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Clouds and More Clouds

Having stirred up a cloud of dust, Sophie has to sprinkle water in order to “lay” it. [64] I seem to have had heard of this practice before; I’m not sure, though. It would be like the first rain of autumn clearing the haze of dust and ag particles that follows the harvest. It makes the air fresh and the sky blue, but all I can see it doing to a stone floor is coating it with dirt that is now damp and slimy.

This leads to more sweeping, which also allows Sophie to sweep her way to the door so she can examine the fourth side of the knob and have a go at the cobwebby beams. Calcifer has been sneezing purple sparks since page 62. (The physiology of this is not explained.)

Marvelously spruced up, Howl enters.

He took one look and backed into the bathroom again with a blue-and-silver sleeve protecting his head.

“Stop it woman!” he said. “Leave those poor spiders alone!” [65]

The ensuing conversation is not so much about spiders as about boundaries. Howl may regard Sophie’s response to them as a test of her Witch of the Waste credentials or lack thereof: even those of us who dislike spiders, and are terrified of turning over a planter or a board and finding a black widow, would prefer to let them be than outright kill them (at least I would). If Sophie can remove the webs without harming the spiders, that will ease some of his misgivings about her real identity.

On the other hand, he’s got a real infestation there, which enhances the creepy-castle air of the place. Likewise, the spiders represent another object onto which Sophie can project the anxiety of her unrealized feelings about Howl: “Probably he had a wicked affinity for spiders, Sophie thought.”

Either way, the subject is changed from their mutual efforts to impress one another. The boundary-crashing continues, however:

Sophie leaned on the broom and watched Howl cross the room and pick up his guitar. As he put his hand on the door latch, she said, “If the red blob leads to Kingsbury and the blue blob goes to Porthaven, where does the black blob take you?”

“What a nosy old woman you are!” said Howl. “That leads to my private bolt hole and you are not being told where it is.” He opened the door [green-down] onto the wide, moving moorland and the hills. [65]

“Bolt hole” is a British phrase that apparently means “escape hatch.” Actually this seems to go for any of the castle’s exits, not just the black one: Howl walks away from the entire situation, leaving Sophie duly warned about spiders, Michael “despairingly” wondering when he’ll be back, and Calcifer crackling “with malicious laughter.” [66] When you’re a slitherer-outer, any old portal will do.

Marvelously spruce.

The washing/cleaning/sweeping activities are signs of renewal. Really, I could end this post here; that pretty much says it.

If I did, though, I’d miss pointing out the sheer drollery of the conversation on p. 62:

“What are you doing?” cried Michael and Calcifer in a horrified chorus.

“Cleaning up,” Sophie replied firmly. “The place is a disgrace.”

Calcifer said, “It doesn’t need it,” and Michael muttered, “Howl will kick you out!” but Sophie ignored them both. Dust flew in clouds.

“It doesn’t need it…!?” How can Calcifer SAY such a thing, particularly when he’s already agreed to go along with the cleaning lady ruse? Is it because he’s a non-corporeal being and thus is neither aware of nor attuned to material clutter? Or is it just guy-speak? Howl himself seems unconcerned about the mess, so Calcifer is as well.

Michael, on the other hand, is broadcasting his own still-uncertain status in the household. He’s never pinned Howl down about anything, let alone whether he is welcome to go on staying there, and getting kicked out is probably always at the back of his mind. Plus I detect a bit of jealousy towards Sophie on the next page, when the doorknob goes blue-down and there’s a little girl from Porthaven there to pick up a spell for her dad’s boat.

“Has the Sorcerer got a witch working for him too?” she asked.

“No,” said Michael.

“Meaning me?” Sophie called. “Oh, yes, my child. I’m the best and cleanest witch in Ingary.”

Michael shut the door, looking exasperated. [Michael knows how rumors get started and spread.] “That will be all round Porthaven now. Howl may not like that.” [63]

Sophie cackles in reply. She doesn’t care. She’s cast off the grey mouse, she’s out of the hat shop, and she’s having the time of her life. She’s also just made herself the best and cleanest witch in Ingary.

Just as she notices that the fourth paint blob on the revolving doorknob is black, then sets to work on the cobwebs festooning the beams, Howl emerges from the bathroom. “He looked marvelously spruce.” [64] Other than that his suit looks brighter, that’s all we get of Sophie’s response.

