The pitying look made Sophie utterly ashamed. He was such a dashing specimen too, with a bony, sophisticated face—really quite old, well into his twenties—and elaborate blonde hair. His sleeves trailed longer than any in the Square, all scalloped edges and silver insets. (1.46)
Howl's first appearance in the novel emphasizes what he wants people to notice about him: that he is grandly dressed, that his hair is blond, and that he is dashing. Once Sophie gets to the moving castle, she finds out that Howl's blond hair is the result of hours in the bathroom and that he only has two suits to his name. While Sophie finds Howl immediately attractive when she first meets him, he's not really a viable romantic partner for her until she learns what's behind that ridiculous, carefully constructed mask.
The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress. Sophie's eyes went to the lady's wide hat first—real ostrich plume dyed to reflect the pinks and greens and blues winking in the diamonds and yet still look black. This was a wealthy hat. The lady's face was carefully beautiful. The chestnut-brown hair made her seem young, but … (2.41)
The Witch of the Waste has careful control over her appearance. This appears to be one of the advantages of magic: if you are vain and conceited about your looks, magic can help you to maintain them. But Sophie can see the cracks in the Witch's appearance that show she's not all she pretends to be. Her face is "carefully" beautiful, and she seems "young, but …" Even before Sophie learns more than she wants to about the Witch of the Waste, her perceptiveness warns her that there is something wrong with this woman.
[The shepherd] had now edged himself downhill of Sophie and seemed to feel better for it. "Then I wish you good luck, Mother, provided your fortune don't have nothing to do with charming folks' cattle." And he took off down the road in great strides, almost running, but not quite.
Sophie stared after him indignantly. "He thought I was a witch!" she said to her stick. She had half a mind to scare the shepherd by shouting nasty things after him, but that seemed a little unkind. (2.75-6)
It's hilarious that Sophie gets so mad at this shepherd for misjudging her based on her appearance when she often assumes things about people without thinking through her conclusions (for instance, she believes that Fanny is deliberately using her based only on Martha's biased word). Don't get us wrong: the shepherd is a jerk for thinking that Sophie might be a witch because she is an old woman out on her own muttering to herself. But like this shepherd, Sophie could use a few lessons on withholding judgment for a bit.
She looked sleepily and slyly across at the apprentice. It rather surprised her to find him such a nice, polite boy. After all, she had forced her way in quite rudely and Michael had not complained at all. Perhaps Howl kept him in abject servility. But Michael did not look servile. He was a tall, dark boy with a pleasant, open sort of face, and he was most respectably dressed. In fact, if Sophie had not seen him at that moment carefully pouring green fluid out of a crooked flask onto black powder in a bent glass jar, she would have taken him for the son of a prosperous farmer. How odd! (3.25)
At the start of Howl's Moving Castle we know that Sophie believes a lot in how things should be—for instance, Howl lives in a dark castle that runs around the hills of Market Chipping, so he should be an evil wizard who eats hearts. But as Sophie spends time in the moving castle, we can see her realizing more and more that people don't have to follow a given script. Here Michael looks like a farmer's son but he is a great apprentice to the Wizard Howl.
[Sophie] cleaned the bathroom next. That took her days, because Howl spent so long in it every day before he went out. As soon as he went, leaving it full of steam and scented spells, Sophie moved in. "Now we'll see about that contract!" she muttered at the bath, but her main target was of course the shelf of packets, jars, and tubes. She took every one of them down, on the pretext of scrubbing the shelf, and spent most of the day carefully going through them to see if the ones labeled SKIN, EYES, and HAIR were in fact pieces of girl. As far as she could tell, they were all just creams and powders and paint. (5.45)
One of the things we like about this whole sequence where Sophie is cleaning the castle is that this is a house where two dudes and a fire demon live. In other words, of course it's covered in slime. But by and large, for an "evil" wizard's place the moving castle is pretty ordinary in appearance. Howl's bathroom does have an unusual number of personal care products but hey—the man likes to look good.
"You look wonderfully rich and stately!" Michael said to her.
"She does me credit," said Howl, "apart from that awful old stick."
"Some people," said Sophie, "are thoroughly self-centered. This stick goes with me. I need it for moral support."
