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Archive for November, 2011

Whenever I see that acronym NaNoWriMo, or National [?] Novel Writing Month, I always read it as NaNo WRITE MORE. I’m trying, and it’s kicking me around the block.

My actual goals for this month are to finish the edits on a novel that’s been sitting around getting moldy in the refrigerator, and to blog five days a week on Howl’s Moving Castle, because at the rate I’m going it’s going to take me 8 years to get through the book.

I am making good progress on the novel, and passable progress on the blog. I have to keep reminding myself not to take on too much, though. It leads to burnout, burnout that has been known to last for years. Burnout, in its turn, leads to not only to word allergy but to incoherence as well.

(These states are preferable to fear and worry, however, which — as one family income stream after another dries up while politicians strut and preen — would otherwise invade my head and hijack my soul. I pray continually for guidance, and the ongoing response I get is KEEP BUSY.)

Over the past few years I’ve made handwritten notes of my thoughts and impressions upon close reading of what I consider to be Diana Wynne Jones’s masterpiece, but shaping them into short blog essays is never as easy as simply transcribing and uploading draft copy.

And, strictly speaking, essays are not blog posts, and vice versa. Blogging can be, often is more spontaneous and informal. Not that there are any hard-and-fast rules or definitions.

As long as I can pay the internet service bill, I’ll keep blogging. And when I can no longer blog, I’ll keep word-processing — as long as I can pay the electric bill.

What I’ll do when I can no longer afford to buy candles, I’m not sure.

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William Blake’s “When All The Morning Stars Sang Together” Job 38:4,7

Awhile back, in my post of April 19, 2011 titled “English, Welsh, and Imitating Tolkien,” I mentioned that in Howl’s Moving Castle DWJ offers a more interesting way of exploring Tolkien’s themes than you find in the typical Elf-and-Orc Opera that grew so popular following the breakout success of The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960’s. Now that we’ve met Calcifer, it’s time to look at some of his antecedents, both in Judeo-Christian tradition and in Tolkien (who respectfully builds his own cosmology and aesthetics within that tradition).

We’ll begin with a side excursion into Lewis:

“[T]he days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”

…”Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu….”[W]hen I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at the world’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” [The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ch. 14]

There is a traditional belief, upon which Lewis is drawing here, that angels and stars are different aspects of the same beings. Consider this wonderful old hymn for Michaelmas (September 29), the patronal feast-day of St. Michael the Archangel:

Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright,
Filled with celestial splendor and light;
These, where the night never followeth day,
Raise the ‘Thrice Holy’ song ever and aye….

Then, when the earth was first poised in mid space,
Then, when the planets first sped on their race,
Then, when were ended the six days’ employ,
Then all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

[“Sons of God” refers to angelic beings of either gender or — what is more likely — of none, at least none that is corporeal. It is high time that our minds and souls were liberated from the 40-year tyranny of Political Correctness.]

Tolkien keeps the stars off to one side, instead offering his imagined youth of the world, when angels both incarnate and non-incarnate interacted directly with humans and other sentient races. At the time of the action of Lord of the Rings Tolkien’s Lucifer figure, Melkor/Morgoth, has been apprehended and is doing time out in the Void, and the chief nuisance is his deputy, Sauron.

Like Melkor, Sauron was of angelic origin, a votary of Aulë, a Vala or angel who in the Elves’ pantheon was equivalent to the god Vulcan. Thus Sauron’s affinity for volcanic fire.

Sauron was among the angelic spirits who chose to take incarnate form and enter into Arda, the physical universe, where there was plenty of havoc waiting to be wrought. Sauron got right to wreaking it. His physical body, once beautiful, was drowned when the island-kingdom of Númenor was destroyed.

Growing a new one took him a couple thousand years and was no doubt quite painful. Sauron determined never to be caught out in this way again. By making nice with the very talented Noldorin Elvish craftsmen of Second Age Middle-earth, he learned their secret of distilling spiritual attributes into physical objects, specifically rings.

Because in his arrogance Sauron could not imagine anyone having the sheer chutzpah, not to mention the strength and courage, to nick a ring right off his big bad finger, he let the better part of his own strength, power, and will to domination pass into this Great Ring, the One Ring to rule all them all.