She’s hoping to impress him with her diligence. He’s hoping to impress her with his gorgeousness. It seems to be working. Feelings are happening. This is uncomfortable for both of them. Best to change the subject; this Howl does by directing the conversation to spiders.

Chapter Five begins with Sophie desperately wanting to stay.

The only thing to do, Sophie decided, was to show Howl that she was an excellent cleaning lady, a real treasure. She tied an old rag round her wispy white hair, she rolled the sleeves up her skinny old arms and wrapped an old tablecloth from the broom cupboard round her as an apron….She grabbed up a bucket and besom and got to work. [63]

In checking my notes and my favorite books of folk tale/fairy tale interpretation for this post, I got merrily caught up in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s chapter in Women Who Run With The Wolves on the story about the innocent girl Vasalisa and the chicken-legged house of the crone Baba Yaga. There are some compelling similarities between Vasalisa and Sophie, which once again I attribute not so much to any direct, intentional parallel, but rather to the “primordial sludge” — comprising everything she has known, learned, or read — which DWJ cited as inspiration in “The Profession of Science Fiction.”

Vasalisa began life with stepmother and stepsister problems, which in Sophie’s case are inverted/averted; however, she shares with Sophie a missing “positive mother,” the source of a girl’s self-esteem and ability to trust her own intuition. Although Fanny never abused Sophie in any wicked-stepmother way, there’s no denying that Sophie’s loss in infancy of her real mother, combined with her own tendency toward passivity, had in her hat shop days collapsed Sophie’s reality into practically nothing.

Vasalisa does the everyday chores without complaint. To submit without complaint is heroic-seeming, but in fact causes more and more pressure and conflict between the two oppositional natures, one too-good and the other too-demanding….At this point a woman begins to lose her psychic bearings. She may feel cold, alone, and willing to do anything to bring back the light again. This is just the jolt the too-nice woman needs to continue her induction into her own power. One might say that Vasalisa has to go meet the Great Wild Hag because she needs a good scare. [WWRWTW, p. 87]

We’ve already seen Sophie longing for something more to life as she dutifully trims hats all day and far into the night. We’ve seen her so deeply compliant and resigned that the Hag, the Witch of the Waste, finally had to come to her. Having been jolted from her passivity by the Witch’s curse, we’ve seen Sophie leave home and shop and set out into the Wild — willing, as night comes down cold and windy, to take her chances with Wizard Howl’s Castle because there’s fire and light inside.

(Miyazaki’s version even helpfully puts the castle on giant biomechanical chicken legs.)

At this point, DWJ begins departing from the old story, inverting it. In the folk tale, Vasalisa’s family send her to Baba Yaga seeking fire, an errand which they assumed and hoped would be the end of Vasalisa. Upon meeting her, Baby Yaga then strikes a Rumpelstiltskin-esque bargain with the girl — she will give Vasalisa the magical fire in return for impossible fairy-tale household chores such as sorting mounds of poppy-seeds from mounds of dirt before dawn. There will also be sweeping and laundry to do. But Baba Yaga doesn’t live in Howl’s Moving Castle. There is an enchanted fire at the heart of it, but rather than passively waiting to be stolen, this fire has drawn Sophie there and and allowed her to enter.

As far as the sweeping and washing go, the resident bachelors don’t demand it in return for lodging. In fact, they insist they don’t even want it. [62] Yet Sophie throws herself into it with a wild, mad joy. For now it’s what she is choosing to do, and for someone who for so long had felt so trapped, that means the world.

So Sophie has accomplished a Goldilocks or Snow White-style occupation of Howl’s Moving Castle, complete with gratuitous house-cleaning. She has learned that there’s really no castle beyond the small house with one dingy room overlooking Porthaven and a large well-appointed bathroom downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. She’s learned that Howl and Calcifer somehow created the castle, and that Calcifer “keeps it going.” [59] She’s observed that the doorknob was green-down when she entered the castle from the moor above Market Chipping, and that moving it to red-down opens the door onto Kingsbury.

(There are four colors on the knob in all, just as there are four sides with a door each on the castle’s facade. In this sense the castle’s interior and its one door can be said to “revolve” to each of its four locations.)

