semi-pornographic Saucy Seaside Souvenir sort (my term for them; I have no idea what they’re called in Britain, I only know you can buy them at places like Brighton and Blackpool). If you have seen any, you know exactly the kind of garish cartoon-y squalor Jones is talking about. If you haven’t, well, *I’m* not going to show you.

Apparently her parents’ center was well-appointed but filthy. From what I recall of the other interview, Jones stated that nobody cleaned anything because nobody had figured out that things got manky with use and needed cleaning in the first place! This seems astonishing to me. You’d have to be clueless to the point of zombiefication to miss this little detail about your surroundings, but those were very different times and very stressful circumstances even, or maybe especially, for people as eccentric as Jones describes her parents to be.

Aside from the grotty bathroom as set-piece for the novel, what else does all this bring to understanding HMC? My answer would include Jones’s perennial themes of absentee or malicious parents, dysfunctional families, and chaotic childhoods, as well as the almost autistic preoccupation with anything but one’s surroundings that can befall artists and geniuses of all sorts. Oh, and the general habits of high school and college-age guys. (Many girls, too. There are neatniks, and there are slobs. Sometimes the two co-exist in the same individual. I can personally attest to this.)

I doubt if Sophie, before she left home, had spent much time around any of these types of people. Hers seems to have been an astoundingly stable, quiet, happy home-life for a DWJ character. Therefore, lacking other referents, she tends to explain the messy blobs and runnels she sees in terms of the only thing she knows about Wizard Howl: Bluebeard.

Knowing more than she does at this point, we know that there is a genius, an artist, a couple of bachelors, quite possibly an actor (who else would need so many delightfully ambiguous cosmetics/spells?) living in this castle. On a sadder note, there also is a least one person who has suffered a childhood tragedy, and another whose family, when we come to meet them, seem quite dysfunctional indeed.

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“For Decay”

I know what’s in that tube!*

I remain unsure about the jar labeled DRYING POWER, however. Laundry soap? Dishwasher detergent with spot-free drying power? Like Sophie, I’m not sure if there should be a D in that.

If there were a D, it might be silica gel, though that seems a little abstruse. Had she found the stuff in a box, I’d suggest it might have been the box an electric blow-dryer came in. But it was in a jar. It may be some UK thing of which I am unaware.

Make of it what you will, Sophie is sure this is all very sinister, somehow. And disgusting. She washes her face with clean water running from the corroded brass tap, but she is reluctant to touch any of that nameless goo.

I own a book called The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, a birthday gift from my family a couple of years ago. In designing the look of the bathroom, Miyazaki’s art director Noboru Yoshida said, “I avoided vermilion and red because they would look too bloody, opting for pink and purple tones for green and red spectrum colors.” [p. 95] Considering the younger audience for which I believe the anime was intended this was a good approach, as it lets young viewers know subliminally that there is no real threat here.

Sophie hasn’t got a clue, however. As far as she’s concerned, the tube “For Decay” is what Howl applies to any final residue of his evil deeds so that he can wash them down the sink.

There are three more inside doors to be opened. One leads to a flight of steps going up to a second story or loft. Sophie hears someone moving about up there and hurriedly shuts that door. One leads to a walled yard filled with wheels, buckets, wire, sheets of metal, and other junk. She can’t make sense of it in terms of anything else she has seen. She thinks it might be the side of the castle that was completely unapproachable from outside.

Another door leads to a broom closet complete with two brooms on which are hung a couple of nice velvet cloaks. There is other stuff in this closet which Sophie does not notice at at this point but which comes out later, such as a cot and a pair of seven-league boots. [52]

There remains the window, which looks out at the seaside down, and the outside door, which though it is right next to the window opens onto a completely different scene, the dappled moorland going by as the moving castle bumps along. It’s puzzling and frustrating, and Sophie understands none of it.

Then the fire in the hearth opens one eye and says, “Good morning. Don’t forget we have a bargain.”

For Sophie, this cements the reality of everything that’s happened to her in the last twenty-four hours. She is old, she is cursed, and the life she has always known is far behind her now.

So none of it was a dream. Sophie was not much given to crying, but she sat in the chair for quite a while staring at a blurred and sliding fire demon, and did not pay attention to the sounds of Michael getting up until she found him standing beside her, looking embarrassed and a little exasperated. [53]

And when she tries to explain to Michael why she is crying, she can’t. Such is the curse.

Sophie sniffed. “I’m old,” she began.

