Howl’s Moving Castle- an up-ended fairytale

Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones is a great, fun read. It’s set in Ingary, where fairytales are true. Sophie Hatter is the oldest of three girls, so she knows that she has no chance of adventure. Her mother dies when she is young, and her father marries again. After the death of her father, her younger sisters are sent off to “seek their fortunes” as apprentices, and Sophie remains to work in the family hat shop. Sophie becomes dissatisfied with working in the hat shop, accidentally offends the Witch of the Waste, and is cursed. She becomes an old woman, leaves the hat shop and seeks refuge at the castle of Wizard Howl, who has a fearsome reputation for seducing young women and “eating their hearts”.
This has been one of my favourite children’s books since I read it around 20 years ago. It’s a very clever book, inter-textual and rich, but without the knowing wink from the author to another adult above the child reader’s head. It’s enjoyable whether you recognise Calcifer the fire demon’s clues about the contract binding him to Howl, or you know John Donne’s poetry, or not.
Re-reading it as a step mother, I was delighted to remember that another fairytale trope undercut is that of the wicked stepmother. Fanny is a pretty woman at the time of Mr Hatter’s death, and instead of throwing the two youngest girls out on the world and keeping Sophie as her maid, she is trying to equip them to make their way in the world. Martha, the youngest daughter, accuses Fanny of being lazy and selfish, but readers paying attention should notice that Sophie is the one having adventures, the one with magical powers and that far from being the character-less “older sister”, she is the heroine of the book, which should give us a hint not to take Fanny as a wicked stepmother.
Close to half of all marriages end in divorce in the UK, and many children whose parents aren’t married will also experience the break up of their parents’ relationship. Many of these children will have step parents. Children’s authors and publishers need to be more open to non-traditional families, and feature them as the background of the story, not as the “problem” at the centre of the story.

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