In Which I Am Happy To Identify With Wizard Howl

In an unprecedented move, I actually finished a Korean drama without prompting. In the past, I would only watch those shows if (a) they are funny; and (b) they have incredible dance moves, i.e. Kim Sam Soon.

Now. I am the sort of person you can easily drag down multiple rabbit holes. I cannot just read one page of TV Tropes. No. I have to go through every interesting link I find. It is not surprising to find more than twenty tabs of TV Tropes open once I get started.

So it should come as no surprise that watching You From Another Star resulted in three things:

  1. My obsession with Jeon Ji-Hyun’s makeup.
  2. My obsession with the accuracy of the historical aspect of the show.
  3. My obsession with the book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

The protagonist of You From Another Star identified with Edward Tulane — a china rabbit who is punished because he doesn’t know how to love other people — and the book is referenced multiple times in the show.

Particularly notable is this quote:

I have learned how to love. And it’s a terrible thing. I’m broken. My heart is broken. Help me.

I read the book. I hated it.

I know it’s a book for children. Doesn’t matter. It still has to answer for its senseless premise: why would you even expect a china rabbit to know love?

What the hell is wrong with you?

(It is perhaps quite obvious now that I really dislike the book. Frowny face here.)

But this post isn’t about You From Another Star, or Edward Tulane, or love.

It’s about identification.

Frankly, I feel bad for the dude who identified with Edward Tulane. It’s so bleak and unhappy to identify with such a dramatically unfortunate character. Sure, the ending’s happy, but I don’t think I want to identify with a rabbit who has his noggin broken into 21 pieces.

Nope.

I mentioned once before that Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite book. With much deference to Hayao Miyazaki’s version, I have to say that the book is one hundred percent more magical and more meaningful as far as I am concerned.

This is because the movie creates a Howl that is almost one million times different from the real Howl — a thing I have decided to talk about now.

Or eventually.

Let me start by saying this: when I was younger, I lived my life like I was Stephen Chow in a Stephen Chow movie. God of Cookery is remarkable to me because of two things. First, it is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Second, it taught me that you can be a terrible person and it will all be fine, as long as you are smart.

You can be a total asshole and nobody will care, because you’re the asshole who gets things done.

So for most of my teenage years, plus my years in college, I honestly believed that I could be as horrible as I wanted and it would be fine, because I’m the Stephen Chow in this Stephen Chow movie.

Until, of course, I got out of school and into “the real world”.

I learned two things then:

  1. I’m not actually that smart.
  2. People skills count.

I had zero people skills, because I spent most of my life assuming that my brain would get me through. It’s hard to work with people when you don’t like people and you’re scared of people, and all your false bravado is swept away.

I can still get things done, and occasionally people still think that I am pretty good (at whatever it is I do, I’m not quite sure what, either), but the problem is that I know the truth now, and my youthful hubris is gone.

So.

Let’s get back to Wizard Howl.

Howl is intelligent and a good wizard, but not really quite the best. He’s okay. He’s mediocre.

He’s vain. He’s shallow. He’s stuck up.

He tries to slither out of things. He throws tantrums. He’s an absolute terror when ill.

He’s afraid.

When I first read Howl’s Moving Castle, I immediately fell in love with Sophie Hatter. Author Diana Wynne Jones once noted with much mirth that she found it weird how so many women wanted to marry Howl despite his terrible personality.

I read the book but I didn’t want to marry Howl.

I wanted to marry Sophie.

Because Sophie is the dream.

Howl is scared, because he knows his limitations. His bravura requires that he be show-offy and dramatic, but in truth he knows he’s almost always in over his head.

He’s constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for people to realize that he’s mediocre rather than excellent.

With Sophie, though, there’s no need to put up false pretenses, because she already knows his weaknesses and she doesn’t care.

So every time I feel scared, overwhelmed, anxious, in over my head, I crack open my copy of Howl’s Moving Castle and let Sophie take care of me.

In Which I am Sidetracked By a Throw-away Plot Point

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Castle in the Air

Diana Wynne Jones


And so I'm here, with the last book in the Howl series, except it's not the last (it's the first companion book), it's not really about Howl, and it's barely a series.

Those caveats aside, I suppose I should clarify. House of Many Ways is the second companion book, meaning I should have read this one first. Then again, as I've mentioned in the last review, it's really not a big deal, because apart from a few details in Howl and Sophie's family it doesn't really matter what order your read it in.

This time it's more of an Aladdin adventure, except the protagonist is Abdullah, and there's a rather clever explanation for the seeming employment of fairy tale tropes. It's a lot more fun than House of Many Ways and at no point did I want to smash Abdullah's face in.