…Michael said cheerfully, “Well, it comes to us all in time. Would you like some breakfast?” [53]

(I wonder if Michael actually sees Old Sophie, or does he simply see a girl a few years older than himself? I’ve observed that as the story goes on, guileless sweet Michael sees more acutely than you might at first think.)


*See HMC, p. 111. :D

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What ARE they? Sophie, in full-on Bluebeard discovery mode, thinks they just might be all that’s left of Howl’s rumored victims.

[They] were crowded into a very large shelf over the bath. They were in jars, boxes, tubes, and hundreds of tattered brown packets and paper bags…. She picked up a packet at random. It had SKIN scrawled on it, and she put it back hurriedly. Another jar said EYES in the same scrawl. A tube stated FOR DECAY. [51]

I began writing this post shortly after the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The HMC passage just quoted brought to mind descriptions I had read of the human remains that were found in the rubble after the towers fell, and it gave me pause. The trauma of that day still remains fresh for many people, myself included. I found I needed to back off for a week or two.

(Some people might find my discussion of a horrific real-life act of war in connection with a seemingly light-hearted novel for young readers to be offensive or inappropriate. I believe it is neither. Diana Wynne Jones writes about pure evil with a light, deft touch, but that doesn’t make her treatment of it any less serious or profound.)

The human soul has an astonishing ability to heal from the most dreadful trauma, to move past it, to get that spring back in the step, to feel alive again without being tormented afresh every time it encounters some chance reminder of the terrible thing that happened.

And yet as artists we can never forget that each reader or viewer or listener may be in pain that has yet to heal. Stories provide both cathexis — the projection of profound, powerful, and (in this case) terrifying soul work onto an object or person or symbol that is “external” to it; and catharsis — the confronting, processing, and release of that energy and power with just enough detachment from it that the soul itself is not destroyed.

This is assuming all goes well. Of course, here in Plato’s cave psychic energy can never be conserved 100 per cent. There is always a cost. What we do with what’s left is up to us, however:

…[S]uddenly a fear seized Pippin that Merry would die.

“Do not be afraid,” said Aragorn. “I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing….His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.” [Lord of the Rings, Book Five, Chapter VIII]

In the stark symbolology of fantasy, choosing the path of wisdom will help to make you into a hero: a Merry, a Pippin, or an Aragorn. Choosing to hoard the darkness in your heart will turn you into a Ringwraith, self-recruited into slavery to Sauron.

Every artist who makes art in good faith — who is not a sneering cynic or a nihilistic postmodern, in other words — freely offers the possibility of healing to her audience. It’s a responsibility that should never be taken lightly.

To couch the discussion in the metaphor of magic as art and healing, here is the Wizard Deliamber from one of my favorite books, Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:

“Know this, and know it well: time is never wasted. Wherever we go, whatever we do, everything is an aspect of education. Even when we don’t immediately grasp the lesson.”

…[Valentine] attempted to withdraw his hand from Deliamber’s grip, but the [Wizard] held him with unexpected strength. Valentine felt an odd sensation, as of a chord of somber music rolling through his mind, and somewhere beneath the surface of his consciousness an image glimmered and flashed… He feared to know what was stirring down there. An obscure and incomprehensible anguish flooded his soul… He pulled his hand free with sudden violent force… His heart was pounding fiercely, his temples throbbed, he felt weak and dizzy. After a few uncertain steps he turned and said angrily, “What did you to to me?”

“I merely touched my hand to yours.”

“And gave me great pain!”

“I may have given you access to your own pain,” said Deliamber quietly. “Nothing more than that. The pain is carried within you.” [p. 84]

Whatever else the Witch of the Waste may have done (and we will discover how, like the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the Witch has no compunction about making fragments of innocent people), she has certainly given Sophie access to her own pain. She has unwittingly sent Sophie off on the quest for healing and wisdom that Sophie quite possibly would not have initiated on her own. And although she does not yet understand what drives her, Sophie is at least willing to confront what must be confronted in Howl’s castle — even if it means turning up some really grisly, disturbing stuff.

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We’ve made it to Chapter Four, “In Which Sophie Discovers Several Strange Things.” She discovers she aches all over and her joints creak and pop. She discovers she’s over her initial shock at the Witch’s cursing her and that this morning she’s hopping mad.

“Sailing into shops and turning people old!” she exclaimed. “Oh, what I won’t do to her!” [49]

She discovers that the stuffy little castle room she entered the night before has a large window, which looks down past a fishing village and out over the sea. As she had arrived there from a windy moor somewhere in the middle of Ingary, this just can’t be right. The ocean light shines in on a poky, dirty, cluttered, ill-maintained room. It seemed so cozy the night before, despite the presence of the skull. Now she discovers the skull to be covered in the same thick dust as the rest of the place.