Howl stonewalls, refusing to be pinned down or to answer Sophie’s questions other than to explain that he designed the castle this way because “I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.” [59]

In this statement I hear Howl warning Sophie (in case she is an enemy) that he is powerful and wicked, so don’t try anything, and that if she is an enemy she won’t get to the King through him. Owing to the wondrous ambiguity which DWJ is able to build into her dialogue, I also detect that he does not believe she is the very powerful someone he offended, and that he is warning her that he is a coward and that this is no safe haven.

Sophie merely wonders inwardly (and quite sensibly, I think) why, if you’re trying to avoid someone, you would call attention to yourself with a large hulking smoke-throwing illusion. “[She] supposed wizards had different standards from ordinary people.”

We also learn that the King pays extremely well for the two thousand pairs of seven-league boots he ordered, and that Michael is watchful and anxious about money. Nor does he trust Howl to manage it well.

We get a brief glimpse of the splendor of Kingsbury, the capital, and learn that our three portal cities Porthaven, Market Chipping, and Kingsbury are impoverished, middle-class, and wealthy respectively.

Then Howl is off to the bathroom to get ready for whatever it is he does all day, leaving Sophie — and the reader — completely up in the air as to whether she is going or staying.

I’m almost to the end of Chapter Four. Took me long enough to get here. Last evening I was so tired I was face-planting on my keyboard; I think I’m a little more coherent tonight, but I make no guarantees.

I’m at the 59-60 page turn, just past Sophie’s first look at the strange revolving color-coded knob above the door. Calcifer calls out “Kingsbury door!” Before answering the knock Howl turns the knob red down.

Outside stood a personage wearing a stiff white wig and a wide hat on top of that. He was clothed in scarlet and purple and gold, and he held up a little staff decorated with ribbons like an infant maypole. He bowed. Scents of cloves and orange blossoms blew into the room. [60]

The “infant maypole” is the King’s Chancellor’s clerk’s apparent badge of office and is a call-back to May Day. So is the King’s Chancellor’s clerk’s perfume. When Sophie met Howl in Market Square she noticed he was wearing hyacinth perfume, which led her to remark to herself, “What a courtly person!” [15]

I call attention to this because it’s easy to get a first impression of Howl as poncy. In the anime he’s depicted as a bishounen, or (as I understand it) a boy-man, with a smooth pretty face and enormous eyes (which I guess goes for most characters in manga and anime). In both the anime and novel both we get to see Howl’s world-famous hair-dye meltdown. The novel clearly shows us his taste for finery, his collection of cosmetic packets and spells, and his preference for floral perfume. There’s a certain degree of effeminacy suggested here, no doubt about it; somewhere I have read Howl described as “one of the most flaming straight guys in all of literature.” It was also a strong element in the first really long meaty fanfiction I stumbled upon after reading the novel for the first time; Howl was not depicted as gay or bisexual, but he wore mascara and had a taste for cross-dressing.

(I began writing my own Howl-viewpoint fanfic just in order to scrub this characterization from my mind, simply because despite the author’s deep familiarity with the story, this Howl did not feel right to me.)

Through subsequent re-readings of HMC, in the course of which I began recording my own thoughts, I formed (as does any careful reader) my own understanding of Howl. And you know what? All that seeming ponciness and effeminacy evaporated. He remains vain and childishly insecure about his looks, but otherwise his clothes and hair and perfume fit in just fine with the Ren-Faire ambience of Ingary and of the court fashionista scene in Kingsbury in particular.

Howl seems to grow and change as you read about him, or is it that the reader’s perception changes, while he stays the same? With Sophie as the character in whose shoes we are standing, we’ll be making the same discoveries about Howl that she makes.

Smaller On The Inside

Unlike Snoopy’s dog house or Doctor Who’s TARDIS, Howl’s Castle is not bigger on the inside. The enormous-appearing structure (which Sophie is having second thoughts about cleaning) that goes rattling and banging through the hills, “frightening everyone in Market Chipping to death” [59] is little more than a common room with a kitchen and two bedrooms upstairs. In fact “the only real part” of it, according to Michael, is Howl’s modest house/shop in Porthaven, which as Sophie angrily notes is “miles down near the sea!”

