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Second August dawned wet and dreary, with more of the same predicted all week for South Wales and beyond.  With no nagging and hardly any prompting from Megan, strangely believe it, Gareth and Neil got themselves properly done up—polished shoes, clean fingernails, neckties and all.  For herself Megan chose a pale lime green chiffon thing she’d worn only once, to someone else’s wedding.  Mari still fit in her fluffy pink frock from Easter.  That was good.  There would be no need to go out and spend money on another fancy dress for what surely was going to turn out to be some kind of joke.

Mother and daughter almost got into a real hair-puller when Mari insisted on adding a silly pretend tiara, left over from Halloween, because “I might meet a princess.  It could happen.  No, Mam, really.” Extracting it at this late date would mean re-doing Mari’s hair, and anyway Megan was sick of arguing with her.

Megan doubted Howell would mind, anyway; he wasn’t one to be put off by a pink and white tiara, not even at his own wedding (probably be wearing one himself, she thought, rolling her eyes)—if “wedding” what this really turned out to be.  The entire affair was probably going to be all hippies and riff-raff, anyway.  Oh, why had she fallen for this?  Why did he always have to go and drag them into some—

The doorbell rang.  Noon sharp.  It was time.  Neil, already restless in his good clothes, rushed to get it.  From their separate corners of the house, Gareth, Megan, and Mari all appeared.

“Hallo there!  The Parrys, I believe?”  A tall and quite large fellow with grey-tinged reddish hair came striding in.  Though Megan couldn’t have told you later what he was wearing, he seemed very well-dressed.  He made her think of a grown-up version of that handsome youngster Ioan Gruffudd she’d seen on the television and hadn’t been able to forget.

He was shaking hands with Gareth and with Neil like they were old mates from school.  Then he took Megan’s hand and bowed over it.  “Benjamin Sullivan,” he said.  “Honoured to meet you.”

Seriously?  Megan thought.  “Me too, I mean you too,” she stammered.

Lastly he took Mari’s hand, and as he bent over it Mari curtseyed prettily. “Prynhawn dda, syr,” she said.

“Prynhawn dda, Mari,” Sullivan replied with exaggerated politeness.  “Sut dych chi?”

“Iawn, syr, diolch.  Braf cwrdd â chi.”

“Braf cwrdd â chi hefyd, Mari.”

Megan was about to stamp her foot with impatience, but Ben snapped out of it just in time.  “Well, then,” he said.  “I have a car waiting out front.  Once we’re tucked in I’ll attempt to explain where we’re going.”

With Ben and the driver holding umbrellas over them, they hurried out to what turned out to be a limo, a black Bentley that stretched from here to there and back.  Inside was all grey leather, and there were beer taps and spigots and gleaming bar glasses in rows like ships at sea.

“Phwar!” Neil gasped.

“Yes, well, we have time, I think, for a toast to the bride and groom,” Ben said, and after Megan had said a few words about not spilling anything on the car or their clothes on pain of death, they all got quite merry:  the kids on ginger beer, Ben and Gareth on what Gareth said was some excellent ale, Megan herself on Tanqueray.

Though Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took to get there, the car drew up at Caerphilly Castle sooner than later, just as a brief spate of sunshine broke out and a brilliant great rainbow appeared off over Cardiff and the Channel.  Mari, gazing out the window, giggled and clapped her hands.  “That’s where we’re going!” she said.

Megan hoped Mari was talking about the Castle and not the rainbow, but Megan was beginning to have doubts.  Big doubts.

But she couldn’t deny she was feeling very important as the driver came round and let them all out at the head of the car park.  Ben led them over the causeway, then turned—not toward the green but the other way, straight at the ramparts frowning sheer over the water.  Just when Megan thought they’d all end up in the moat, Ben slipped through a narrow slot in the stone wall, and they followed him into some kind of cargo lift.

Megan, who’d been to the Castle dozens of times, didn’t remember this part of it.  She didn’t think they let the public in back here.  Ben must have connexions at the National Trust.

Silently, the lift door slid shut.  The interior was richly panelled in dark wood.   On one wall  there was a bank of glowing orange buttons.  How Ben knew which one to press was beyond Megan, because there were no numbers or marks of any kind.

The lift began to move.  Megan could have sworn they were going sideways.  This was disturbing.  And it was dark, so dark she couldn’t see Ben, or Neil or Gareth or Mari—oh, God, where had Mari got to?

Just then she felt Mari’s small hand sliding into hers.  “We’re almost there, Mam,” Mari whispered.  Oh, the relief!  “Thank you, luv,” Megan said., pulling her close.

Once again, Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took that sideways lift to get there, except that they way was much farther and longer than going down those mine shafts on the colliery tours.

