Both versions of Howl’s Moving Castle — Diana Wynne Jones’ novel and director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature film of the same name — tell the story of Sophie Hatter, a young woman whose fate as a future hatmaker is all but decided for her due to her being the eldest sister. To everyone around Sophie, her working in the family’s millinery until the end of her days is a foregone conclusion because it’s tradition and because she’s exceptionally good at hatmaking.
Initially, Sophie’s quite content to go along with her stepmother Fanny’s vision for her to work in the shop while her younger sisters Lettie and Martha are sent off to apprentice at a bakery and under a witch, respectively. But Wynne Jones’ novel (and the adaptation to a lesser extent) establishes early on how Sophie’s outlook on life is one that doesn’t exactly take her own dreams, desires, and talents into account. Magic is a major part of Sophie’s life long before she ever meets the dread wizard Howl, his fire demon Calcipher, or the Witch of the Waste — three of the most powerful magical beings living in the fictional country of Ingary. But Sophie’s almost overwhelmed by their mysticisms, at least initially, because she doesn’t realise the thing she has in common with them.
As passive a figure as Sophie might seem at first, her dedication and work ethic at the millinery turns her into an unexpected sensation of sorts in the town of Lower Chipping, where much of Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. Because she tends to be a bit bored by other people, Sophie takes to speaking to the hats she crafts in the shop to keep her mind busy. Though she doesn’t understand how, the things she says to the hats have a way of enchanting them.
Hats Sophie describes as cute or smart become just that in some unseen, fundamental way that isn’t immediately recognisable. The effects of her talent are clear to those who purchase and wear her pieces, though — they’re all delighted to find that the positive traits and fates Sophie speaks into existence for her clothing are passed along to people wearing them.
The sheer amount of business that Sophie’s hats generate for the shop is more than enough to keep business booming and convince Fanny that her decisions have set each of the Hatter sisters up for different kinds of success. Just as the Witch of the Waste waltzes into Howl’s Moving Castle as a threatening figure and antagonist, the book begins to underline how Sophie’s steadfast commitment to her job is a kind of prison of her own making that no one else will set her free from.
Once Sophie begins to take over many aspects of the hat shop’s production, Fanny finds herself free to seek a new husband following Mr. Hatter’s sudden death, and Sophie can’t help but realise how resigned she’s become to a life of drudgery that starkly contrasts to the exciting things everyone else gets up to.
Obligations both emotional and contractual feature largely throughout Howl’s Moving Castle as Sophie’s first encounter with the jealous Witch of the Waste leaves the young girl suddenly transformed into an old woman. In the blink of an eye, the possibility of spending her entire life doing thankless, unrewarded labour well into her old age becomes a terrifying reality for Sophie, whose newly aged body creaks and pains with the stresses of time she never got to properly experience. Her mind is still quite sharp, however, and becoming an old woman gives her a certain degree of clarity about her situation that makes it quite easy for her to pack up her things and set out to put things right.
Like the Witch of the Waste, Howl — who lives in a monstrous, mechanical castle that crawls around the countryside — has a reputation for being dangerous that precedes him. Sophie decides to try her luck as a cleaning lady for the wizard but by the time she manages to get inside of the castle, she figures there’s no real sense in putting faith in the rumours about him eating young women’s hearts.
Though she feels that even if she were to, her elderly heart would likely be safe. At the same time the story begins to reveal more magic, it’s careful to illustrate how witchcraft can often be tied up in complicated deals that bind people to one another, much in the same way that people feel bound to their jobs. Sophie’s only but so alarmed when Calcipher, who dwells within the castle’s machinery as its power source, begins to talk to her from a stove — though she’s quite cross (the people of Ingary are very British) to learn that a powerful contract has effectively trapped the demon in a life of bondage and servitude.
Calcipher and Sophie’s plan to free one another of their respective enchantments is what drives a lot of Howl’s Moving Castle’s plot forward, but at multiple points throughout the book, the idea of people not being recognised for their talent and compensated for their labour returns in rather significant ways. As slow as Sophie is to realise her own magical skills, the book telegraphs them quite early on and establishes that magic is strong within the Hatter family.
Before she even begins working for Howl, a visit to the bakery reveals that Martha and Lettie secretly decided to use magic to transform into one another in order to switch places at their respective jobs, neither of which either of them particularly cared for. While the revelation’s meant to shock Sophie and give her yet another reason to go off in search of her own fate, it’s also one of the most direct ways Howl’s Moving Castle spells out how important it is for people to listen to their instincts about whether situations they’re in are healthy or not.
Howl’s Moving Castle’s exploration of that instinct is threaded throughout the novel and becomes more particularly complex with Howl himself, who’s a more dynamic figure than he’s initially made out to be. Even though the characters don’t quite express it to one another directly, what they all end up striving for is to live their lives according to their own needs and pursue endeavours that truly fulfil them.
For some, this means breaking free of work-focused identities projected onto them by others, the sort of lesson that, frankly, more fairytales could stand to remind people of in our present-day hustle culture.