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In the land of Ingary, where everything goes by fairytale rules, Sophie Hatter believes that she is doomed. After all, she is the eldest daughter of three, and everyone knows it's the youngest sister who goes off, has adventures, and makes her fortune.
Sophie's youngest sister Martha says she's not interested in any of that, and her middle sister Lettie insists that she is the one who is going to go off and make her fortune. But Sophie knows the truth: she and Lettie are doomed to failure and Martha will be blessed with success because that's the way things are in Ingary. The best Sophie can hope for is to make her living with her family's hat shop in the town of Market Chipping.
Of course, if that were really the way things are in Ingary, we wouldn't have a novel. Something has to happen to shake Sophie out of her drab daily routine of trimming hats by herself, watching the world pass her by. It turns out that as Sophie grows lonelier and lonelier, she starts to talk to the hats that she's making. And once she does this, her hats get a reputation for doing things for their owners—good things. But the more popular her hats become, the more she has to work, until she realizes it's been months since she has seen either of her two sisters.
When Sophie visits Cesari's pastry shop, where her middle sister Lettie is supposed to be working, she finds a surprise: the Hatter sister who is working at the pastry shop is actually Martha. In a Freaky-Friday-Parent-Trap style of switcheroo, Lettie, the much more ambitious middle sister, has taken Martha's place as the witch Mrs. Fairfax's apprentice. Martha, the youngest daughter (who wants to settle down and have kids), takes Lettie's place as an apprentice at the pastry shop.
When Sophie sees that her sisters are breaking the rules to go after what they want, she feels even lonelier and more frustrated with her work at the hat shop. Sophie returns to the hat shop furious. While she is fuming, Sophie gets an unexpected visit from the Witch of the Waste. The Witch tells Sophie that she "came to put a stop" (2.50) to her, and then transforms Sophie into an old woman. Sophie takes the whole lost youth thing pretty calmly (surprisingly), but she does decide that her family can't see her this way. So she sets out on an adventure of her own, at last—even if she is the eldest of three sisters.
In the hills above Market Chipping, there is a castle that moves around, terrifying the town below. It belongs to the Wizard Howl, who is supposed to eat girls' hearts and steal their souls. As Sophie walks out of town, she sees the castle moving quite close to her and thinks that since she's not a young girl anymore Howl won't eat her soul, so she finds the back door to the castle and pushes her way in.
In Howl's castle, Sophie meets a boy, Michael, who is Howl's apprentice. She also meets a fire demon, Calcifer, who lives in Howl's fireplace. Howl himself seems to be away, but Sophie refuses to leave the warm, cozy castle now that she's found her way in. Since Sophie has had something awful happen to her, she's grown a lot of backbone: suddenly she's willing to say and do all the things she thought were too embarrassing when she looked young. Now that Sophie has really experienced something terrible, she's less afraid of what might happen to her if she makes a mistake.
That night Sophie and Calcifer have a conversation. Calcifer recognizes that Sophie is under a curse, and he offers to break it for her as long as she does him one teeny, tiny favor in return. Calcifer and Howl have a contract that is hurting both of them. Calcifer wants Sophie to break that contract. Of course, it is part of the magic of both curses and magical contracts that neither Sophie nor Calcifer can actually out-and-out tell each other the details of their troubles, but Sophie agrees to stay at Howl's castle for long enough to find out how to help Calcifer.
Howl appears just as Sophie is making breakfast for herself and Michael. As soon as Sophie sees him, she recognizes him: apparently he hit on her before she was turned into an old lady, back when she was still feeling deeply shy and kind of intimidated by someone as handsome and showy as Howl. Now all that shyness is gone. Sophie announces that she's come to the castle to become Howl's new cleaning lady.
Sophie spends her time at the castle cleaning up a storm and laying down the law for Michael and Calcifer (and Howl, when she can). She insists that they live tidy lives with regular meals. Sophie's manner toward these guys is both efficient and blunt: she has no interest in coddling any of them, but she does her best to make sure that the castle stays functioning in spite of Howl's drama-queeny, overly dramatic ways.
The longer Sophie spends with Howl, the more she realizes that he's just a big, self-absorbed baby. He's deeply fickle, and constantly flirting with one girl until he loses interest and moves on to the next. Howl may not literally eat girls' souls—as the rumors claim—but he still leaves a trail of broken hearts behind him wherever he goes. When Howl starts pursuing Sophie's sister Lettie, she really starts to get angry at him.
