Study Guide

Howl's Moving Castle Family

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"It's not fair!" Lettie would shout. "Why should Martha have the best of it just because she was born the youngest? I shall marry a prince, so there!"

To which Martha always retorted that she would end up disgustingly rich without having to marry anybody.

Then Sophie would have to drag them apart and mend their clothes. (1.4-6)

While the topic of this fight between Lettie and Martha—who gets to be the most successful in the family, regardless of fairytale rules and birth order—is a bit unusual, the basic fact of fights between sisters who are pretty close together in age is pretty universal. It's nice to know that families are the same in the fantasy world of Ingary as they are over here in real life.

"You're probably thinking I'm too young to be engaged—I've still got three years of my apprenticeship to run, and Lettie's got even longer—but we promised one another, and we don't mind waiting."

Then Michael was about the right age for Martha, Sophie thought. And she knew by now he was a nice, steady lad with a career as a wizard ahead of him. Bless Martha's heart! (7.59-60)

Sophie has really loosened up a lot during her time as an old woman working as Howl's cleaning lady. Where she might once have despaired of Martha's choice to settle down with a family and dodge her fate as the youngest child to be an adventurer, now she gets that Martha has a right to do what she wants with her life. Now the only thing that Sophie really has left to learn is that Sophie also deserves to do what she wants with her life, since she is really a prisoner of her own assumptions and prejudices.

"I take back my hard words, Sophie," he said, panting. "That thing was alarming. It may have been dragging the castle back all yesterday. It had some of the strongest magic I've met. Whatever was it—all that was left of the last person you cleaned for?"

Sophie gave a weak little cackle of laughter. Her heart was behaving badly again.

Howl realized something was wrong with her. He jumped indoors across his guitar, took hold of her elbow, and sat her in the chair. "Take it easy now!" (8.7-9)

Howl's teasing relationship with Sophie takes a backseat when he is actually worried about her. While Howl is extremely reluctant to admit openly when someone is important to him (and this includes Michael as well as Sophie), he frequently shows his care through his actions. When Calcifer and Howl work together to use magic to soothe Sophie's heart in this scene, we can take that as proof that the wizard and his fire demon both find Sophie to be an important part of their unusual family.

"My mother died and my father got drowned in a storm," Michael said. "And nobody wants you when that happens. I had to leave our house because I couldn't pay rent, and I tried to live in the streets, but people kept turning me off doorsteps and out of boats until the only place I could think of to go was somewhere everyone was too scared of to interfere with. Howl had just started up in a small way as Sorcerer Jenkin then. But everyone said his house had devils in it, so I slept on his doorstep for a couple of nights until Howl opened the door one morning on his way to buy bread and I fell inside. So he said I could wait indoors while he got something to eat. I went in, and there was Calcifer, and I started talking to him because I'd never met a demon before." (9.20)

While Michael, Howl, and Calcifer are not directly related to each other (well, Calcifer literally holds onto Howl's heart, but aside from that…), their relationship is certainly one of family. Howl essentially adopts Michael when no one else in the world will take him in, after all. In a lot of ways, Sophie's time in the moving castle allows her to explore the possibilities of families of choice over families of blood (though she does eventually reunite with her blood relatives, as well).

"What do you mean, you've sold all my books?" [Sophie] heard Howl saying. "I needed one of them particularly. They weren't yours to sell."

"Don't keep interrupting!" Megan answered in a low, ferocious voice. "Listen now! I've told you before I'm not a storehouse for your property. You're a disgrace to me and Gareth, lounging about in those clothes instead of buying a proper suit and looking respectable for once, taking up with riffraff and layabouts, bring them to this house. Are you trying to bring me down to your level? You had all that education, and you don't even get a decent job, you just hang around, wasting all that time at college, wasting all those sacrifices other people made, wasting your money …" (11.44-5)

Sophie may feel that Fanny has taken her for granted (and she has), but it turns out that Howl's blood family is much more openly resentful and difficult than Sophie's ever was. Howl's sister Megan does not bother to understand Howl at all, and she spends much of her time when Howl is in Wales running him down and brutally scolding him. We can see why Howl decided to use his magic to flee to Ingary—he seems to fit in with the people there much better than he does with his relatives back in our world.

"I am talking to your mother," she said. "I daresay she is as proud of you as I am. We are two old ladies who both had a hand in forming you. You are, one might say, our joint creation."

"Don't you think I did any of me myself, then?" Howl asked. "Put in just a few touches of my own?"