After having said aloud “Wherever am I?” Sophie hurries to assure the skull that she’s not expecting it to answer. (She does not know, but we are beginning to suspect, that in the very act of telling the skull not to answer this she is nevertheless empowering it to answer other questions that may come along.) She gives it an absent-minded dusting-off and goes off to inspect the nasty, slimy utility sink which is coated with runnels of pink and grey gunk. “Howl obviously did not care what squalor his servants lived in.” [50]

You could almost imagine that she’s entered a dwelling that has gone undisturbed for decades or even centuries. Everything seems out of time and, with an ocean vista out the window and an inland moorland out the door, most definitely out of place.

She discovers that, just as there were four doors on each outside surface of the castle, there are also four low black inside doors, one on each wall of the room in which she now finds herself.

It’s a classic fairy-tale moment, even a Bluebeard moment, as Sophie begins opening those doors, and yet I can’t think of a single fairy-tale door portal that takes you into a large, modern, and well-appointed (though grotty) bathroom:

“In some ways it was a bathroom you might find only in a palace, full of luxuries such as an indoor toilet, a shower stall, an immense bath with clawed feet, and mirrors on every wall.” [51]

I’ve got to stop the presses at this point and ask myself, the universe, and anybody out there who might be reading this just how this bathroom came to be in what we later learn is just “an ordinary crooked little building” [90] in an impoverished fishing-village? DWJ’s narrative doesn’t address this, either overtly or covertly — at least not that I have yet been able to coax from the available clues. I do expect the fire demon Calcifer has something to do with it.

My next post will touch on the real-life origins of Wizard Howl’s manky bathroom in a bizarre conference center that Jones’s parents ran during the Second World War, and on what we might make of it in terms of the kinds of problems that fairy tales and stories help our minds work through as we read.

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Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi brifo,
A Dafydd y gwas ddim yn iach.
Mae’r baban yn y crid yn crio,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach.

Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach…

Calcifer’s performance, as he beguiles and bewitches Sophie with this song, is described as “flickering” and “sleepy-sounding.” [48] Indirectly he is telling her a great many things about Wizard Howl, including the matters that are closest to Howl’s heart.


I have yet to make any Spoiler warnings on this blog, even though I’m presenting my thoughts as I would as a first-time reader, because anyone who has found this small corner has probably read Howl’s Moving Castle already. Still, if you have not read it, you may wish to stop now, because there be SPOILERS here:


First, some links to YouTube.

Here’s a wonderful military band version:


Here’s Paul Carey Jones, who has a fine operatic voice, singing it:


Here’s what has to be the biggest youth choir in the world, “Only Boys Aloud,” singing it at a ginormous televised Eisteddfod:


Here is the Scarletts rugby team of Llanelli, in Wales, singing it for the last time before the demolition of their old stadium, Parc Y Stradey, to make way for the new Parc Y Scarletts:


Lastly, this performance by Cerys Matthews is to my mind as close to Calcifer’s version as you can get, a single voice in folksong style. (Nice guitar, too!):


“Sosban Fach” is almost like a second national anthem to the people of Wales. There are at least a dozen versions of it on YouTube, and most of them are not sleepy at all, particularly the ones interspersed with those triumphant shouts of “Hoy! Hoy!”

The tune is a nifty little minor/modal melody with seemingly nonsense words. There is a fuller version of the lyrics here, with translation: http://iantopf.hubpages.com/hub/Sosban-Fach

The subject matter is well-described by commenter “cinnamonbrandylife,” on the Llanelli video:

You have to read it as ‘verse one – soldier’s memories of home, verse two – what soldier finds when he returns.’ Then it makes sense just fine. It’s all about nostalgia, and what changes, and what stays the same.

The Hubpages link also describes the song’s history. “Sosban Fach” depicts domesticity, yet carries the emotional weight of war, team and tribal loyalty (rugby!), national pride, the tragic history of the miners and workers of the Welsh valleys, and of hiraeth, a Welsh word that connotes loneliness and longing for home.

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Sophie and the fire demon Calcifer have struck a bargain regarding the mutual lifting of her double-barreled old-age spell and his exploitative contract with Wizard Howl. It took some cajoling and persuading on both their parts.

