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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

This is a perfect example of how the best young adult novels can appeal to readers of any age.  Howl's Moving Castle is an absolutely engaging fantasy novel that plays with fairy tale tropes before detouring abruptly yet seamlessly (if that makes sense) into another world.  It's also a sweet romance, a magical adventure, and a coming-of-age tale; Jones even finds time for quoting John Donne (love him) and Shakespeare.

And if that weren't enough, there are some subtle but interesting gender politics in the book.  After Sophie, a somewhat meek young woman, is turned into an old lady by a witch, she realizes that
It was odd. As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said.  She found that a great relief.
And indeed, Sophie does gain quite a bit of confidence and assertiveness throughout her adventures, feeling that her (apparent) age and appearance allow her to get away with behavior that would not otherwise be tolerated.  It reminded me of the Witch in Into the Woods, who gains back her youth and beauty at the end of the first act (spoiler!), but loses her magical powers in the process.  Back in law school I was the costume designer for a production of the play, and the director and I (hi Emily!) briefly considered dressing the Witch in a dowdy suit and helmet of hair, calling to mind certain female politicians.  Like the crone of the triple goddess, older women can sometimes command a great deal of authority and power, and can be intimidating or scary.*

Another way to look at it is the freedom that comes from being old and ugly in a society that values youth and beauty in women.  If no one really pays attention to you because you are past your prime, you can do whatever you want, and will no longer feel constrained by the desire to be appealing.

What makes Jones's version of this interesting is that the male protagonist falls in love with Sophie while she is transformed.  It's a longstanding fairy tale tradition, of course (and see "The Wife of Bath's Tale" for a proto-feminist take), but the fact that Sophie's transformation allows her personality to fully develop (which is what makes her desirable to her future husband) puts a modern spin on it.

Best of all?  There are two sequels, which I am tracking down.

*Which isn't to say that there is no power in youth and beauty; there is, but it tends to be romantic or sexual in nature, and dependent on other people.


  1. I've been thinking a lot about this - about what we value in women. I don't know if you caught Louis CK on Saturday Night Live, but he talked about how older women are untethered from caring what you think, and therefore they are awesome. And that's true, to some extent (though I know my grandmother was worried about all of that forever). I have noticed that my mom was right, you care a lot less about what other people think as you age, and I think particularly as you become a mom. Suddenly you have more important things to think about. I wish I could give that attitude as an occasional gift to younger women.

    And Emma would have looked pretty funny in helmet hair, but I don't think she would ever have forgiven us :-)

  2. It's something I've been thinking about in my personal life, too. I have reached the point where I no longer turn anybody's head except Mr. Beadgirl's. It's not much of a loss, because I wasn't that much of a head-turner to begin with and because I am uninterested in doing what's necessary to look younger than my age, but I can't help but at least notice the loss as I walk amongst models, college students, "yummy mummies" (I hate that phrase), and "ladies who lunch." It's freeing, though, too. There really is more to life that having someone else think you are young and pretty.