Part 1: I can’t be in love, you idiot
One of the many brilliant moves in Howl’s Moving Castle is the emphasis on wizard Howl’s heartlessness. Sophie, the narrator, establishes this in the first reference to Howl: “He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own” (p.5). Rumor has it he seeks young girls to devour the souls from their hearts. This only adds to Sophie’s problem: spinelessness. Being the eldest of three sisters she assumes herself doomed to a life of tedium and spinsterhood. She cares for her younger sisters and hopes for their fortune in love and happiness, but already by 18 she has given up on chances for her own.
Their first brief encounter comes towards the end of Chapter 1. We have no clue who Howl is, nor does Sophie. But somehow she acquires attention from the “dashing specimen” who, according to Sophie, pities her (p.19). This only shames Sophie, and she literally runs away from the man before he can say anything else.
When the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie’s town on the hunt for Howl, she learns of Sophie’s encounter—among other things I can’t mention yet—and curses Sophie with old age.
Oddly enough, Sophie doesn’t mind. Oh she gets angry later, but until the final chapter of the book, Sophie remains an old woman. So how in Ingary does romance blossom between a 20-something wizard and a 90-year-old woman?
First off, Sophie grows a spine. She no longer fears to speak her mind or act on impulse: “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (p.83). She also does not fear calling Howl out on his rude or selfish behavior. Since the plan is for Sophie to break a magical contract between Howl and his fire demon Calcifer so Calcifer can break the old-age curse, Sophie declares herself Howl’s new cleaning lady even though she “can’t clean [him] from [his] wickedness” (p.75). She calls Howl out on all sorts of things, especially when he is seen courting her sister Lettie for what Sophie assumes to be Lettie’s soul.
Howl remains quite the enigma throughout the book, as Sophie’s narration isn’t always reliable. Multiple readings, though, help give the audience a touch more perspective. When Howl first meets old-age Sophie in Chapter 4, he hints to his apprentice that he knows more about Sophie than he can let on:
“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.
“Yes I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” He jerked his chin at Sophie. (p.75)
Howl criticizes Sophie with equal vivacity, especially her nosiness into every nook and cranny of his castle. In Chapter 5 he lays Sophie’s true problem bare, even though she doesn’t know it:
“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”
“But it’s a pigsty,” said Sophie. “I can’t help what I am!”
“Yes you can,” said Howl.
Howl wants Sophie to know she IS capable of a fate different than what some old superstitious saying dictates for her. But Sophie isn’t listening, and on the first read, most readers aren’t, either.
Despite all of Sophie’s nosiness and bossiness, Howl never makes Sophie leave. He gives her jobs, even ones he can complete with magic. When Sophie suffers a small heart attack, Howl is genuinely concerned and strengthens her heart with magic. He even opens up in Chapter 14 about his inability to love. The references to his heartlessness have persisted by means of Calcifer and the apprentice Michael, who explain Howl’s wooing process: he beautifies himself and professes undying devotion to a girl until she confesses her love in return; then, he dumps her. When Howl and Sophie are alone in Chapter 14, he relates the same process to spiders and their webs, but unlike Calcifer and Michael, he does not see it as selfish at all:
“That’s why I love spiders. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’ I keep trying,” he said with great sadness. “But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” (p.281)
This not only foreshadows the magical contract between Calcifer and Howl, but also proves Howl considers Sophie as more than just a cleaning lady.
Sophie also ceases to see her place in Howl’s castle as a mere ends to her curse. She is relieved when Howl gives up on her sister, and jealous of his fresh attention to the strange and beautiful Miss Angorian. She does not like when people mistake her for Howl’s mother. And when Howl asks her input on what kind of lifestyle they should lead when hiding from the king, she shares ideas without hesitation.
This move comes at a price: Howl’s castle merges with an old shop in Sophie’s home town. It is the same shop run by her parents for years. Sophie looks around, sees herself back where she began, and is totally miserable (“…it’s being the eldest, really. Look at me! I set out to seek my fortune and I end up exactly where I started, and old as the hills still” (p.342)). It doesn’t help that Howl reveals who she really is to everyone and accuses Sophie of holding onto the age curse because she “liked being in disguise” (p.369). Sophie refuses to accept this, but her sulk afterwards does reveal that she’s never seen a chance for herself when compared to her sister, and especially no chances with Howl when compared to Miss Angorian. So the old age stays, and we’ve only got two chapters to go. Howl appears to be apologetic, even upset that Sophie won’t speak to him. But too much has been going on with the villain (you know, plot and all), so no time is spent in boring conversation about love and feeling. There’s a witch to battle.
By this time events have revealed Sophie has her own magical gift: she gives life to things. She successfully charmed hats in Chapter 1, though she didn’t understand what she had done until Chapter 12. Her charms apply to clothing as well, such as the suit she mended for Howl early in the story. She fears the suit’s charm (“built to pull in the girls” p.239) worked on her sister, and later in the story, she blames the charm for her own feelings about Howl. But when Howl reveals he hasn’t worn the suit in ages, Sophie has nothing to blame but her own heart.
The fate of Howl’s heart is finalized in the final chapter. Determined to make up to Howl for her poor behavior, Sophie tries to save Miss Angorian from the Witch of the Waste, only for Howl to defeat the witch instead and explain Miss Angorian was really a fire demon, just like Calcifer. They rush back to the castle and find Miss Angorian with Calcifer in her hand. Beneath his flame beats Howl’s heart, a trade made under contract to lengthen his life and strengthen Howl’s magic. Sophie attacks Miss Angorian, not Howl. Sophie successfully gives life to Calcifer so he can separate from Howl’s heart. And Sophie gives new life to Howl’s heart…in more ways than one.
Six pages left, and Sophie is finally her true self, in and out. Youth back, but spine intact, she no longer fears what the future may bring: in fact, she embraces it. Howl does remember Sophie from their first meeting. He held no pity, but hope that the old Sophie who had the nerve to command a fire demon and hunt down the Witch of the Waste would be “that lovely girl I met on May Day” (p.426). The two never kiss, or have any other such cliché moment. Even his proposal keeps with his slightly-snotty but kind character, as does Sophie’s slightly-snarky but delightful response:
Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.
“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.
“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl. (p.427)
No angst. Only a few pages of love-talk. LOTS of pages of magic and attitude and adventure. We are not jilted out of a romance here, but as the plot moves the characters don’t have much time to think about love, and when they do, it is too difficult to contemplate for long. So why force the subject to the forefront where it does NOT belong? The characters didn’t want to believe themselves in love; they had to reach that epiphany on their own which, I think, makes that epiphany all the more satisfying for the reader. So, don’t feel that if you have teenage protagonists they MUST swoon and despair and go googley-eyed over someone. Let love surprise them like a snowball at recess. Quietly form, aim, and fire with precision. The shocking strike and beautiful fall-out will be all the more perfect.