Sophie acknowledges that a condition of her curse is that she can’t tell anyone about it unless they know already. (This is apparently standard practice with this sort of curse.) She even detects the fire demon’s lack of complete candour about his situation, to which he freely admits. [45]

All the same, she’s highly incensed when she learns that the fire demon is under the same kind of ban:

“Done!” cried the demon, his long face leaping gleefully up the chimney. “I’ll break your spell the very instant you break my contract!”

“Then tell me how I break your contract,” Sophie said.

The orange eyes glinted at her and looked away. “I can’t. Part of the contract is that neither the Wizard nor I can say what the main clause is.” [46]

He behaves guiltily, as well he should. Sophie’s irritation causes him to fear she’ll call the whole thing off:

“Don’t be hasty!” it crackled. “You can find out what it is if you watch and listen carefully. I implore you to try. The contract isn’t doing either of us any good in the long run…”

It was in earnest, leaping about on its logs in an agitated way. Sophie again felt a great deal of sympathy. [47]

Emotions are all over the place. At last, however, both parties are satisfied, even if only for the moment, with the arrangement. All that remains is to find a way to convince Wizard Howl why he should have an old woman who suddenly appeared out of nowhere staying under his roof for the month or so that Calcifer says he’ll need for a thorough study of Sophie’s curse—and while she is watching and listening for signs that will help her guess the terms of the contract.

Although he murmurs as Sophie did to her walking stick, and roars up with “glad and powerful” delight as he thinks up excuses they might make to the Wizard, Calcifer is leaving nothing to chance:

The demon at length fell into singing a gentle, flickering little song. It was not in any language Sophie knew—or she thought not, until she distinctly heard the word “saucepan” in it several times—and it was very sleepy-sounding. Sophie fell into a deep sleep, with a slight suspicion that she was being bewitched now, as well as beguiled, but it did not bother her particularly. [48]

“Bewitched” and “beguiled” are examples of Diana Wynne Jones’s love of exploring the various meanings of words. Both imply that a spell is being cast, but “bewitched” also means delighted, as well as falling in love. Beguilement carries the further implication that there is deceit involved in the enchantment—or it can refer quite innocently to being entertained, particularly if the entertainment provides a pleasant way to kill time.

Searching YouTube in order to hear what the song about the saucepans is all about is also a most beguiling activity.

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Before I move on, here’s a little more about Bluebeard from Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

Story is meant to set the inner life back into motion again. The Bluebeard story is a medicine which is particularly important to apply where the inner life of the woman has become frightened, or wedged or cornered. Story solutions lessen fear, give doses of adrenaline at just the right time, and most importantly for the captured naive self, cut doors into walls which were previously blank.[p. 65]

Stories are everything Estes describes, and more. They are powerful unblockers of dammed-up anger, grief, or fear. (I could give examples from my own experience, but I’ll do that some other time.) In this story Sophie has become, or at least appears to have become, less frightened since the witch’s spell transformed her into an old woman. Part of that is a defensive facade, of course. But there is no question that she felt wedged and cornered in her old life at the hat shop. A change, a confrontation with her own need for something more out of life, was probably inevitable. Sheltered and bookish, yet extremely intelligent, Sophie is an excellent candidate for the Bluebeard experience.

Here’s Estes again:

[T]he Bluebeard story raises to consciousness the psychic key, the ability to ask any and all questions about oneself, about one’s family, one’s endeavors, and about life all around.[p. 65]

In fact Sophie had already begun that questioning process. Her visit with Martha at Cesari’s caused her to question even more. All it needed the Witch’s curse to make it official. Now that she’s had that little nudge out the door, Sophie has no choice but to open those forbidden doors and ask those forbidden questions.

Many women…marry while they are yet naive about predators, and they choose someone who is destructive to their lives.[p. 50]

Without fully understanding what she is doing, Sophie has (by proxy, in her bargain with the fire demon), taken upon herself a heavy, life-altering choice: is Wizard Howl a predator?

Based upon what we know so far, it certainly would seem so. According to the fire demon with the long purple teeth, at best Howl is “heartless” [46] and an “exploiter” [45]. He’s also “pretty useless at most things” and “too wrapped up in himself to see beyond his nose half the time.” [47]

Whereas the poor demon, forced to propel the castle and to create special effects such as the May Day fireworks that are supposed to scare people off, is the exploitee (this gains him Sophie’s immediate attention and sympathy), despite his self-proclaimed willingness to honor a contract that has become a burden to both parties [46]. I have found his words in regard to his sense of honor to be significant and interesting in the light of later events in the novel:

“I do keep my word. The fact that I’m stuck here shows that I keep it.”

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