Note: this post contains spoilers for the novel Howl’s Moving Castle, which by the way is vastly different from the movie adaptation. If you’ve only seen the movie, reading this will probably confuse you.
Diana Wynne Jones was a genius.
If I were to explain all the ways her genius comes through her writing, I’d be here all day. But I’m going to focus on one thing — her use of the poem Song (by John Donne) in her novel Howl’s Moving Castle.
This poem is a very pretty sounding but rather negative verse about the infidelity of attractive women. It begins “Go and catch a falling star”, lists several other impossible tasks, and then posits that these are all far more likely than meeting a faithful woman (who would, of course, ultimately prove false). Jones takes the first two verses (i.e. the list of impossible things) and folds it very neatly into her story as a curse; once all these things come through, the Wizard Howl will be vulnerable to the Witch of the Waste and her fire demon.
It’s quite clever to weave an existing text into a plot like this. Of course it helps that Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fantasy setting, meaning that catching falling stars is actually possible, as long as you use seven-league boots. The real genius is that the themes of the poem are also tied to the themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, and cleverly reversed. It isn’t the women who are dishonest or unfaithful, it’s Howl, the dashingly handsome wizard who breaks hearts wherever he goes. When they see the line “And find/what wind/Serves to advance an honest mind”, it’s Howl’s mind they are referring to and this is thought impossible. This goes against the original poem, which comments only on women’s infidelity.
Of course, in the novel, all the impossible things come true, including Howl shaping up to be an honest person, capable of being faithful. There isn’t just a reversal of genders, but a reversal of the overall message. In Howl’s Moving Castle, it turns out the impossible is achievable, that ideas that may seem to be widely accepted, or set in stone (such as the protagonist’s belief that she is doomed to failure by virtue of her being the eldest) may look entirely different from a different point of view.
Diana Wynne Jones took a poem, wove its elements into the plot, and turned the poem’s message on its head. What a genius.