But then again—Howl keeps surprising her with small acts of kindness. He undercharges the poor people of the city of Porthaven when they come to ask him for spells they can't afford. And Michael describes how Howl took him in as an apprentice when no one else would adopt him because of a reputation for bad luck. Sophie can't figure him out (though she clearly finds Howl very interesting).
When Howl mentions that he's pursuing Lettie Hatter, Sophie isn't the only one who freaks out. Michael also has a sudden panic, because he is pursuing a girl named Lettie Hatter, the one who works at Cesari's pastry shop in Market Chipping. Michael comes to Sophie overjoyed because his Lettie Hatter (who is actually Martha in disguise) has never heard of Howl. Sophie realizes that Howl must be going after the real Lettie Hatter, the one who is working as an apprentice for the witch Mrs. Fairfax.
While Sophie is trying to leave the castle to check on her sisters, she runs into a moving scarecrow with the head of a turnip (which is like a slightly lavender-colored potato). The sight freaks her out, because, well, this scarecrow is moving. But this also isn't the first time she has seen it—she spoke to the scarecrow when it was caught in a hedge outside of Market Chipping before finding her way to Howl's moving castle.
Calcifer moves the castle so fast that they outrun it. The next day, the scarecrow catches up with them and Howl blasts it away. But keep an eye on this turnip-headed object; it's going to be important later.
While Howl is off trying to date Lettie, Michael and Sophie share a pair of magic boots to follow him. And in fact, it's true: they spot Howl kneeling in front of Lettie, clearly trying to impress her with his sincerity, while Lettie looks into his eyes. Mrs. Fairfax tells them that she has been encouraging their attachment—after all, Howl could teach Lettie a lot of magic. (This is pretty practical and calculating of Mrs. Fairfax.) Sophie wonders if Howl might really mean it this time—but Michael assures her that there is no way. He's still thinking mostly of himself and not of Lettie at all.
Back at the castle Michael is struggling with the spell that Howl left him to solve. The spell mentions a bunch of significant things: falling stars, mandrake roots, "past years," the Devil's cleft feet, singing mermaids, "envy's stinging," and "wind [that] serves to advance an honest mind" (9.37). Michael has no idea what to do with this list of random things (neither do we, though we think mermaids are cool).
Sophie and Michael decide to start with the first item in the poem, which is the falling star. They go out to some nearby marshes and wait for a star to fall out of the sky; then, with the help of their magic boots, they catch one. The star is terrified: it knows that any star that falls must die. Michael offers to figure out some way to save it, but the star doesn't think that's right and so it jumps out of Michael's hands into the marshes and dies.
When Michael shows Howl the spell out of confusion, Howl recognizes it right away. It's not a spell—it's from the place where Howl comes from: Wales, in our regular world. After absolutely forbidding Michael from catching a falling star again, Howl takes Michael and Sophie to his family home.
In Wales, Howl's sister Megan scolds him for being a worthless bum (clearly she doesn't know about his day job as an awesome wizard). But Howl does confirm with his nephew, Neil, that the paper is the first verse of a poem called "Song" by seventeenth-century British poet John Donne, which Neil's English teacher Miss Angorian assigned to him for homework. Somehow, when Sophie opened the magic door of the moving castle, she must have let this piece of paper into Ingary.
Miss Angorian the English teacher is very beautiful, with dark black hair. As soon as Howl sees her, Sophie realizes that he has forgotten all about Lettie, which makes Sophie furious. Howl asks Miss Angorian about the Donne poem, and she reads out the second verse to him. As soon as she does, Howl goes pale and insists that they have to leave Wales.
When Howl, Michael, and Sophie return to the moving castle, Howl breaks it to Calcifer: the Witch of the Waste's curse has found Howl at last. Apparently Howl likes dangerous women, because he actually pursued a relationship with the Witch before abruptly losing interest and dropping her. In rage, she has been hunting him down—and now she has used poor, innocent John Donne to find him.
The impossible things in the first verse of "Song" are signs that the Witch's magic is coming closer and closer. There are only three things in the poem that still have to come true before the Witch closes in on Howl: the mermaids singing, the mandrake root, and the wind to advance an honest mind.
