Posts Tagged ‘postaweek2011’

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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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 clichéd 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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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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