no. 24: Who doesn't love Howl?

Howl is a man, a wizard, and an actual sex icon. He's also entirely fictitious. First represented on screen in Studio Ghibli's 2005 animated film Howl's Moving Castle, Howl is a handsome, but incorrigibly vain, wizard.

no. 24: Who doesn't love Howl?

In this week's issue, I hand it over to a couple of Howl's Moving Castle fans (I have yet to see the film, but reading their words has moved it to the top of my list). Enjoy this guest edition of the newsletter as much as I do!

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by Rebecca Holland

Howl is a man, a wizard, and an actual sex icon. He's also entirely fictitious. First represented on screen in Studio Ghibli's 2004 animated film Howl's Moving Castle, Howl is a handsome, but incorrigibly vain, wizard, who roams the lands of Ingary in his higgledy-piggledy, magnificent moving castle piloted by the fiery demon Calcifer.

We first glimpse Howl when Sophie, a hatmaker from a city in Ingary called Market Chipping, is accosted by two guards in an alleyway, and Howl sweeps in to save her. As she backs away from the guards, a slender hand appears on her shoulder, a ring on its finger, with a blue pendant nestled around the open collar of a starched white shirt.

"There you are sweetheart, sorry I'm late", Howl announces, in a velvety smooth voice. “I was looking everywhere for you”.  

As the image shifts, we catch a glimpse of a swath of bright blonde hair and a colourful cape, a handsome face set with piercing blue eyes. The scene progresses so that Howl sweeps Sophie off her feet (quite literally), sending hearts across the world aflutter. When re-watching the scene (for research, I swear), I can almost hear the collective gasp when he steps off the balustrade, and almost feel the inaudible “oh!” when he begins to glide across the bustling market square. Hands intertwined, their feet treading air like invisible stepping stones.

It is a scene that has become iconic, a scene that has made Howl iconic. This bold and charming man, who only has eyes for Sophie in that moment, disappears into the night, the warm scent of fate lingering on the air. It’s a dreamy sequence that left so many of us wanting more. It tingles with the vibe of a fated-to-meet occurrence that irrevocably changes our lives forever. A person who awakens something within us, the part of us that subconsciously yearns for the thrill of adventure.

This desire, the subconscious yearning, is often incorrectly translated in film as a desire to be ‘saved’ by a man, and has become an overused cliche in romance story-lines in films. Howl presents something different, the essence of what women actually want (take note Mel Gibson) in a romantic connection: an equal who challenges and thrills us. Howl isn’t out here trying to ‘save’ Sophie. If anything, she is the one who eventually saves him. It is a love story, but perhaps not one we were used to seeing in the early 2000’s. There’s equally, if not more, to say about Sophie, who has inspired me, and countless others, to say that it’s ok to be quiet, that there’s nothing wrong with growing old — and us women? We’re powerful. That she goes on this whole journey with Howl at her side, and never loses her spirit or voice, using her steadfast determination to save both the man she loves, and herself, is magical.

Howl lays in bed in an ornately decorated room.

The fascinating thing about this Howl (who we shall call “film Howl”) is how different he is to the original character of Howl, who was thought up by British author Diana Wynne Jones in her 1989 novel Howl’s Moving Castle (“book Howl”). Book Howl is much less handsome, he teases Sophie when they first meet, and Sophie sees him as ‘old’ (even though he’s only 27, which makes 30 year old me feel old). He is vain, certainly, but much less romantically charming. And that makes sense, given the book was a children’s novel. Book Howl isn’t even from Ingary, he’s from the much more local (to me at least) land of Wales, and uses the magical door in his moving castle to transport between worlds.

But most people will know and love Howl from the Ghibli adaptation, because the screen version of Howl is the one that stole girl’s hearts after all. I admit I’m one of those girls. After I discovered Howl, I watched Howl’s Moving Castle once a year, every year (usually with a big tub of ice-cream and a spoon), musing to myself why can’t I find a person like that. I became enamoured with meeting my soulmate: a passionate, self-assured person, very much like Howl, and at the root of it all, a love-conquers-all romance I could write poetry about.

I knew Howl wasn’t real. But what he represented was very real, and I found myself dissatisfied when dating men who tried to save me, who didn’t see me as their equal, who brushed off my dreams about who I wanted to become. I found kinship with people who also got starry-eyed talking about Howl, because I knew I’d found a fellow dreamer, a romantic searching too for their everlasting, written in the stars romance.