Big mistake. The man Isildur managed to cut the Ring right off Sauron, finger (or, in the film, hand) and all, weakening him almost fatally. Once again Sauron faced centuries of painfully pulling himself together.

But although he no longer possessed it, the Ring remained a feng shui nightmare, rife with bad-arrow ch’i, cosmic hot potatoes, and general all-purpose evil. It promptly abandoned Isildur, getting him killed. Then it slithered to the bottom of the Great River, where it waited, slowly gathering strength along with its master, until it had worked its way up through the hobbit kingdom from Sméagol to Bilbo to Frodo.

Because hobbits were creatures that neither possessed nor desired power, the Ring could not confer much enhancement of that aspect of hobbitly existence; it did, however, prolong the lives of Bilbo and Sméagol.

And it came within reach of several powerful beings who could have seized it and used it, had they chosen to; one of them, Gandalf, was an angel of the same order as Sauron. Gandalf, however, had sense enough not to take the Ring to himself. He knew he needed too badly the enhanced power it would have given him in the fight against Sauron. He also knew that it would turn on him and begin to work evil.

Stars. Angels. Prolonged life, enhanced power. Keep them in mind as we get better acquainted with Calcifer.

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So Sophie, Snow-White-like, has invaded Howl’s citadel of Lost Boys. When its owner demands to know what she is doing there, the obvious answer, which neither she nor Calcifer could come up with the night before, is plain by the light of day:

“I came because I’m your new cleaning lady, of course.”

“Are you indeed?” Howl said, cracking the eggs one-handed and tossing the shells among the logs, where Calcifer seemed to be eating them with a lot of snarling and gobbling. “Who says you are?”

“I do, said Sophie, and she added piously, “I can clean the dirt from this place even if I can’t clean you from your wickedness, young man.”[57]

In the anime, Sophie fibs that it was all Calcifer’s idea to hire her to clean because the place was a mess. “I did not!” Calcifer yells. In going through some old notes for this blog, I found the following, which because it gave me a smile I had copied down from someone else’s blog (I don’t know whose, but I will gladly credit them if and when I can locate them again):

I’d have said instead, “I’m your new massage therapist. Calcifer says you’ve been awfully tense lately.”

There is a sense in which Calcifer is indeed the proximate cause of all this. He allowed Michael to open the door and admit Sophie, after all. He could even be said to be the ultimate cause as well; both Calcifer and his counterpart, who is in a contract with the Witch of the Waste, through the human beings they both serve and manipulate, are subtly conducting their own battle of light and darkness. Yet each demon can succeed only insofar as their humans freely choose to act in a certain manner.

Thus the usual paradoxes and ambiguities of free will versus determinism are in play in this story. I do believe, as I hope to demonstrate as I go on blogging my way through the novel, that Diane Wynne Jones is an honorary Inkling. Although her early experiences with religion were not only rocky but also thoroughly confounding, thanks in part to a terrifying old preacher of a grandfather who thundered along in Welsh, a language DWJ neither spoke nor understood, her sympathies are close to those of Lewis and Tolkien, under both of whom she had studied at Oxford. It is noteworthy that Christopher, the title character of her Chrestomanci novels and overseer, as such, of the magical affairs and ethics of a vast series of parallel universes, insists upon attending church with his children and any guests or students staying under his roof. [I hope I will be forgiven the lack of a citation here. I have “read” several of the Chrestomanci novels in audiobook form only. I’ll have to make a library run in order to correct this oversight.]

As for Howl and his “wickedness,” Michael has an opinion:

“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.

“Yes, I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” [57]

I’ve always loved this exchange, though it has puzzled me and to some extent continues to do so. I think that Howl is saying, in so many words, Um, Michael, remember that scheme we cooked up to make everybody think I’m so dangerous it’ll scare them off? [85]

But so guileless is Michael that he has quickly forgotten all that in the presence of Sophie, whom Michael knows to be safe and good because he, too, “goes by Calcifer.” [76] Although Howl does not trust Calcifer completely at this point (because Howl does not yet trust himself and his own feelings), Michael trusts both the fire demon and Howl himself. Michael thus becomes one important agent of the Castle’s transformation from a dysfunctional home into a healthy one.

And yes, Michael too is there because Calcifer allowed it to happen.

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