Still, it's much less fun than the original Howl novel. If you think about it, nothing is as fun as the first novel. (Pardon the rabid fan-girling.)

But I suppose my biggest issue with Castle in the Air is the casual mention of a war between Ingary and Strangia – one that Howl and Suliman helped Ingary win. When Abdullah gets to Ingary he discovers that the kingdom has annexed Strangia.

How is that not an issue?

Why is that not a bigger deal?

Seriously? Annexation?

It was mentioned so casually that even when Howl is chastised in the end because of his participation in the war, it doesn't seem important at all and Howl is ashamed but not too concerned.

War! Annexation!

Are we to assume Howl and Suliman helped Ingary win the war with marshmallow bombs and candy cane guns? I mean I understand this is a novel for younger readers, but really?

I'm not one of those hippies who think all wars are wrong and soldiers are to be viewed as murderers. I understand enough about the world to know that sometimes, we fight because we need to. I also think people who participate in wars aren't monsters. Sometimes they're just doing what they think is right, and to condemn them is to be narrow-minded.

What gets me is how nonchalant the novel treats wars and forced occupation. Definitely it's not something I'd ever consider cool or fun.

 

In Which I am Rather Disappointed

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House of Many Ways

Diana Wynne Jones


I blew through Howl's Moving Castle so fast that I was left wanting more. Of course I made a mistake and picked up the second companion book instead of the first one, but it's not really a problem. In both books Howl and Sophie (plus Calcifer and a new addition to the dysfunctional family) are peripheral characters who sort of show up to save the day.

Crazy Wizard Ex Machina.

Anyway, House of Many Ways is interesting but suffers sorely from the presence of a horrible protagonist. Charmain is no Sophie, and if I took a shot every time I was tempted to smack her, I'd never have finished the book, written this post, and would have probably died of alcohol poisoning.

I suppose it's unfair to call this a Howl book, because there is very little Howl and Sophie in it. I'm possibly rather biased, because I really only got interested when they showed up.

It's a ”companion” book, so I take it that means we get a bit of our crazy family stuck in the middle of a tedious adventure and that's it.

How meh is it? Halfway through I was tempted to just go back and re-read Howl's Moving Castle. Harrumph.

 

In Which I Fall in Love with Sophie Hatter

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Howl's Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones

 

It's not every day I fall in love with a fictional character. Most of the time the characters I love most are the ones I can identify with, like Lizzy Bennet (we're both judgmental and sarcastic) and BBC Sherlock (we're both awful and arrogant). Except, of course, Sherlock is a genius and Lizzy married a man with a mansion so big it requires its own name.

To make it clear: I don't want to marry Sherlock; I want to be Sherlock.

Now all that has changed. I think I'm finally really, truly, madly, deeply in love with a fictional character. I'm in love with Sophie Hatter.

I suppose it all started with the trends. There's the badass female, and then there's the manic pixie dream girl. Both are “supposed” to be idolised and loved. You seem them all over the place: television and the movies and books. I suppose I still like badass women (always will) and the manic pixie dream girl is okay in small doses, but when everything you see is saturated with cookie cutter archetypes who've traded in actual characterisation for familiarity, then I'm out.

Sophie Hatter is different. You know how some female characters tend to be all mopey and lacking in confidence yet are secretly perfect? The Mary Sue, ladies and gentlemen. Well Sophie is none of that. She's resigned to the fact that she'll be living a fairy tale trope, where the eldest child never amounts to anything (because it's the youngest who gets to go on fun adventures). She's not insecure or unhappy, or at least she's not continuously consumed by it.

There is no constant “woe is me”. It's Howl who does that with his incessant whining, but that's another story.

She's just strong without having to constantly remark on all her hardships. She loves Howl without mooning over him. She helps people without acting like it's a big deal. She just goes about matter-of-factly, recognising her weaknesses and strengths, indulging in pettiness occasionally, succumbing to jealousy (rather than weeping she cuts up Howl's clothes, which is insane but realistic), and basically just being herself.

Sophie has her insecurities, and over time she learns to appreciate herself more, but perhaps what's so remarkable – for me, at least – is how she manages to avoid the annoying way most fictional females harp so much on how they're so different and special and unique snowflakes.

If you have to tell people how crazy and unique and different you are, then sweetheart you probably aren't.

And that's just it, I guess. Diana Wynne Jones managed to create less than perfect characters and gave them real personalities. They are not placeholders. They are not special snowflakes. They are people.

As far as I'm concerned Sophie Hatter is completely, flawfully human, and I'm in love with her.