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The one big, strange fact about Howl is that almost every young woman who reads about him wants to marry him […]. Yesterday I was doing a question-and-answer session in a London theatre and a teenage girl put her hand up and said—without any embarrassment at all—that she had long wanted to marry Howl and would I mind. (Diana Wynne Jones)
We really like the idea that this girl basically asked Diana Wynne Jones for permission to seek Howl's hand in marriage—as though her real life is like a Jane Austen or Harlequin Regency romance novel, where you need parental permission to court the person of your dreams. We also love the idea that Howl could be out there in real life—after all, he is a charmer. But what exactly is it that makes the Wizard Howl so appealing?
When Sophie first bumps into Howl while she's still a frightened young woman, she describes him as "such a dashing specimen too, with a bony, sophisticated face—really quite old, well into his twenties—and elaborate blonde hair" (1.46). So we know that Sophie's interested in him right off the bat, even though she seems so freaked out by that interest that she basically runs away when he offers to buy her a drink.
When Old Sophie gets some perspective on Howl, we realize the ridiculous side of his handsome face: he spends hours in the bathroom with his hair and skin treatments to make himself beautiful. He is hugely vain, and whenever he goes after a girl, he always seems to be doing it just to make himself look good. Michael and Calcifer agree that the only way we'll be able to tell if Howl is actually in love is when he stops paying attention to his appearance.
And lo and behold—as we all could have guessed from the level of interest and concern that Howl shows to Sophie when she's not paying attention—when Howl turns up at the Witch of the Waste's fortress, Sophie notices:
As [Sophie] had feared, the hard black-and-white daylight coming through the broken wall showed her that Howl had not bothered to shave or tidy his hair. His eyes were still red-rimmed and his black sleeves were torn in several places. There was not much to choose between Howl and the scarecrow. Oh, dear! Sophie though. He must love Miss Angorian very much. (21.38)
Of course, because Sophie is dense as a neutron star when it comes to people actually liking her she assumes that Howl's sudden lack of vanity about his appearance must be because of Miss Angorian. We readers know that Howl is obviously carrying a giant torch for Sophie, though.
The nice thing about this twist on Howl's appearance—that he's only willing to drop his handsomeness when someone really matters to him—is that it supports the novel's overall theme of the unimportance of appearances.
Howl, who is so vain, falls in love with Sophie knowing that she is under a curse and that he can't know her real face for sure until she's disenchanted (though he has a pretty good guess that, under the seventy extra years, she's the shy girl whom he met during May Day). Even though Howl often appears deeply, deeply shallow, his relationship with Sophie shows that Howl also has hidden emotional depths.
One of the first things that Michael tells Sophie about Howl is that he "hates being pinned down to anything" (4.66). And in fact, that's true: it's really hard to figure out who Howl really is under his fancy suits and his intense facial regimen. By Chapter Thirteen, the best that Sophie can figure out is this:
Half the time I think [Howl] doesn't care what happens to anyone as long as he's all right—but then I find out how awfully kind he's been to someone. Then I think he's kind just when it suits him—only then I find out he undercharges poor people. I don't know, Your Majesty. He's a mess. (13.16)
Howl is a mess. He's got at least four different names that we know of: Howell Jenkins in Wales (where he comes from), Sorcerer Jenkin in Porthaven, Wizard Pendragon in Kingsbury, and Horrible Howl when he's at home in the moving castle (6.48). When he runs into trouble, he reacts in the most over-the-top, slime-producing manner, which makes the lives of the people around him (and especially Sophie, his trusty cleaning lady) a lot worse.
But for all of his attention-seeking acting out, Howl can also keep a secret. Sophie doesn't even suspect that he has been investigating and trying to break her old-age curse until the disenchanted dog-man Percival basically tells Sophie so in Chapter Nineteen. Howl doesn't like to draw attention to the ways in which he tries to help people, which gives us even more faith that underneath it all he's basically a good guy. (But don't get us wrong—you have to get through a lot of melodramatic whining to see Howl's decency at heart.)