73 pages 2 hours read

Diana Wynne Jones

Howl’s Moving Castle

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


Howl’s Moving Castle was written by Diana Wynne Jones and published in 1986. It won the Phoenix Award for Children’s Literature 20 years after its publication. It is the first in a series of three books, followed by Castle in the Air, published in 1990; and House of Many Ways, published in 2008. Howl's Moving Castle introduces the main characters of Howl and Sophie and discusses themes of acceptance, identity, and the enemies-to-lovers trope. Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted into an animated movie by director Hayao Miyazaki in 2004 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Movie. This guide was written using the HaperCollins paperback version published in 2008.

Plot Summary

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fantasy kingdom called Ingary. Sophie Hatter, an 18-year-old young woman living in the town of Market Chipping, believes that being the eldest daughter has consigned her to a life of mundanity and boredom. She apprentices for her stepmother Fanny and helps run the family hat shop while her sisters Lettie and Martha are apprenticed to a baker and a witch, respectively.

Sophie grows shy, fearful, and lacking in confidence while working in the hat shop. On May Day, she goes out into Market Chipping to visit Lettie. She runs into an attractive young man who offers to walk her to her destination, but Sophie is too afraid to speak with him and runs away. At the bakery, Cesari’s, Sophie finds that Lettie and Martha have used a spell to switch appearances; it is Martha that works in the bakery now, as she wants to find a husband and start a family. Lettie, conversely, wanted to study magic, so the sisters swapped places.

One day while working in the hat shop, a grand and affluent woman comes in. The woman reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste, who has come to curse Sophie for, she believes, harboring information and thwarting her plans. Sophie’s appearance changes into that of an old woman. She immediately packs food and some belongings and leaves Market Chipping, believing that she must separate herself from her family. It may be her only chance to seek her fortune. On the walk from Market Chipping toward the Waste, Sophie encounters a dog tied up, a farmer, and a scarecrow that she speaks to.

As night draws near, Sophie sees the Wizard Howl’s notorious castle approaching her and decides to ask it to stop and admit her. As an old woman, Sophie believes she will be protected from Howl, who is rumored to eat the hearts of young women. Inside the castle, Sophie begins speaking to the fire demon Calcifer, who sits in the fireplace. The Witch’s curse prevents Sophie from speaking of her curse to other people unless they already know about it. Calcifer perceives she is under a curse and offers her a bargain: If she breaks the contract he has with Howl, then he will lift her curse. They agree to secretly figure out what limitations apply to their respective contract and curse.

Sophie meets Michael Fisher, Howl’s apprentice in magic. When she meets Howl, she realizes that he is vain and often dramatic, but she does not see him perform the black magic he is rumored to practice. Sophie enlists herself as the castle’s cleaning lady. The King of Ingary’s Royal Magician, the Wizard Suliman, as well as his younger brother, Prince Justin, have disappeared after being sent by the King to defeat the Witch of the Waste. Howl, as the next most powerful magician in the land, fears the King will ask him to undertake a rescue mission. He asks Sophie to pretend to be his mother, meet with the King, and blacken his name enough so the King won’t want to appoint Howl as the next Royal Magician.

The castle’s door connects to four different locations: Porthaven, where Calcifer truly is; Kingsbury; the moving castle’s location in the Waste; and a door that connects to our world and opens onto Howl’s sister’s house in Wales, which he keeps a secret from the others. Howl often leaves through one of these doors in the morning to court a young lady. Sophie discovers from Michael that the lady’s name is Lettie Hatter. Michael is also in love with a Lettie Hatter, who lives in Market Chipping. Sophie understands that Michael is truly in love with her disguised sister, Martha, while Howl seems to be pursuing the real Lettie Hatter. To stop him from eating her sister’s heart, Sophie and Michael use magical boots that transport the wearer seven leagues with each step to follow Howl to where Lettie is studying magic. There, at Mrs. Fairfax’s house, Sophie and Michael see Howl in the garden with Lettie. They also notice a dog that Mrs. Fairfax struggles to control.