Howl looked at the ceiling, but he did not argue. (12.7-10)
At present there is about a seventy-year age difference between Howl and Sophie, but be that as it may, they squabble like an old married couple. Howl can't resist the opportunity to tease her, and Sophie is always ready to give it right back to Howl. Honestly, they seem like a cute couple—even if he is twenty-seven and she's about eighty-seven.
[The King] was quite alone, like an ordinary person. True, he sat with one leg thrust out in a kingly sort of manner, and he was handsome in a plump, slightly vague way, but to Sophie he seemed quite youthful and just a touch too proud of being a king. She felt he ought, with that face, to have been more unsure of himself.
He said, "Well, what does the Wizard Howl's mother want to see me about?"
And Sophie was suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that she was standing talking to the King. It was, she thought dizzily, as if the man sitting there and the huge important thing which was the kingship were two separate things that just happened to occupy the same chair. (13.4-6)
In these days of tabloids and celebrity gossip, it's hard to imagine the kind of power that Kings once commanded over their subjects. And yet Sophie is confronting the fact of that kind of power in this very scene. The King looks really ordinary to her: he's "handsome in a plump, slightly vague way." But when he actually speaks to her, she suddenly realizes that this average-looking man is actually the King of Ingary.
His office almost seems separate from his actual physical appearance. He gives an impression of power not because of how he looks, but because Sophie knows what he represents: the head of Ingary's kingdom.
Then, as Sophie had her mouth open to yell to Howl, the creature put out what was obviously an enormous effort and surged upward into the shape of a man in a crumpled brown suit. He had gingerish hair and a pale, unhappy face.
"Came from Upper Folding!" panted this dog-man. "Love Lettie—Lettie sent me—Lettie crying and very unhappy—sent me to you—told me to stay—" He began to double up and shrink before he had finished speaking. He gave a dog howl of despair and annoyance. "Don't tell Wizard!" he whined and dwindled away inside reddish curly hair into a dog again. A different dog. (14.64-5)
Nearly every character in this book is eventually enchanted to look like something they are not in this novel. Not only does Sophie look old, but Martha looks like Lettie, Lettie looks like Martha (until Mrs. Fairfax tells her to stop), and both Howl and Michael go out in disguise to dodge the Witch of the Waste.
Here we have this poor dog-man struggling against his enchantment, which he can only throw off temporarily. With all of these enchantments and disguises floating around, we think it's fair to say that Howl's Moving Castle is obsessed with the issue of seeing through false appearances to what's really underneath. Jones uses the fairytale setting of the novel to make these false appearances a bit more literal than you might find a more realistic book, but it's the same idea.
[Howl] came forth two hours later, out of a steam of verbena-scented spells. He was all in black. His suit was black, his boots were black, and his hair was black too, the same blue-raven black as Miss Angorian's. His earring was a long jet pendant. Sophie wondered if the black hair was in honor of Mrs. Pentstemmon. She agreed with Mrs. Pentstemmon that black hair suited Howl. His green-glass eyes went better with it. But she wondered very much which suit the black one really was. (15.63)
Two things strike us about this scene: first, as much as Howl clearly loves and respects Mrs. Pentstemmon, we can't help but notice that he builds his grief over her death right into his usual obsessive, vain self-care routines. Howl doesn't forget about his deep concern with his personal appearance even when he is about to go to his beloved mentor's funeral disguised as a dog.
Second, while we keep saying that this book often focuses on the falseness of appearance, there is something about Howl that contradicts that analysis: his "green-glass eyes." Howl's glassy eyes are a further sign that there is something missing about him. Later, when Sophie has broken Howl's contract with Calcifer, his eyes seem "a deeper color—more like eyes and less like glass marbles" (21.103). Appearances are not completely deceptive in this book—only mostly.
There was a time when everyone seemed to be telling me [that Sophie is under a spell]. Even Calcifer did—when I asked him. But do you honestly think I don't know my own business well enough not to spot a strong spell like that when I see it? I had several goes at taking it off you when you weren't looking. But nothing seems to work. I took you to Mrs. Pentstemmon, hoping she could do something, but she evidently couldn't. I came to the conclusion that you liked being in disguise. (19.87)
It sounds like the Witch was the original cause of Sophie's curse, but Sophie is also responsible for maintaining her old woman appearance for so long. Why do you think Sophie might have wanted to stay old for a time? What might have frightened her about being young again?