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Archive for October, 2011

In Chapter 16 of HMC there is a vivid and exciting set-piece in which Howl and the Witch of the Waste engage in a full-out no-holds-barred magical duel that in its violence and power scares the daylights out of everybody for miles around. For reasons that we later learn, the two are so evenly matched it’s impossible to tell which fanged monstrous illusion is which, and at the end of it not even Howl is certain who won. [239]

The Witch of the Waste is not the only sorceress/witch against whom Howl’s powers are tested (I count six in all). From the moment he enters his castle on the 9th of May to find that Sophie has “bullied” Calcifer into letting her cook on him, the two of them lock horns, enter the crucible, and are pitted against — and for — one another for keeps. (Have I missed any clich├ęd metaphors?) Even funnier, neither of them can figure out what the hell is going on.

First off, Sophie recognizes Howl at once as the young man she saw on May Day. He seemed so kind and concerned then, even though she was mortified by his pity and her own panic. To think that if she’d gone off with him he might have made mincemeat of her! Not that she’s so far found any evidence in his castle of mincemeated young girls, despite getting some heavy-duty snooping in before breakfast.

Howl recognizes her too, though not with the same clarity with which she can see him. He’s a little less dandified than he was on May Day, but he’s made no radical change in either his appearance or his outfit.

Sophie, on the other hand, has been altered and aged by not one but two (per Calcifer on p. 44) heavy-duty spells. And she’s a powerful spell-caster herself, as we have seen from the results she got from talking to hats!

“Who on earth are you?” said Howl. “Where have I seen you before?”

“I am a total stranger,” Sophie lied firmly. [56]

A masterful line of dialogue, that — an absolute give-away that she’s NOT a total stranger, and yet it’s Sophie saying it, and whatever Sophie says, IS. It comes true. She’s just offered Howl a lame evasion and a confounding spell all in one helping. The irony meter in his brain must be over the red line. If he weren’t running for his life from the Witch of the Waste, he might be delighted and intrigued by it all. As it is, however…

As it is, Sophie is emphatic in her determination that he is NOT going to know that she is the girl he pitied on May Day. Are her thoughts powerful enough to cast Howl into further confusion, even if she hasn’t spoken this particular one aloud? Hearts and souls have nothing to do with it, she vows inwardly. He can eat my heart, he can steal my soul, he can go full-metal Bluebeard on me, but he is NOT going to know that I was that poor pitiful mouse of a girl. If only things had gone better on May Day! And yet, and yet, he’s turned out to be none other than Wizard Howl. It’s possible that Sophie is concealing from herself the very real heart-ache and crushing disappointment she must be feeling.

Because, you see, hearts and souls have got EVERYTHING to with it.

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It’s a great moment up next in Howl’s Moving Castle as Sophie bullies the stubborn, willful Calcifer into allowing her to flatten his head with a frying pan, while Michael jitters about what Howl will say when he arrives home to find that unauthorized personnel have not merely moved in but are cooking too. [55] I love how Sophie doesn’t hear the door opening over the bacon sizzling, Michael’s guilty, helpless “Oh, hello, Howl,” and Sophie’s staring alarm at discovering that Horrible Howl and the nice polite well-dressed young man from May Day are the same.

Because I am convinced of Sophie’s immediate attraction to the young man she met in Market Square, and of her genuine horror at the idea of Wizard Howl’s gossip and rumor-based predations, I really enjoy trying to imagine her thoughts and feelings at this moment — and I also enjoy attempting to untangle what her unreliable narrator’s voice gives us to work with on page 56, and how that might compare with what the same narrator gave us on page 15:

Howl’s “fantastical costume” on May Day is now a mere “suit,” although a “flamboyant” one. The elaborately-styled blonde hair of May Day is still “fair,” but today it’s hanging in his face (I presume due to lack of attention, or perm/conditioner failure) so that he needs to brush it out of his “rather curious” glass-green eyes. There’s no indication that Sophie noticed anything odd about those eyes at their first meeting.

And whereas on May Day Sophie thought him “dashing,” “sophisticated” (a word whose meaning is a play on her own name), and “courtly” if “rather advanced” (being “well up in his twenties”) — not to mention “pitying” and “kindly” — today she notices — along with Howl’s long angular face — his perplexity at recognizing her from somewhere and, above all, his youthfulness.

She ought to have been thanking her stars for the lucky escape she’d had then, she supposed, but in fact her main thought was, Good gracious! Wizard Howl is only a child in his twenties, for all his wickedness! It made such a difference to be old, she thought as she turned the bacon over in the pan. [56]

I believe the eyes with which Sophie sees Howl are truly those of an older, wiser woman. Even at her most reclusive, she is what you might call an “old soul,” definitely in possession of her namesake sophos, though her immaturity makes her judgments prone to inaccuracy — until, of course, the curse, double-sided axe that it is, compels her to grow into her native gifts.