"A few, and those not altogether to my liking," Mrs. Pentstemmon replied. "But you will not wish to sit here and hear yourself being discussed. You will go down and sit on the terrace, taking your page boy with you, where Hunch will bring you both a cool drink. Go along." (12.30-32)

Notice here that Mrs. Pentstemmon thinks of parents and teachers as two sides of the same coin—they both have a hand in guiding you until you become an adult. At their best, teachers can be secondary parents—or at least mentors—who can help you to realize your full potential.

"'Teach me to keep off envy's stinging'—that's all part of past years now. I love Wales, but it doesn't love me. Megan's full of envy because she's respectable and I'm not." (15.49)

Here is Howl's explanation for why his sister Megan can't stand him: she's jealous because Howl does not have to live Megan's ordinary, workaday life in our world, and instead he gets to be a magician in the magical land of Ingary.

While it is unclear exactly how much Megan might know about Howl's other life (we're guessing it's not too much), we can sympathize with her situation. If we had to keep doing our everyday jobs while our siblings went off to become witches and wizards in a faraway land, we'd probably be pretty eaten up with envy, too.

Calcifer emerged from between his logs in a long thread of blue flame. "As ready as I shall ever be," he said. "You know this could kill me, don't you?"

"Look on the bright side," said Howl. "It could be me it kills. Hold on tight. One, two, three." He dug the shovel into the grate, very steadily and slowly, keeping it straight and level with the bars. (17.10-11)

The real issue in the relationship between Calcifer and Howl is that it is not one of choice. They may have chosen to enter into their initial contract, but they didn't understand what their agreement would really mean to them in the long run, and now their lives are tied to one another in ways they can't do anything about. And it leaves both of them vulnerable. Just trying to move Calcifer could kill Howl, and we don't know what would happen to Calcifer if Howl dies while they are still bonded.

Seeing her own old home this way was giving her fearsome mixed feelings. "I think it's all very nice," she said.

"Really?" Howl said coldly. His feelings were hurt. He did so like to be appreciated, Sophie thought, sighing, as Howl went to the castle door and turned the knob to purple-down. On the other hand, she did not think she ever praised Howl, any more than Calcifer, and she wondered why she should start now. (17.45-46)

We can already see the signs of the kind of family that Sophie and Howl are going to have once they officially get together here. While Sophie is sensitive to Howl's moods, she doesn't give in to them ("she wondered why she should start [praising him] now"). And Howl is genuinely concerned about Sophie's opinion of what he's done (even if he shows that concern in the most childish ways).

"[Howl] said, 'I know someone called Sophie who looks a little like you.' And Lettie said, 'That's my sister,' without thinking," Percival said. "And she got terribly worried then, particularly as Howl went on asking about her sister. Lettie said she could have bitten her tongue off. The day you came there, she was being nice to Howl in order to find out how he knew you. Howl said you were an old woman. And Mrs. Fairfax said she'd seen you. Lettie cried and cried. She said, 'Something terrible has happened to Sophie! And the worst of it is she'll think she's safe from Howl. Sophie's too kind to herself to see how heartless Howl is!' And she was so upset that I managed to turn into a man long enough to say I'd go and keep an eye on you." (19.59)

It's strange that it never occurs to Sophie until this chapter that her family might be concerned that she suddenly upped and disappeared off the face of the earth with no warning and no note. At the opening of the novel, Sophie has spent so much time on her own that she seems to have forgotten how to put herself in the place of other people, to imagine how they might feel.

And while we can totally sympathize with the fact that she can't think straight when the Witch of the Waste has just turned her into an old woman, we still feel bad for her sisters and stepmother, left on their own to worry about her with no news.

And, to Sophie's surprise, Fanny threw aside her hat and her parasol and all of her grand manner and flung her arms round Sophie and wept. "Oh, I didn't know what had happened to you!" she sobbed. "I went to Martha and I sent to Lettie, and neither of them knew. They changed places, silly girls, did you know? But nobody knew a thing about you! I've a reward out still. And here you are, working as a servant, when you could be living in luxury up the hill with me and Mr. Smith!"

Sophie found she was crying as well. She hurriedly dropped her bundle and led Fanny to the chair. She pulled the stool up and sat beside Fanny, holding her hand. By this time they were both laughing as well as crying. They were most powerfully glad to see one another again. (20.30-1)

We really like this reunion—the old cliché of the wicked stepmother in fairytales and novels is so old hat that it's nice to find out that Fanny means well. What's more, Sophie's new sympathy toward her stepmother indicates that she's been using her timeout in Howl's castle not just as a vacation from her life, but also as a chance to reflect on herself and on her family. Sophie has changed and matured as an old woman so that, when she gets young again, she'll be ready for her second chance at life.

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