After her experience with Michael and the falling star, Sophie finally puts it together: the contract between Howl and Calcifer came about because Calcifer was a falling star. Calcifer confirms her guess: apparently, Howl saw him fall and caught him. Calcifer was terrified of dying, and Howl felt sorry for him, so they struck a bargain right away—even though neither of them knew what it would mean for Howl to give his heart to Calcifer (leaving them both trapped and vulnerable).
With the new threat from the Witch hanging over his head, Howl wants to dodge the King of Ingary's interest in hiring him as Royal Magician. Apparently the Witch of the Waste has done something to the King's brother, Prince Justin. The former Royal Magician—the Wizard Suliman—was the first one sent to find Prince Justin; he has now disappeared.
Howl has enough trouble with the Witch on his own without adding these new complications over Prince Justin and the Wizard Suliman. Howl's brilliant idea to get the King to leave him alone is to send Sophie to pose as his mother so that Sophie can tell the King what a worthless and untrustworthy person Howl really is.
So Sophie troops off to Kingsbury, the capital of Ingary, to meet with Howl's old tutor Mrs. Pentstemmon and with the King. Mrs. Pentstemmon warns Sophie that Howl is going bad, and that his contract with his fire demon is hurting him. Mrs. Pentstemmon also makes a passing reference to Sophie's own powerful magical gift—evidently Sophie talks things to life. This explains the power of her hats and the newly alive scarecrow, which started to move after Sophie wished it luck at the side of the road outside of Market Chipping.
At Sophie's meeting with the King, she tries to come up with all of these reasons why Howl can't be the Royal Magician. But every time she tears him down, she has to admit that, honestly, he keeps surprising her with his kindness. The King finally puts Sophie out of her misery: there's no point in continuing to blacken Howl's name because the King has made up his mind—Howl will be Royal Magician, and he will find the Prince Justin.
When Sophie leaves the Palace in defeat, she runs into the Witch of the Waste. The Witch recognizes Sophie and announces that she has just murdered Miss Pentstemmon. All told, this has been a pretty botched visit to Kingsbury for Sophie.
Back at the moving castle, Sophie finds that Howl is deeply depressed about his old teacher Mrs. Pentstemmon's death. He's also getting a horrible cold. While he is resting upstairs, Sophie answers a knock at the door, only to have a dog jump into the castle.
The dog concentrates hard and transforms into a guy for just long enough to say that he loves Lettie and that Sophie shouldn't tell Howl that he is really a human underneath the dog curse. The dog settles down, apparently planning to stick around the castle. He takes to following Sophie around and trying to keep her away from Howl.
The Witch of the Waste finds the base location of the moving castle, which is mostly located in Howl's old house in Porthaven. And then the two of them have an epic battle out to sea, so it's time to change the base location of the castle. Howl buys an empty shop in Market Chipping—which used to be Sophie's family's hat shop—so that they can set up a new business as a disguise from the Witch.
Through careful magic, Howl, Michael, and Calcifer shift the castle from Howl's old house in Porthaven to Sophie's old house (though no one but Sophie knows it) in Market Chipping. In the new house, the castle's magic door leads to a beautiful flower garden at the edge of the Waste. This is where Michael, Sophie, and the dog-man find the flowers that they plan to sell in the former-hat-now-flower shop.
While Howl spends most of his time away from the castle (pursuing Miss Angorian, Sophie assumes), Sophie has a couple of weird run-ins. The scarecrow comes by the new shop in Market Chipping, and Sophie uses her talk-magic to get it to go away as fast as possible. And Miss Angorian somehow blunders through the door from Wales. She's looking for her fiancé Ben Sullivan, who she thinks has disappeared into this world. (Sophie realizes that Ben Sullivan = the Wizard Suliman.) Sophie shoves Miss Angorian out, but not before she has tried to take away Howl's beloved guitar.
Howl finally notices that the dog-man has a curse on him. He stands the dog-man in front of Calcifer and strips away the first layer of the curse, which leaves the dog-man as just a man. He doesn't remember much of his former life, though Calcifer can say that he most recently went by the name of Percival. Percival does remember that the Witch asked him a lot of questions about Howl, and that his head might have been sitting on her mantlepiece at some point (ick).