Howl finds a scrap of John Donne’s poem “Song,” which Michael thought was a spell. Howl takes Michael and Sophie to Wales in search of the actual spell the poem seemed to have been replaced by. They meet Howl’s disapproving sister Megan and her children. They meet Miss Angorian, Megan’s son’s English teacher, who recites to them the rest of the poem. Howl and Calcifer both notice that the trip results in Howl being cursed by the Witch of the Waste.

Howl begins courting Miss Angorian. He arranges for Sophie to meet his old magical tutor Mrs. Pentstemmon to practice her courtly manners before meeting the king. When Sophie meets with the king, she fails to persuade him, and the king makes Howl Royal Magician with his first assignment being to find the Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin. One her way back to the castle, Sophie bumps into the Witch of the Waste, who brags to Sophie that she has killed Mrs. Pentstemmon. Howl resolves to attend Mrs. Pentstemmon’s funeral despite the obvious trap set for him by the Witch. At the funeral, the Witch discovers Howl, and the two fight in Porthaven, with neither side winning.

While alone in the castle one day, Sophie opens the door and finds the scarecrow she discovered on her first day as an old woman. Frightened, Sophie commands it to go away, and the scarecrow obeys. Howl spends an increasing amount of time in Wales courting Miss Angorian. Howl and Michael prepare to move the castle’s four locations to hide from the Witch of the Waste. While Howl is out, Miss Angorian shows up through the Welsh door looking for her missing fiancé, Benjamin Sullivan. Sophie, increasingly jealous of Miss Angorian, forces her out.

Sophie asks Calcifer if he has ever been a fallen star, and Calcifer reveals that Howl saved him from death after he fell. Howl agreed to give him what humans need to survive in exchange for access to Calcifer’s magic. At the door, a man cursed to appear as a dog arrives, telling Sophie that he was sent by Lettie to protect her.

Howl and Michael keep the Welsh door but use spells to change the other three of the castle’s four locations to the old hat shop in Market Chipping, which they rebrand as a flower shop; a house in a field of flowers; and an old mansion. Sophie watches as the castle melds with the old hat shop, disquieted by the return of her old life. Howl discovers the cursed dog and, together with Calcifer, lifts the curse. Percival is revealed. He struggles to remember much but thinks the Witch cursed him for failing to provide information on Howl and Wales. Sophie, in a terrible mood, spends time with Percival de-weeding the mansion’s grounds. During their conversation, Sophie discovers that she is in love with Howl and jealous of Miss Angorian. When she returns to the castle, Howl and Michael admit that they have known about her curse for a while and that Howl has already tried to lift it. Sophie seems to want to stay in disguise.

The day on which Howl’s curse is to take effect, Midsummer’s Day, he arrives at the castle drunk after a trip to Wales and sleeps through the morning. Sophie is surprised by the sudden appearance of Fanny, Martha, Lettie, and Mrs. Fairfax, all of whom recognize Sophie despite her curse. The scarecrow arrives and, while frightening Sophie at first, is accepted into the castle. It has been spelled to recover the lost body parts of Wizard Suliman. Just then, Calcifer announces that the Witch has discovered Megan’s family. Howl runs through the door to Wales, where he scares off the Witch from his family. Next, the Witch projects her voice into the castle and says that she has taken Miss Angorian captive in her fortress in the Waste.

Sophie uses the seven-league boots to get to the fortress before Howl. She confronts the Witch, and the Witch reveals her scheme of putting together a perfect king out of Wizard Suliman, Prince Justin, and Howl. The scarecrow arrives and battles the Witch with magic. Finally, Howl arrives and speaks words of power that defeat the Witch. Howl conjures up a wind for him and Sophie to run with back to the castle. There, they discover that Miss Angorian is actually the Witch’s fire demon, and they confront her. Howl defeats her with more words of power. Sophie separates Calcifer from Howl’s heart, which Calcifer received in their contract. She speaks magically to Calcifer and gives him another thousand years to live. She returns Howl’s heart to his chest and, in so doing, becomes a young woman again. Howl and Sophie realize their love for one another, and he proposes that they live happily ever after.