Though [Wizard Howl] did not seem to want to leave the hills, he was known to amuse himself by collecting young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts. He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own. Sophie, Lettie, and Martha, along with all the other girls in Market
Chipping, were warned never to go out alone, which was a great annoyance to them. (1.9)
Sophie, Martha, and Lettie's warnings not to go out alone or else the Wizard Howl will eat their hearts is really just a supernatural variation on more everyday, real-world warnings for young women to be careful of dangerous guys. The worry that younger women might not be safe on their own has an unfortunate and tragic real-world side to it, which Jones lightens up a little bit by putting it into an over-the-top supernatural context.
[Sophie] settled herself comfortably in the chair while the demon thought. It thought aloud, in a little, crackling, flickering murmur, which reminded Sophie rather of the way she had talked to her stick when she walked here, and it blazed while it thought with such a glad and powerful roaring that she dozed again. […] The demon at length fell to singing a gentle, flickering little song. It was not in any language Sophie knew—or she thought not, until she distinctly heard the word "saucepan" in it several times—and it was very sleepy-sounding. Sophie fell into a deep sleep, with a slight suspicion that she was being bewitched now, as well as beguiled, but it did not bother her particularly. She would be free of the spell soon … (3.60)
We don't actually see Calcifer doing magic that often. This is the only time that we can think of where he performs magic on a specific person without their knowledge who isn't the Witch of the Waste. Why do you think that Calcifer decides to soothe Sophie to sleep at this point? Why do you think Sophie's suspicion that Calcifer is using on magic her does "not bother her particularly"?
[Sophie] stood for a moment looking out at a slowly moving view of the hills, watching heather slide past underneath the door, feeling the wind blow her wispy hair, and listening to the rumble and grind of the big black stones as the castle moved. Then she shut the door and went to the window. And there was the seaport town again. It was no picture. A woman had opened a door opposite and was sweeping dust into the street. Behind that house a grayish canvas sail was going up a mast in brisk jerks, disturbing a flock of seagulls into flying round and round against the glimmering sea. (4.11)
It makes sense given the title of the book that most of the visible magic in Howl's Moving Castle has to do with, well, the castle itself. Sophie starts to adjust her ideas about the place of magic in regular life when she gets used to the fact that the doors to the castle don't match up with the windows and that she has to bully the fire demon in the fireplace to let her cook hot meals. These domestic pieces of magic seem soothing to Sophie, and they pave the way to her eventual acceptance of the fact that she also has a strong magic gift.
Sophie sewed buttons on Michael's shirts and listened to Howl going through a spell with Michael. "I know I'm slapdash," he was saying, "but there's no need for you to copy me. Always read it right through, carefully, first. The shape of it should tell you a lot, whether it's self-fulfilling or self-discovering, or simple incantation, or mixed action and speech. When you've decided that, go through again and decide which bits mean what they say and which bits are put as a puzzle. You're getting on to the more powerful kinds now. You'll find every spell of power has at least one deliberate mistake or mystery in it to prevent accidents. You have to spot those. Now take this spell …" (6.15)
Howl's Moving Castle was published in 1986, twelve years before the first Harry Potter. Looking back, it's hard to remember how exciting it might have been to think about spells as something you could actually study, in the same way that you study chemistry or math. With the huge popularity of Hogwarts we've gotten totally used to the idea of a wizard school, but Jones got there long before Rowling with Michael's apprenticeship in this novel.
The room turned dim. Huge, cloudy, human-looking shapes bellied up in all four corners and advanced on Sophie and Michael, howling as they came. The howls began as moaning horror, and went up to despairing brays, and then up again to screams of pain and terror. Sophie pressed her hands to her ears, but the screams pressed through her hands, louder and louder still, more horrible every second. Calcifer shrank hurriedly down in the grate and flickered his way under his lowest log. Michael grabbed Sophie by her elbow and dragged her to the door. (6.67)
Howl's magic makes him a drama queen on steroids. he doesn't just throw huge tantrums—he also has the power to make sure that the entire town of Porthaven can hear his wails of distress over the fact that Sophie messed up his hair dye. This ability to throw giant fits is kind of handy, since we always know—or think we know—how Howl feels.
"But," [Sophie] panted, "seven leagues is twenty-one miles! I'd be halfway to Porthaven in two strides!"