Percival also tells Sophie that Lettie knows that Sophie has been cursed to be an old woman. That's why Lettie sent the dog-man to Sophie in the first place: to keep an eye on her and to protect her from heart-eating Howl. In fact, everybody knows about Sophie's curse—including Howl himself. All of this time, Howl has secretly been trying to break the curse. That's actually why he brought her to Mrs. Pentstemmon: to see if his old teacher could remove the curse. Now he thinks that Sophie is actually keeping the curse on herself.
Sophie is so furious that she resolves to leave the castle the next day… but somehow a lot of stuff happens to keep her from doing so. First Howl stumbles in at dawn so drunk that he immediately falls into a snoring pile of sleep upstairs—he's snoring so loudly that everyone can hear him, even in the shop.
It's May Day (which is apparently a big holiday in Ingary), so the shop is packed, and Sophie can barely get away at lunchtime. When she finally escapes, who should be visiting at the castle but Mrs. Sacheverell Smith—also known as Fanny a.k.a. Sophie's stepmother. And Fanny's not alone—Martha, Lettie, and Mrs. Fairfax have all come along. It's a big ol' Hatter family reunion.
Oddly, in the middle of the tears and the hugging and the bonding, Miss Angorian shows up. Sophie encourages Miss Angorian to wait in the garden. Calcifer shouts to Howl that the Witch of the Waste has found Howl's family in Wales, so Howl races off to defend Megan and her children. While he is away, the scarecrow reappears and Sophie finally invites it into the house.
The scarecrow picks up a skull of the mantelpiece and somehow merges the skull with its turnip head so that it can talk more clearly. Once the scarecrow starts talking, Percival suddenly collapses into sleep. And then the voice of the Witch of the Waste announces that she has Miss Angorian as a hostage and will only free her if Howl comes to her fortress in person.
Sophie feels like it's her fault that Miss Angorian has been captured by the Witch of the Waste—after all, she's the one who left Miss Angorian to explore the garden at the edge of the Waste. So Sophie uses Howl's magic boots to travel to the Witch's fortress.
The Witch captures Sophie in some orange goo (bummer), but she is saved by attacks by both the scarecrow and Howl that soon put an end to the Witch of the Waste forever. In fact, there wasn't much left of the Witch—her fire demon had pretty much completely consumed her. Fire demon, you ask? Yes, indeed: the Witch's fire demon is none other than English teacher Miss Angorian.
Howl and Sophie race back to the moving castle to find the Witch's fire demon. Miss Angorian's plan is to take Howl's heart from Calcifer to keep herself alive (rude). If poor Calcifer has to die and Howl becomes a kind of slave as a result—well, those are the breaks as far as Miss Angorian's concerned.
When Sophie hears Miss Angorian's dark plan, she finally understands why Calcifer wanted her to be the one to break his contract with Howl. Sophie knows that Calcifer has been holding onto Howl's heart as part of their contract, and Calcifer needs that heart to live (even though neither Howl nor Calcifer feel that good about the contract these days). And Sophie can talk life into things. So if she is the one to take Howl's heart from Calcifer and give it back to Howl, she can also give Calcifer more time to live.
While Miss Angorian is distracted by a walking stick that Sophie has enchanted to beat only Miss Angorian, Sophie quickly pulls Calcifer away from Howl's heart. She instructs Calcifer to "have another thousand years" (21.89), and then she pushes Howl's heart back into his chest.
Sophie doesn't even notice that while all of this magic is going on she has become a young woman again. She tells Howl that he has to defeat Miss Angorian right now, so Howl takes the dead lump of the Witch's heart away from Miss Angorian, and she disappears. Suddenly the scarecrow and Percival transform into two new men: Prince Justin and the Wizard Suliman. But while all of this is happy-ending material, Sophie and Howl can't really pay attention. They are too caught up in each other to notice much else around them.
So all's well that ends well. Sophie has built up her confidence as an old woman enough that she is ready to settle down with Howl as a young woman. Michael and Martha can be together, Lettie and the Wizard Suliman seem to have a thing going (an outgrowth of his love for her while he was cursed to be the dog-man), Prince Justin wants to go back to his brother the King—and now that Calcifer has freedom of choice, he chooses to keep living at the moving castle.
Happy endings all around.