Howl's Moving Castle; The Waste; The Land of Ingary; Market Chipping, Porthaven, Kingsbury, Upper Folding; Wales
Diana Wynne Jones starts Howl's Moving Castle with a description of the setting: "In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three" (1.1).
Bam—we're in a fairytale kingdom. It takes Jones no time at all to establish that Ingary is (a) magic (what with the invisibility cloaks), and (b) based on fairytales (what with the stereotype of the bad-luck eldest sibling). We know that the different clichés of fairytales—seven-league boots, sibling rivalry, and hopefully happy endings—are probably going to be at least mentioned in the novel, if only to be undermined.
Later on we discover that Howl is actually not from Ingary originally—he's from our world, specifically from Wales. When Sophie and Michael visit Wales with Howl to track down the John Donne poem, they find our world deeply confusing. Howl's nephew Neil is playing a video game with friends, and when one of them says something about losing a life, Sophie and Michael both worry that they might have walked in on something actually, literally fatal.
But while our world may appear really different from Ingary, it does not seem better for the contrast—it's cold, rainy, and filled with Howl's family drama. The novel's brief scenes in Wales remind us why we're reading about Ingary in the first place: to escape the everyday.
Howl's moving castle has a magic door that opens onto four different locations: the hills above Market Chipping, where the castle appears to be running around; the seaside town of Porthaven, where the castle is actually located; the royal capital of Kingsbury; and Howl's original home in Wales.
After the Witch of the Waste finds Howl's home in Porthaven, Howl and Michael transfer the castle to Sophie's old home in Market Chipping, where they open a flower shop. There the doors open onto an apparently abandoned mansion; a garden at the edge of the Waste; Wales; and of course their new home/flower shop combo.
We don't get a particularly distinct sense of any of these towns, but they do each have a slightly different flavor, which shows that Ingary has some subtle class divisions as a country. Kingsbury is grand and wealthy, which makes sense since it's also the location of the royal Palace. Not only does the King live there, but so does Howl's former tutor, the extremely imposing Mrs. Pentstemmon. Porthaven is a much poorer town, with sea-going people who apply to Howl for things like safety spells for their boats (5.8) (for which Howl undercharges, since he's secretly a nice guy).
Market Chipping appears to be somewhere between these two places in terms of wealth: there are lots of successful small businesses, including Sophie's own family hat shop and the pastry shop, Cesari's, where Martha winds up working. Market Chipping has a middle-of-the-road, super-ordinary feel to it, which might go some way to explaining why Sophie doesn't feel a lot of hope for her own magical future while she's living there.
Would You Be Happy If You Lived in a Place Called The Waste?
Howl is a slippery, unreliable person who can nonetheless move between many different social situations to find out what he needs to know. Where does he live? A moving castle. The specific homes of the people in this novel also tell us something about their characters, and Howl's moving castle emphasizes Howl's own fickle nature.
What's more, the castle only appears to be an ugly, rumbling pile of a building; it's really Howl's relatively small and ordinary house at Porthaven. Howl clearly puts a lot of effort into how things appear, but underneath these evil or imposing exteriors he maintains a relatively ordinary home life (well, if any home with a fire demon living in the fireplace can be considered ordinary).
The Witch, on the other hand, chooses to live in the middle of a burning Waste. As Sophie approaches her fortress, she actually feels sorry for the Witch, since she has chosen such a horrible place to live. And when she first spots the Witch's fortress built up out of a pile of what look like clay pots, she thinks to herself, "This building was really a collection of chimney pots. It had to be a fire demon's work" (20.9).
The scorching heat of the Witch's home and the appearance of her fortress both suggest the same thing: that she has grown less and less human as her fire demon has gained control over her. Obviously the Witch's fire demon is the main power keeping her going at this point.