How many miles? Fanfiction writers want to know, but can only guess. From the description in Chapter 21, the distance between Market Chipping and the Waste that Sophie traverses in seven-league boots seems enormous:

Sophie had brief glimpses between long double strides…of a small river racing down into a green valley; of the same river sliding in a much broader valley; of the same valley turned so wide it seemed endless and blue in the distance, and a towery pile far, far off that might have been Kingsbury; of the plains narrowing towards mountains again; of a mountain which slanted so steeply under her boot that she stumbled in spite of her stick, which stumble brought her to the edge of a deep, blue-misted gorge, with the tops of trees far below…[307]

Although I believe it is meant to resemble the British Isles, and Wales in particular, this, together with Jones’s associating the neighboring country of High Norland with Alpine Europe [see link below] in House of Many Ways, suggests that Ingary is part of a contiguous landmass hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles wide. The Waste is to the Southeast, the desert kingdom of Rashput beyond that, with still more countries even further beyond, as described in Castle in the Air.

Sophie’s outrage and alarm at being informed that the castle that prowls the hills near her home town is an illusion, and that she is “actually” in far-away Porthaven, is understandable, all things considered. It’s one thing to tie your personal destiny to the birth-order tropes of fairy-tales; it’s another to find yourself enmeshed in the tropes of modern physics, occupying, like an electron, all your potential locations at once. This she learns when there’s a knock on the castle door and it opens onto a third location, Kingsbury.

*The link is in the first comment, below. I couldn’t get it to post here.

I’m excited about “The Hobbit,” frustrated about all the unfinished work I have lying about, and hiding out for the nonce in “Doctor Who,” which has conveniently made itself available on streaming Netflix. (And thanks to which, I can chalk up other DWJ allusion understood: the climactic moments of Enchanted Glass, the last novel DWJ completed and published before her death, take place at a village fete at which — this being DWJ — all sorts of strange spiritual and magical stuff breaks through. Among the typical fete and fair fare is a robot-building contest for the kids. Several “Lego Daleks” have been entered. Yay! I love it whenever I get something I didn’t get before!)

I’m also done with worrying about tomorrow — for today, at least. So with grateful thanks to Tripleguess and Lauren, as well as to several lovely readers who found me on the second DWJ page over at FF.net, onward with Howl’s Moving Castle….

I’ve arrived at pages 56 and 57 of the US paperback edition, pages 36 and 37 of the US hardcover: the breakfast scene. Sophie knows that she seen Howl before; Howl is not sure but he thinks he has seen Sophie before; Michael, cheerfully clueless, is not cooperating with Howl’s efforts to seem wicked; and Calcifer is out-enigmatting himself. This last has got to be causing Howl considerable distress at this point: Calcifer both has and is Howl’s heart, and Calcifer has gone and allowed a strange woman to move in, cook, and appoint herself housekeeper without waiting for conscious permission from Howl.

I can’t blame Howl for being alarmed at this sudden onslaught of domesticity, much though he might be hoping to meet a nice young lady one day. But surely even more alarming is the ongoing threat of the Witch of the Waste, from whom he has been hiding and running for months. He can’t yet “see” Sophie beneath the spells that enmesh her, but like Calcifer (and, later, Mrs. Fairfax) he at once recognizes the Witch’s peculiar flavor of magic. For all Howl knows this old woman could be the Witch in a different guise.

He wastes no time in seizing the frying pan and “firmly” shoving Sophie aside. [57] “Calcifer doesn’t like anyone but me to cook on him,” he says, which is a reminder and a warning to both; Howl’s chiding Michael for forgetting just how wicked he’s being at that moment might be a bit of posturing as well, just in case this really IS the WotW.

Having put Sophie to work setting the table, Howl then spends the next paragraph ignoring her.

Sophie shuffled over to her stick and put it slowly and showily in the broom cupboard. When that did not seem to attract Howl’s attention, she said, “You can take me on for a month’s trial, if you like.”

Wizard Howl said nothing but “Plates, please, Michael,” and stood up holding the smoking pan. Calcifer sprang up with a roar of relief and blazed high in the chimney. [58]

In Chapters 8 and 16 we will observe Howl and Calcifer linking consciousnesses and powers when enhanced magic is called for. I read this scene as Howl linking with Calcifer simply in order to demand a straight answer from the fire demon: Who is this woman and what is really going on? Whether Howl is satisfied with what he learns is not clear, but he does allow the breakfast to proceed: “Plates, please, Michael.”

Calcifer’s “roar of relief” and blazing high can mean either that he is glad to have the skillet off his head, or that for now, he has won the argument with Howl. Probably both.