All at once they stopped moving.  Then they had to turn right around, because the lift door slid silently open opposite the side they came in on.

It was so bloody bright out there they all were blinking like owls.

But Ben was at hand, helpful and reassuring.  “As soon as your eyes have got used to the light, we’ll proceed,” he said.  “I should mention that you will find some things a bit changed here.”

“And just where is here?” Megan said.

—o—

They’re not coming, Howell thought.  This whole thing—the wedding, his family, all of it—was worse than the worst stage-fright ever.  He’d spent an hour trying cosmetic spell he could think of to get rid of the ghastly bags under his eyes—he’d not slept a wink the night before, or the night before that, or the night before that—until he’d had to give it up.  With the way his hands were shaking he knew he’d better quit before he turned his eyelids into frogs, or worse.

A stiff drink would have been bloody helpful—all he had to do was ring, and anything in Mr. Sacheverell Smith’s extensive liquor cabinet was his for the asking—but to seek courage in a bottle on the day of your own wedding was idiotic.  Talk about missing out on the moment—!

Assuming the moment ever came.  Assuming the bride arrived at his side at the appointed time.  Assuming the bride wasn’t halfway to Rashpuht by now.  Which is where he would have been, in her place.

Oh, God, what had he done, inviting all these people here, throwing Mr. Smith’s formerly placid estate into an uproar, planning all this party-dinner-and-dance business just to be left standing at the altar, humiliated?

“Such drama,” Calcifer remarked, breezing in through the open window of the bedroom where Howell was dressing.  “And such delectable irony.  Sophie’s at the other end of the house, with her mother, her sisters, and Annabel Fairfax having fits all around her.  Yet she is utterly serene, while here you are, having got yourself in a royal twist all unaided.”

“Sophie’s here?  In the house?”

“Of course she is.  Where else would she be?”

“High Norland, of course.  Or Alberia.  Or even Tsapfan; who knows?”

“Silly fool.  You think Sophie’s going to stand you up, don’t you?”

“Isn’t she?”

Calcifer’s laughter was a flurry of sparks and purple teeth.  “Not a bit of it.  In fact, she’s already hired the entire constabularies of the Chipping and Folding Valleys, the Royal Inglish Army and Navy, and a gang of pirates led by some bloke named Roberts to go after you when you don’t show up.”

“Sophie really believes I’d slither out at this late date?”

“Well, she knows you better than anybody, including me.”

“Oh, that hurts, Calcifer.  That really hurts.”

Calcifer hooted with derision, then flew off out the window.

—o—

Her eyes ought to be used to the brightness by now, but Megan didn’t want to open them.  She was no fool.  She wasn’t born yesterday.  She was beginning to figure things out.

And oh lord, the things she was figuring out.  Howell Jenkins, what have you got us into this time?  What have you—

“It’s all right, Mam,” Mari said.  “You can look now.”

They all stood looking out through the doorway of a castle, but it wasn’t Caerphilly.  Beyond it stretched a sweet rolling countryside of copses, fields, and hedgerows.  The sky was blue and fair, the clouds brilliant, the sunshine warm.

And before her was a golden coach with six white horses and a jaunty driver up top, who touched his plumed hat to her.

They were all settled in the rose-coloured velvet seats when the coach started up.  Mari crawled over Gareth and pulled herself up on her knees, gazing out the round window.  Her little face was filled with wonder and delight, as if all the stories Howell had ever told her were true.

Oh, God.  What if they were?

It certainly looked like they were in something out of a book, with thatched cottages off here and there, and glorious gardens, and everywhere butterflies and birds, and not a car nor a telegraph pole in sight.  Megan looked questioningly at Ben.  Gareth and Neil did the same.  Only Mari, happy and content, went on gazing out at the fairy-tale going by.

“Quantum theory,” Ben began.  “Perhaps you’ve read about it?”

Gareth looked as puzzled as Megan felt, but Neil instantly brightened up.  “Yes!” he cried, triumphantly pumping his fist.  He’d actually learned something at school—would wonders never cease?  “Split-off universes,” he said.  “Parallel worlds.  Right?”

“Right,” Ben said.  “Your Uncle Hywel always said you were a smart lad.”

“He did?” Neil exclaimed, as gobsmacked to hear it as were Megan and Gareth.

“He did.  This universe and our own parted ways either at the end of the last Ice Age or during the first few centuries after Rome fell, possibly both.  Scholars disagree on the why and on the exact when.  We only know that this one went off in one direction, our home universe in another.”

“Brilliant!”  Neil cried.

“Ben—” Megan said, tentatively because she was afraid she was not going to know what to do with the answer to her question, “Howell said that you and he work together.  Um, what is it that you do?”

“We are wizards, by appointment, to His Majesty the King of Ingary.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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