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Howl's Moving Castle and Fairy Tale Norms

Our book for this month’s book club is Howl’s Moving Castle, written by Diana Wynne Jones and published in 1986. A smart and endearing fantasy, Hayao Miyazaki adapted it in an animated movie in 2004. Despite the fact that the book is the favorite of a really good friend of mine, and despite my love for the movie, I’d somehow managed to avoid reading the book; so when it came up as a suggestion for the club, I was excited.

I loved it. It’s witty without being satirical, excellently paced and very well written. Early on, it sets itself up to be understood in fairy tale terms:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success! Her parents were well-to-do and kept a ladies’ hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping. True, Sophie’s own mother died when Sophie was two years old and her sister Lettie was one year old, and their father married his youngest shop assistant, a pretty blonde girl called Fanny. Fanny shortly gave birth to the third sister, Martha. This ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Sisters, but in fact all three sisters grew up very pretty indeed, though Lettie was the one everyone said was most beautiful. Fanny treated all three girls with the same kindness and did not favor Martha in the least.

This single passage gets us set up with a few references to fairy tale staples: seven-league boots, seeking one’s fortune, eldest siblings, ugly sisters, etc. Of course, it’s also clear that since Sophie has accepted that she’s doomed to fail as the eldest, we know that she will in fact succeed.

This will just be a brief post pointing out some of the fairy tale norms that show up even just in the early pages of Howl’s Moving Castle.

The Eldest of Three

Siblings in fairy tales almost always come in a set of three or a multiple of three. Cinderella had two stepsisters, there were seven little kids whom the wolf tried to eat, twelve dancing princesses, one princess’s six brothers were turned into swans, seven sons were turned into ravens, etc. etc. etc. When pairs occur (as in Snow White and Rose Red and Hansel and Gretel) it’s usually a case of the two striking out together, rather than individually.

In cases of individual conquests or challenges, the youngest is inevitably the victor. In the tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” three sisters are kidnapped in turn by a wizard who takes them to his house, gives them a key and an egg, and says they must keep the egg safe and may go anywhere in the house except for the room opened by the key. The first and second sisters each succumb to their curiosity and enter the forbidden room, where they find a dismembered human body and a basin full of blood. They’re so startled that they drop the egg in the blood, and though they try to wash it they can’t get it clean again. By the egg, the wizard is able to tell they have been in the room, and he kills them both. The third sister puts the egg away somewhere safe before she goes into the room, and so she passes the test and outwits the wizard.

In “The Water of Life,” a dying king sends each of his three sons out in turn to fetch him the water of life, which will save him. The eldest eagerly volunteers, thinking that if he succeeds he will be best beloved by his father and inherit the kingdom. He’s rude to a dwarf he meets on the way and then dies, trapped in a mountain by the dwarf’s curse. The second son dies the same way. The third son, however, speaks politely to the dwarf and so the dwarf tells him where to find the water of life.

There are many more examples of just this kind of thing; so clearly, Sophie’s expectations of failure as the eldest are not without precedent.

Not Even the Child of a Poor Woodcutter

In examining fairy tales, I often make a distinction between clever heroes and born heroes. The born heroes are the royal ones, like the one in the “Water of Life” story. They’re often not particularly clever, just well-mannered. Clever heroes are almost always poor villagers, like the third sister in “Fitcher’s Bird.” She thinks to put the egg somewhere safe before snooping around, which makes her smarter than her sister.

It’s the clever heroes who usually have more exciting adventures and almost always end up wonderfully rich. In “The Glass Coffin,” a poor tailor ends up with a princess for a wife; in “The Devil’s Three Gold Hairs,” a poor boy outwits a King who’s determined to keep him from marrying his daughter; in “The Old Woman in the Wood,” a girl frees a prince from his imprisonment as a dove and marries him.

So unless you’re the youngest child of a King or Queen, or the clever child of some poor tradesman or other, you haven’t much chance of success at all. Therefore, Sophie’s comfortable merchant life in Market Chipping is another indicator of either her being completely uninteresting or failing utterly.

Spells Which Change the Hero’s Form

Sophie is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste, and this is the catalyst for Sophie leaving her home and seeking her fortune. Turning characters into something else is ridiculously common in fairy tales. There’s “The Frog Prince”; “The Glass Coffin,” in which the princess’s brother is turned into a stag; “Snow White and Rose Red,” in which a prince is transformed into a bear; “The Old Woman in the Wood,” where the prince is turned into a dove; etc.

Often the object of the story is to discover that the creature is actually a bespelled person, and set them to rights; so it is with Sophie.

Being Kind to Creatures You Come Across

Like we saw earlier in “The Water of Life,” it’s important for heroes to be kind to people or creatures they come across. More often than not, they’ll offer assistance in return for politeness, and curses in exchange for rudeness. Shortly after leaving her house, Sophie encounters two creatures, a scarecrow and a dog:

She thought she saw a stick, a mile or so on, but when she hauled on it, it proved to be the bottom end of an old scarecrow someone had thrown into the hedge. Sophie heaved the thing upright. It had a withered turnip for a face. Sophie found she had some fellow feeling for it. Instead of pulling it to pieces and taking the stick, she stuck it between two branches of the hedge, so that it stood looming rakishly above the may, with the tattered sleeves of its stick arms fluttering over the hedge.


Sophie crawled…into the inside of the hedge, and discovered a thin gray dog in there. It was hopelessly trapped by a stout stick which had somehow got twisted into a rope that was tied around its neck. The stick had wedged itself between two branches of the hedge so that the dog could barely move. […] She reached into the hedge with [her] scissors and sawed away at the rope round the dog’s neck.

Both the dog and the scarecrow come back to help her or watch over her later in the book, repaying her acts of kindness toward them. Fairy tales were often used to teach children the dangers of the forest; but they were also lessons in behavior, as mean people often met gruesome ends while polite and generous people were rewarded.

All these examples come from the first quarter of Howl’s Moving Castle, and the fairy tales I’ve mentioned are all Grimm brothers tales. The rest of Howl’s Moving Castle is spent upending all of Sophie’s expectations, which makes for an excellently entertaining read. I very much enjoyed it, as I do all twisted or unconventional fairy tales. Perhaps I’ll update about it again after today’s meeting!

2 thoughts on “Howl's Moving Castle and Fairy Tale Norms

  1. I appreciate your distinction of “witty without being satirical.” That treatment of fairy tales is a rare thing to see in lame, Shrek-informed times such as these. Fairy tales are just as valuable to grownups as mythology and are also worth dissecting, like you do here.

    Must… ask… if you’ve read… Neil… Gaiman…

    1. Indeed! I enjoyed it a lot. Sometimes I think that society doesn’t really know how to treat fairy tales these days, even though all these new fairy tale movies are coming out. Are they fun, a la Mirror Mirror? Are they action-adventure fantasies, like Snow White and the Huntsman? Are they kitschy horror, like Red Riding Hood?

      I have read Neil Gaiman, haha, but certainly not enough. I’ve only read American Gods, Stardust, and Good Omens, and all three are on my favorite books list. I adored American Gods, because I’m a mythology nerd.

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