In the meantime, there’s that confounded pity of his. Sophie was uncomfortable with it then, and she is equally uncomfortable with it now.

[S]he would have died rather than let this overdressed boy know she was the girl he had pitied on May Day. Hearts and souls did not enter into it. Howl was not going to know. [56]

Yet Howl’s capacity for pity is an important part of his character, unready though Sophie is to receive it. And who can blame her? The May Day encounter was a disaster: she ran off before he could get her name, she felt ridiculous because she knew his offer to accompany her was kindly meant, yet even that scared her. It was quite embarrassing for them both, I should think, though it is a long time since I was as shy, young, and awkward as either of them.

And for that, I am eternally thankful.

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I have been unsuccessful in my search for the antecedent of the grotty bathroom. By way of atonement, I added a link to DWJ’s autobiographical essay published in Something About the Author. It’s a fascinating read, with much more about the conference center, Jones’s parents, her sisters, her Welsh grandfather, her marriage to John Burrows, and her three sons. I remain in awe of her brilliance and of her desire and ability to transform the grit in her soul into the pearls that are her stories.

Anyway, it’s time to press on. We’re getting to the really good part now — Wizard Howl is about to arrive at home and discover that his fire demon has been hiring staff in his absence.

(Have you ever noticed how powerfully resistance flares up whenever you are about to write, or even write about, the best parts of a story? I think fear of failure, of disappointing your readers just when they’re most eager to keep reading, is a large part of this. But I submit that the mere writing about high tension or conflict itself is intimidating. Even at the distance afforded by storytelling, emotional work is difficult. And the more necessary it is, the more resistance it creates.)

Hey, I just wrote a 90-plus-word paragraph about resistance — there’s resistance for you!

All righty, then. I’m on page 54 of the U.S. paperback. This is a fun scene, in the book as well as in the anime, which has yet to go off in its own direction. Along with all her other discoveries, Sophie learns that in spite of perfectly good eggs and bacon and a perfectly good iron frying pan on hand, no one is allowed to cook a hot meal but Howl.

Michael can’t because he is Howl’s guest and doesn’t want to rock the boat, whereas Calcifer won’t. Calcifer doesn’t like bending his head down so somebody can slap a heavy flat iron object on it. For an elemental spirit it’s most demeaning and embarrassing. In his own sense of the hierarchy of things, he’s of a superior order to the corporeal beings whose space he is compelled to share. Only Howl, who can hold their mysterious contract over his head, is allowed to “exploit” him in this way.

Old Sophie’s having none of this, however. After pointing out to Michael that he’s the one who’s being exploited by all this nonsense, she orders Calcifer to “get cooking.” He cackles and sasses her like a ten-year-old, saying “You can’t make me!”

But just as Howl does, Sophie’s got something to hold over Calcifer: the bargain she made with him the night before. She’s not afraid to use it, either. Nor has she any compunction about reminding him that in one very important sense she IS more powerful than he is:

“Oh, yes I can!” Sophie cackled back, with the ferocity that had often stopped both her sisters in mid-fight. “If you don’t, I shall pour water on you. Or I shall pick up the tongs and take away both your logs,” she added, as she got herself creakingly onto her knees by the hearth. There she whispered, “Or I can go back on our bargain, or tell Howl about it, can’t I?” [55]

Sophie’s great advantage as a material entity is that she can put out a fire any time she wants simply by removing its fuel, its oxygen, or both.

Calcifer’s response? “Oh, curses!…Why did you let her in here, Michael?”

Butbutbut Michael didn’t let her in, except in the sense of opening the door and allowing her step inside. Had Calcifer not allowed her to enter the castle in the first place, Michael would not have been able to so much as open the door. Or so it appears. Recalling their conversation on p. 42, where Michael is making sure that the sleeping Sophie is not the Witch of the Waste, Calcifer replies, “I wouldn’t have let her come in if she was.”

I think DWJ is playing with the meaning of the word “to let” here (she plays, more obliquely, with a further sense later on regarding disused properties for sale or lease). I believe I have already discussed her exploration of the meanings of “to exploit” earlier in the novel. As her readers know, she is fond of doing this; Dogsbody, for example, is a novel-length exploration of the meaning and connotation of the word “dogsbody,” one who gets stuck with menial or boring jobs and errands.

Best of all, though, is that at while she is exploring language and its implications, DWJ is also revealing her characters to us. Here we see Calcifer behaving like a kid, blaming Michael for “letting” Sophie in the castle, when it was really his doing all along.

And Michael, also like a kid, is worried that they’ll all be in trouble when Howl gets home — which, moments later, he does.

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