That is Howl’s legacy. An unabridged awakening for those of us who were locked in dull, unequal trysts. As a woman, especially, Howl showed me the limits of masculinity, and that there will always be a touch of magic in a man who sees you as his equal, and would fight to the ends of the earth for your love, while never holding you back from fighting too. You could say Howl ruined the possibility of me, and a world of others, settling for mediocre, secretly misogynistic men. Maybe those men hate Howl’s Moving Castle, citing Howl as “an impossible standard to meet”. I don’t worry about those men. Because, years after falling in love with the idea of a partnership based romance, I did it: I met my soulmate.

Howl’s Moving Castle is so much more than Howl, but Howl taught me to raise my standards and envisage a world with my whole-self in it, not only a shell to be desired and owned.

Screen Break

Sophie makes hats in a colorful hatshop in Howl's Moving Castle

by Kati Bowden

Howl's Moving Castle fans, hear me, because I am your queen. I've been absolutely enamored with the story of Howl Pendragon, both the original product of Diana Wynne Jones and the Studio Ghibli cinematic interpretation, since I first found him on screen and in the pages of a musty paperback. But please don't misunderstand me, reader, I don't have a crush on Howl--I think the dude's a total trainwreck of a human being, and I just adore how awful he is.

It's true, everyone's favorite Ghibli dreamboat came from not-so-charming beginnings. In fact, he's downright obnoxious at times, making both Sophie and his readers wonder what the hell is wrong with him.You think the little meltdown he had when he accidentally dyed his hair pink in the movie was bad? Please read the book—Howl and Sophie are CONSTANTLY at each others’ necks, and Howl proves himself to be the biggest drama queen in the world.

Actually, quite a few magnificent story elements from the original book never made it onto the screen, and I feel very strongly that not knowing about these things is a great disservice to fans of the series everywhere. So here we go, folks, my Top 5 Favorite Things from Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle that didn't make it into the Ghibli adaptation:

1. Howl Comes From the Real World

Yes, that's right, our favorite magical bad boy is actually a normie in disguise. In the book, Howl takes Sophie et al back to his true home for a brief visit so that he can grab something he left there—and where is his true home? In a fascinating world called “Wales,” turns out! Sophie witnesses video games and football jerseys with a hilarious fascination that charms readers with its innocence.

2. Sophie Has Two Sisters Instead of One

While this may seem inconsequential to some, a considerable portion of the book is dedicated to Sophie's acceptance of the dull life of an eldest sister and the fantastic futures her sisters will have. Lettie and Martha, her younger sisters, are guaranteed a great romance and great future by the fairy tale rules of their world, unlike Sophie, who will merely inherit the family hat shop when it’s time. Her lack of Lettie’s beauty and Martha’s supposed power make Sophie a bit insecure, the internalization of which we see in the movie, but little does Sophie know…

3. She Has Magic Powers, Too

This is still subtly included in the movie, if you know to look for it, but book-Sophie discovers that her idle chatting with every day items makes them do precisely what she tells them to. Early in the story, Sophie’s hat making becomes local legend because one ensorcelled accessory makes its wearer a successful, wealthy wife almost overnight—which is what Sophie whispered to the materials as she worked them together. Near the end of the book comes perhaps the most iconic and hilarious example of Sophie’s magic, the infamous watering can debacle. Sophie’s hope, love, and even her rage inform her abilities, making her a powerful if unrealized magician herself.

4. Markl is Actually “Michael”

Sweet little Markl, Howl’s young apprentice voiced by Josh Hutcherson in the western version of the film, is based on an older, more independent character, Michael Fisher. In the book, Michael controls much more of the daily care of Howl’s castle and shops, but he is also desperately in love with Sophie’s youngest sister, Martha. Michael is ever-patient, though, looking up to Howl, helping Sophie, and taking care of fire demon Calcifer so that the story can continue safely forward.

5. The “Dog-Man” Has A Much Larger Role

If you’ve seen the movie, then you’ve likely fallen a little in love with the ratty street dog that follows Sophie around. For a while, Sophie is convinced that the dog is actually Howl in disguise—which is a nod to the dog’s true transformative nature in the book. Once the witch’s footman, this beloved pet is actually a man named Percival cursed to almost permanent existence as a dog—or rather, as multiple dogs, as he always changes into a different breed. Readers rarely see Percival’s true form, as he only has the chance to blurt a few sentences before he transforms again, but his role as comedic entertainment and moral support to minor characters can’t be overstated.

Of course, there is so much more to the books than I’ve alluded to here—Howl’s multiple love interests, the Seven League Boots, the demonic plan to create the perfect human using Howl’s head—because this is a story rich with detail, magic, and humor. And Howl’s Moving Castle is just the first book in the series, meaning that there’s so much more that simply couldn’t be included or alluded to in the film. I hope, Reader, that you find the time to dive into the broader world of Howl’s castle, and that you find something worth loving as much as Howl loves Sophie.

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