"No, it's ten and a half miles a step," said Michael. "That makes Upper Folding almost exactly. If we each take one boot and go together, then I won't be letting you out of my sight and you won't be doing anything strenuous, and we'll get there before Howl does, so he won't even know where we've been. That solves all our problems beautifully." (8.24-25)
The seven-league boots come up in the very first paragraph of the novel and here they are again. They basically work as a kind of magic ornament to the novel: Sophie has to get places that are far away, and the seven-league boots are an easy way for her to do it. You could substitute any number of fantasy elements—a transportation portal, Floo powder, what have you—to perform the same function.
We think that Jones chooses seven-league boots because they are more traditionally fairytale-like: they appear in the tales of classic French author Charles Perrault, who wrote the best-known early versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and other famous stories. Check out his story Little Thumbfor another example of seven-league boots.
Does garlic keep off envy? I could cut a star out of paper and drop it. Could we tell it to Howl? Howl would like mermaids better than Calcifer. Do not think Howl's mind honest. Is Calcifer's? Where are past years anyway? Does it mean one of those dry roots must bear fruit? Plant it? Next to dock leaf? In seashell? Cloven hoof, most things but horses. Shoe a horse with a clove of garlic? Wind? Smell? Wind of seven-league boots? Is Howl devil? Cloven toes in seven-league boots? Mermaids in boots?
As Sophie wrote this, Michael asked equally desperately, "Could the 'wind' be some sort of pulley? An honest man being hanged? That's black magic, though." (9.47-48)
In this passage, as Sophie writes up her notes on Michael's spell, we get to see what some possible spell analysis looks like. And honestly, it's a bit hilarious: she's clearly in over her head because she doesn't realize that she is reading a poem and not a spell, and poems are almost never literal. Do you think Jones intends to imply anything by drawing this comparison between poetic and magic language? Is there anything that seems magical to you in John Donne's "Song"?
But Sophie was not sure the two boys crouched over the various magic boxes on a big table by the window would have looked up even for an army with a brass band. The main magic box had a glass front like the one downstairs, but it seemed to be showing writing and diagrams more than pictures. All the boxes grew on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall at one side of the room.
"Neil!" said Howl.
"Don't interrupt," one of the boys said. "He'll lose his life."
Seeing it was a matter of life and death, Sophie and Michael backed toward the door. But Howl, quite unperturbed at killing his nephew, strode over to the wall and pulled the boxes up by the roots. The picture on the box vanished. (11.20-23)
When Sophie and Michael follow Howl into Wales, they look at our world with completely unfamiliar eyes, so the things that we take for granted appear supernatural (and possibly lethal) to Sophie and Michael. Here Howl walks in as his nephew and some friends are playing a video game. We know that the kid in danger of losing his life is only going to die in the game, but Michael and Sophie worry that it is actually "a matter of life and death."
Howl was on the tossing, nearly sinking ship below. He was a tiny black figure now, leaning against the bucking mainmast. He let the Witch know she had missed by waving at her cheekily. The Witch saw him the instant he waved. Cloud, Witch, and all at once became a savagely swooping red bird, diving at the ship.
The ship vanished. The mermaids sang a doleful scream. There was nothing but sulkily tossing water where the ship had been. But the diving bird was going too fast to stop. It plunged into the sea with a huge splash.
Everyone on the quayside cheered. (16.20-22)
There are real lives at stake here: the Witch of the Waste could kill Howl, and vice versa. But for the people of Porthaven, who are more used to magic than we are, this magic battle comes across as a spectator sport. It's like watching Mixed Martial Arts or something: brutal, painful for the participants, but fun to look at from the stands.
Howl shot Michael an alarmed look and picked up the flower in its pot. He slide it out of the pot into his hand, where he carefully separated the white, thready roots and the soot and the remains of the manure spell, until he uncovered the brown, forked root Sophie had grown it from. "I might have guessed," he said. "It's mandrake root. Sophie strikes again. You do have a touch, don't you, Sophie?" He put the plant carefully back, passed it to Sophie, and went away, looking rather pale. (18.18)
The Witch's curse on Howl is a lot like an act of fate—no matter how he tries to avoid or deny the Witch, the signs of his curse keep turning up. Sophie was trying to grow roots harvested from a beautiful blue rose she enchanted, but somehow a mandrake gets mixed in without her intention at all. What's interesting about this surprise mandrake is that it also helps the novel's plot to move forward.
The curse is basically a plot device to remind us that a showdown is coming between Howl and the Witch of the Waste, so that we keep up our sense of suspense. Is there any practical difference between a curse, a spell, or an act of fate in a novel? How can these plot elements be used in fantasy stories to achieve specific narrative goals?