Breaking Sophie’s spell

"Sophie Hatter" | Art by steamey. Used with permission.
How much of our identity is made up of what other people think it should be?

At the beginning of Howl’s Moving Castle (and here I’ll note that I’m writing about the book. As much as I love the movie, the book just goes into more depth), Sophie Hatter seems to be fine with basing her identity on what society says. She lives in the land of Ingary where, as the eldest of three sisters, she is destined to live a mediocre life because everyone knows that only the youngest go on to fame and fortune.

After her father dies, the burden of raising three daughters and running a hat shop is too much for her step-mother, Fanny. The youngest daughter, Martha, who is obviously going to make something of herself, is shipped off to apprentice with Mrs Fairfax, a talented witch, so that she can have “witchcraft and rich friends to help her” (13). The second youngest, Lettie, goes to apprentice at the famous Cesari’s bakery, where she will probably find a husband and have a comfortable life. Sophie is to remain in the shop making hats. She’s okay with it because that’s just the way it is.

Her old-woman skin becomes her armour.

Except, she gets stuck. Sophie wants to go out into the world and do something interesting, but she can never find the time, or the energy, or the motivation. She believes the lie that society has told her—that she’s supposed to be a failure—and it debilitates her. Because of this she doesn’t realize her potential, doesn’t see the power that she has inside her.

While working in the hat shop, Sophie starts talking to the hats. “You have mysterious allure,” she tells one. “You are going to have to marry money!” she says to another. To one bonnet that looks plain and fussy she says, “You have a heart of gold and someone in a high position will see it and fall in love with you.” The next day Jane Farrier buys that bonnet and is wearing it when she runs away with the Count of Catterack. Business picks up and suddenly the shop is selling more hats than ever.

Sophie has the ability to talk life into things, and she doesn’t even know it.

Sometimes we need a little help, a push, to see the lies we’ve come to accept. For Sophie, that help comes in the form of a curse when the Witch of the Waste turns her into a 90-year-old woman.

It’s because of this curse that Sophie finds out the person she can be. She wants to break the curse, so she sets off to find a way to do it. This leads her to Howl’s castle, which has been roaming the hills outside her town. She bullies her way in (because the castle won’t stop for just anyone) and meets Calcifer, a fire demon who is bound to the fireplace. We learn that he is under a contract, and that he can see that Sophie is under a spell.

Sophie has the ability to talk life into things, and she doesn’t even know it.

A deal is struck: Calcifer will break Sophie’s spell if she breaks his contract. But, Calcifer needs time to study Sophie’s spell, and so she stays in the castle as Howl’s new cleaning lady. During her stay, Sophie  finds herself caught in the middle of a mystery revolving around a missing prince, the curse on Howl, and why the Witch of the Waste is after him. She also finds that, as an old woman, she isn’t as afraid as she used to be because she simply doesn’t care anymore. Her old-woman skin becomes her armour and she finds gumption and confidence in herself as she starts to use her power.

In the denouement, Howl defeats the Witch of the Waste, but there are still loose ends to tie up. Sophie has messed up and mistaken some information that could cost Howl his life. They race back to the castle, Howl explaining on the way:

“All my flanks are weak!… And then you go and play into the Witch’s hands!”
“I’m the eldest!” Sophie shrieked. “I’m a failure!”
“Garbage!” Howl shouted. “You just never stop to think!”

And maybe that was Sophie’s problem after all; she didn’t stop to think about her place in the world or why she was supposed to be a failure. Howl, though, has seen the person she could be all along and helps her see it too. As Sophie takes Howl’s advice and begins to think through her actions, she finds that she can use her power to effect change in her own life. And, when everything has been resolved, her curse is lifted and Sophie is back in her own skin, wholly different than the person she used to be. She chooses to stay with Howl and do something interesting with her life—because she realizes that she can. She doesn’t have to accept a life of failure anymore because she has the choice to do something about it.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld