A young woman named Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters living in the town of Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary, where many fairytale tropes are accepted ways of life, including that the eldest of three will never be successful. She is very deft with the needle and makes the most beautiful hats and dresses. She is able to unknowingly talk life into objects. As the eldest, she is resigned to the "fact" that she will have no chance of finding her fortune, accepting that she will have a dull life running the family hat shop; until she is turned into an old crone by the powerful Witch of the Waste, who was offended by Sophie's younger sister, and mistakes Sophie for her. Sophie leaves the shop and finds work as a cleaning lady for the notorious Wizard Howl, famed in her town for eating the hearts of beautiful young women. Sophie strikes a bargain with Howl's resident fire-demon, Calcifer: if Sophie can break the contract between Howl and Calcifer, then Calcifer will return Sophie to her original youthful teenage form. Part of the contract, however, stipulates that neither Howl nor Calcifer can disclose the main clause of the contract to any third party. Sophie tries to guess the specifics of the contract, while Calcifer supplies frequent hints which Sophie usually does not pick up.
Sophie soon learns that Howl, a rather self-absorbed, dishonest but ultimately good-natured person (and an extraordinarily powerful wizard), spreads these malicious rumors about himself to ensure his privacy and smears his own reputation to avoid work and responsibility. The door to his castle is actually a portal that opens onto four different places: the moving castle Sophie first encounters in the hills above Market Chipping, the seaside city of Porthaven, the royal capital of Kingsbury and Howl's boyhood home in Wales, where he was named Howell Jenkins.
Howl realizes that Sophie is under a spell and secretly attempts to remove the curse; when met with failure, he comes to the conclusion that Sophie simply enjoys being in disguise.
Howl's apprentice Michael Fisher runs most of the day-to-day affairs of Howl's business, while Howl chases his ever-changing paramours. Howl and Michael court Sophie's two younger sisters Lettie and Martha, respectively. Martha, the youngest, was sent to study magic, while the middle sister, Lettie, was apprenticed at a local bakery. Magically disguising herself as Lettie, Martha arranged for the two of them to switch places, as Fanny (Martha's mother and Sophie and Lettie's stepmother) did not take their wishes into account when arranging their apprenticeships.
When Prince Justin (the King's younger brother) goes missing while searching for Wizard Suliman (Benjamin Sullivan, also from Wales), the King orders Howl to find Suliman and Justin and to kill the Witch of the Waste. Howl, however, has his own reasons to avoid seeking a confrontation with the Witch of the Waste; the Witch, a jaded former lover, has laid a dark curse on him. Howl attempts to weasel out of it by having Sophie pretend to be his mother and petition against the appointment, but to no avail. Instead of blackening Howl's name as Sophie was asked to do, she gets him appointed the new Royal Wizard, the post he has been trying to avoid for years.
Howl spends an abnormal amount of time in the bathroom every day, and Michael tells Sophie that the day Howl does not spend hours making himself look beautiful for a girl is when he will truly believe that Howl is in love.
Howl continues to avoid the Witch of the Waste until she lures Sophie into a trap; believing that the Witch has taken Howl's current love interest, Lily Angorian, captive, Sophie goes to save her and is in turn captured by the Witch of the Waste. Howl comes to save Sophie, unshaven and with his hair in a mess, proving his love for Sophie, and defeats the Witch of the Waste. He knew all along that Miss Angorian was actually the Witch's fire demon in disguise. The Witch's fire demon had, over the years, taken control of the Witch and, once the Witch is defeated, tries to take Howl's heart to stay alive. Howl is able to stop the demon but fails because Miss Angorian took hold of Calcifer, who had been guarding Howl's heart, and tries to squeeze Howl's heart out of Calcifer. Sophie uses her ability of bringing things to life by talking to them to break the contract between Howl and Calcifer without killing either of them. Sophie has been unconsciously retaining the spell on herself, but her concern for Howl weakens the spell, and with the death of the Witch of the Waste (who was a significant force behind the spell as well), Calcifer, as he promised, breaks the spell surrounding her the second she concludes the contract between him and Howl. She immediately returns to her proper age. When Howl awakens, he destroys the witch's fire demon. This breaks the curse on Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin, whom the Witch had fused together in an effort to create a "perfect human" (Howl's head was meant to complete the being) to use as a puppet to rule Ingary.
Calcifer returns under the condition that he can come and go as he wishes. Michael and Martha end up together, as do Lettie and Wizard Suliman. Sophie and Howl admit they love each other (without actually saying it) and Howl suggests they live happily ever after as husband and wife.
Most of the novel is set in a fictional monarchy, Ingary; its capital is Kingsbury. Much of south-western Ingary is harsh wilderness referred to as "The Waste". Ingary is bordered by Strangia to the east and the Sultanates of Rashpuht to the south. Nearby is the country of High Norland; in the middle of the novel, the King of Ingary mentions that Ingary will likely go to war against both Strangia and High Norland soon.
Before the move, the castle wanders over the hills between Market Chipping and Upper Folding in the north. Howl's house is in fact based in a seaside town named Porthaven; Howl also occupies a disguised stable in Kingsbury. Chapter Eleven takes place in Wales. After the move, the castle sits at the edge of the Waste and Howl's house is moved to Sophie's childhood home in Market Chipping; they also occupy a grand but derelict mansion in Vale End (which is in the same valley as Market Chipping).
Howl's castle is a tall, black building with four thin turrets. It seems to be made of blocks of coal (a suitable habitat for a fire demon) and is "bespelled to hold together." It has four doors on the outside, although three are made inaccessible by an invisible wall.
The inside of the castle is made of the house where Calcifer is based, which is Howl's house in Porthaven at first, then the house by the hat shop in Market Chipping after the move in Chapter Seventeen. A "square wooden knob above the door, set into the lintel, with a dab of paint on each of its four sides" allows one to open the door into four different locations. Initially these locations are: in the hills above Market Chipping (green) that is, the door to the moving castle, in Porthaven (blue), in Kingsbury (red), and in Wales (black). However, after Howl is forced into hiding he changes the door's destinations to: in Market Chipping (yellow), in Vale End (orange), a garden in the waste (purple), and in Wales (black).
Before the move, the window over the workbench and the one in Michael's front room overlook Porthaven. Afterwards, the downstairs window looks out on a street in Market Chipping. The one in Howl's bedroom overlooks his sister's garden in Wales.
Sophie Hatter, the eldest of the Hatter sisters (18), has red hair and is rather pretty, although she doesn't perceive herself as such. She becomes more lovely as her confidence grows and she stops wearing grey. While her siblings' lives become increasingly adventurous and exciting, she finds herself resigned to run her father's old hat shop, as it is her "fate" as the oldest sister. One day the Witch of the Waste visits her shop, and, mistaking Sophie for Lettie, turns her into an old woman. Sophie leaves the hat shop and eventually becomes a cleaning lady in Howl's castle, hoping that he might be able to lift the curse placed on her by the Witch. She enters into a bargain with Calcifer, Howl's fire demon, that if she breaks the secret contract between Howl and Calcifer, Calcifer will break the spell on her. As the story progresses, she starts to fall in love with Howl, although she does her best to deny it; however when Howl begins "courting" Miss Angorian, Sophie really makes up her mind to leave because "Howl prefer[s] Miss Angorian", and therefore there's no reason to stay there anymore.
Though Sophie is initially reserved and lacking confidence, she demonstrates herself to be a strong-minded individual after she is transformed into an old woman, becoming less afraid of what others think of her. Dutiful, kind, and considerate, Sophie also has a tendency to be impulsive in her actions and often feels guilty when she does something wrong, though her attempts to rectify matters are usually disastrous. It is eventually revealed that Sophie possesses magical abilities of her own - she is capable of talking life into objects, though she initially is unaware of her powers and uses them unwittingly. When developed, they become very powerful, and it is assumed she can learn spells and charms as well.
Wizard Howl (27) is a mysterious, reclusive wizard, with a terrible reputation. He is known by a number of aliases; by birth, he is Howell Jenkins, but he goes by "Howl Jenkins" in Porthaven and his preferred "Howl Pendragon" in Kingsbury. When Howl was young, he gave Calcifer his heart in order for the fire demon to continue living because he felt sorry for him- this is implied to have sapped his humanity somewhat, and will continue to do so till he ends up like the Witch of the Waste. He is 27 (he states that he will soon be 10,000 days old, which is part of the Witch's curse) and known for being very flamboyant and "wicked". His notorious moving castle has recently been spotted near Market Chipping and rumors have begun to spread that he is searching for beautiful young women whose hearts he may steal and subsequently eat, or that he will devour their souls. He comes from Wales, a country unknown to most in the book, where his family still remains unaware of his activities in Sophie's world or of its existence; his sister is constantly annoyed by his disappearances, but he often visits them when troubled. Near the end of the story he confesses to Sophie that he is a real coward and the only way he can get himself to do something he really doesn't want to is to tell himself that he won't do it.
Despite his reputation, Howl is in reality a mostly endearing, charming man who is intelligent, considerate, if somewhat self-appreciative, dishonest, and stubborn at times. He enjoys "slithering out" of uncomfortable situations, often in comical ways. Even with his cowardly ways, he is an incredibly powerful wizard by Ingary standards, capable of matching the Witch of the Waste and is only not known as such because he wants to avoid the work that comes with the respect. His bond with Calcifer increases his powers.
Howl is described as being tall and suave, fond of dyeing his hair, and wearing impressive suits. He spends at least two hours in the bathroom every morning. However, he is described by Calcifer as "very vain for a plain man with mud-colored hair". His vanity causes him to throw hysterical fits when Sophie disturbs his bathroom potions, causing his hair to go the wrong color, or when she accidentally ruins his clothes. Howl is not naturally handsome, but he has "charm," both literally and figuratively. Michael tells Sophie that "the day Howl forgets to [perform his daily beauty regimen] will be the day I believe he's really in love, and not before." When Howl arrives to save Sophie from the Witch of the Waste, he is unshaven and altogether ungroomed, proof that he truly loves Sophie. Later on, he chooses to settle with Sophie, they marry and have a child named Morgan. He is modeled on the Byronic hero.
Calcifer is Howl's resident fire demon. As the result of a mysterious bargain with Howl some years ago he agrees to heat and power the castle. Although he is bound to the hearth he has a great amount of magic. He promises to use his magic to break the curse on Sophie, providing she breaks the contract between him and Howl. Howl describes Calcifer as "his weakest point", because Calcifer wouldn't give away another demon if it entered the castle, even if it had hostile intentions. However, Howl's statement is true in more ways than one.
Calcifer is powerful, but can be just as cowardly as Howl, preferring to run from the Witch rather than fight her. However, he, also like Howl, will fight when the need arises. He is also fairly crabby and a little mean-spirited, which stems from being bound to the hearth in the moving castle for over five years. He has a natural fear of water, and also worries quite frequently about running out of logs, which are essentially his food. Sophie seems to be the only one capable of forcing him to do anything he doesn't want to do, a trait she also extends to Howl, and to a lesser extent, Michael as well.
He is also the first one to recognize Sophie's incredible ability to talk life into the world around her, which is the reason he allowed her into the castle in the first place and was so eager to make a bargain with her - if anyone but she were to break the contract he had with Howl, then Calcifer would die. Fortunately, she is able to talk life into him, and he survives losing Howl's heart, even deciding to continue living with them after he is freed.
The Witch of the Waste is one of the most powerful magicians in all of Ingary. She was banished by the late King to The Waste fifty years before the story starts for causing havoc in the country. She and Howl had a brief relationship (while she was disguised as a beautiful young woman) which led to him leaving her hurriedly. Angered by this, the Witch cursed Howl, so that upon falling in love he would have to return to the Witch. She also puts a spell on Sophie at the start of the story, turning her into an old crone.The Witch is also revealed to have made a supposedly perfect man out of the combined parts of Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin, intending to complete the body with Howl's head and make the man King of Ingary and herself queen. She is killed by Howl at the end of the book.Michael Fisher is Howl's 15-year-old apprentice. He originally lived in Porthaven until both his parents died, leaving him an orphan. He had to leave his house because he couldn't pay the rent and slept on Howl's doorstep. Howl found him there one morning and told him to stay inside whilst he went out. Michael started talking to Calcifer and he believes that Howl was impressed with this when he returned. Howl didn't tell him to stay but he also never told him to leave, so Michael started helping out of his own accord. He eventually became Howl's apprentice, and he does his best to make sure that Howl doesn't spend all their money. He often goes to Cesari's, a bakery in Market Chipping, where he buys pies and other baked goods. He met Martha there and fell in love with her. Sophie later realizes that she saw Michael at Cesari's on May Day before she was cursed by the Witch of the Waste. He's described by Sophie as "a nice boy, but a bit helpless in a crisis." He's rather nice and patient but isn't quite as fast-thinking as Howl, therefore making Mrs. Pentstemmon say he was "not smart enough to make trouble".
Lettie Hatter is Sophie's seventeen-year-old sister. She is considered the most beautiful of the three Hatter sisters, and has dark hair. Initially, she is an apprentice at Cesari's, a pastry shop in Market Chipping, but because she wishes to learn magic, she and Martha switch places using a temporary appearance altering spell. A strong minded young woman, Lettie becomes fond of a stray dog which is in fact a bespelled Wizard Suliman. When she finds out Sophie has been bespelled and lives in Howl's castle, she sends the dog to protect Sophie from Howl's charm. Howl tries to woo Lettie, but upon discovering that Lettie is the bespelled Sophie's sister, he begins approaching Lettie in order to ask questions about Sophie instead. At the end of the novel, she is taken as an apprentice by Ben Sullivan, where a romantic attachment is hinted.
Martha Hatter is Sophie's youngest sister and thought of as the smartest of the three. She is slender and fair with big grey eyes. Fanny arranges her to become Mrs Fairfax's apprentice, though Martha and Lettie switch appearances temporarily in order to switch places. Martha happily works as an apprentice at Cesari's, a renowned pastry shop, and her ambition is to get married and have ten children. She loves Michael Fisher. When Howl laments that he loves Lettie Hatter, Michael hurries to Cesari's to learn if Martha, still disguised as Lettie, has been courted by Howl. Martha assures him she has never met Howl and Michael knows she isn't lying because she 'twiddled her thumbs the whole time', and she only stops doing that when she lies.
Fanny Hatter is Mr Hatter's second wife. She used to be the youngest, prettiest shop assistant in the hat shop. She is Martha's mother and is kind to all three girls. When she is widowed, she takes charge of the hat shop and places Lettie and Martha in promising apprenticeships, whilst keeping Sophie to trim hats. Shortly after Sophie disappears, she marries a wealthy man, Mr Sacheverell Smith (possibly thanks to a hat Sophie talked to life), moves to a grand mansion in Vale End and sells the hat shop to Howl. She continues to worry about Sophie, who mysteriously disappeared, and is relieved and happy when they meet again.
The King of Ingary employs Howl to produce transport spells. When the Witch of the Waste threatens his baby daughter Valeria, he sends Suliman the Royal Wizard to the Waste to deal with the Witch. When the King's brother disappears whilst looking for Wizard Suliman, he asks Howl to look for the missing men and get rid of the Witch of the Waste. He then appoints Howl as the Royal Wizard, a move which creates a bad mood in the household of the moving castle.
Prince Justin is the younger brother of the King of Ingary. Unsettled by Suliman's disappearance, he sets off to find him only to go missing himself. The King of Ingary describes Justin as a brilliant general; with threats of war looming from both Strangia and High Norland, the King of Ingary becomes anxious and insistent that Prince Justin be found.
Mrs Penstemmon is a grand, talented old witch. She taught Mrs Fairfax, Suliman, and finally Howl; she is also mentioned as the teacher of Matilda, the Witch of Montalbino, in House of Many Ways. She is proud of Howl's talent and wants him to be a good person but she is concerned he is heading the same way as the Witch of the Waste. When Sophie visits her while pretending to be Howl's mother, Mrs Penstemmon encourages Sophie to break the contract between Howl and Calcifer. She detects Sophie's magical gift and sees instantly that she's cursed, but cannot lift the Witch's spell. She is killed by the Witch of the Waste when she refuses to tell the Witch where Howl is.
Wizard Suliman is the Royal Wizard and personal advisor to the King of Ingary. He originally comes, like Howl, from Wales, where he was known as Benjamin Sullivan. He was Mrs Penstemmon's second-to-last pupil. It was Suliman who banished the Witch of the Waste to the Waste. When the Witch threatens the King of Ingary's young daughter, he is dispatched to the Waste by the King. There he starts growing bushes and flowers in an attempt to reduce her power, but the Witch catches him. He projects most of his magic onto a scarecrow, which Sophie will talk life into. The Witch puts him to pieces and sells off his skull and guitar. She reassembles his body with parts of Prince Justin's (the head in particular) and calls him Gaston. She uses him to find out about Wales in order to get to Howl, then casts a spell on him that turns him into a dog. Calcifer guesses that one of his aliases is Percival. He takes on Lettie as an apprentice, because he is at least as strong willed as she is.
Mrs Annabel Fairfax is a witch, a former pupil of Mrs Penstemmon's. A widow, she lives in Upper Folding and is a friend of Fanny's. She is "a plump, comfortable lady, with swathes of butter-coloured hair". She is chatty and uses home-made honey in her spells. She discovers quickly that Martha and Lettie have switched places, but accepts Lettie as her apprentice anyway and encourages her to accept Howl's advances and become his pupil, though she eventually chooses Suliman instead. Though she tries, she is unable to lift the dog-man's spell.
Lily Angorian is an attractive schoolteacher in Wales who claims to be Benjamin Sullivan's fiancée. As such, she refuses to allow Howl to court her, though Sophie comes to believe that Howl is infatuated with her. She is later revealed to be the Witch of Waste's Fire Demon, and tries to take Howl's heart when the Witch of the Waste is killed. With the destruction of the Witch's heart, she is killed.
Howl's Moving Castle explores several themes, including: destiny, youth, courage and love. The first two are central to Sophie's progression. Early on, her perceived notion of destiny makes her believe that she is doomed to fail because she is the eldest of three sisters. This is in contrast to Howl, who sees himself as the master of his own fate, unafraid of what society thinks of him or what their conventions demand. Sophie's self-perceived failure is reflected in the Witch of the Waste's spell, which causes her outward appearance to become old and dull.
In 2004 an animated film was released, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli. The film broke box office records in Japan, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In 1986 Howl's Moving Castle was one of two runners-up for the annual Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in Fiction, behind In Summer Light by Zibby Oneal. It was also named one of that year's ALA Notable Books for Children.
Jones and Howl won the annual Phoenix Award from the Children's Literature Association in 2006, recognizing the best children's book published twenty years earlier that did not win a major award. Allusion to the mythical bird phoenix, which is reborn from its ashes, suggests the winning book's rise from obscurity.
The Christian deathcore band "A Thousand Times Repent" took inspiration from Howl's Moving Castle in their EP Virtue Has Few Friends. The song "Take Me to the Witch of the Waste... We Have Much to Discuss" mentions The Witch of Waste and Suliman.