Thursday, January 23, 2014

Connecting with theme of childhood trauma to Howl's Moving Castle

On a recent trip to Vermont while visiting a good friend, I was reminded of the story of Howl's Moving Castle. My friend William, a master storyteller in his right recently viewed the film for the first time. He was so inspired by the fire demon character, Calcifer, and began to refer to the spirit of the fire in his own hearth fire place by that name. "Calcifer takes care of me," William says poking at the fire and setting it up to warm the house for the night.

Calcifer, from How's Moving Castle

I had not thought of the film in a very long time, not since I attended animation school at Sheridan College, in Oakville Ontario in the early 2000's. I was such a fan of Hayao Miyazaki in those days. His films were still done in the old style 2D animation, with masterfully hand-painted backgrounds and hand-drawn, frame by frame animation techniques. I preferred the artistry of Mizazaki to the 3D style of animation that was taking off in hollywood at the time.

So, needless to say, back in animation school with my eyes fixed on Studio Gibli's technique and the visual candy, I totally overlooked the relevance of the story theme and concept of a moving castle to my own life story. It was not until my friend William pointed out the obvious theme, Calcifer the fire spirit remains central to the hearth and life of Howl, who for one reason or another is unable to settle down. It dawned on me, "Howl is a nomad at heart, like me," I said to William. "But why? What drives him to move? Thank you, William! I need to watch this film again."  

Kuddos to British novelist Diana Wynne Jones for writing the story. I knew right away that the archetypes of Howl, Calcifer, and the Moving Castle were going to relevant to my life story, I just didn't know how. 

I finally watched it again yesterday and was blown away by what I had missed the first time. In fact, most of the reviews of Howl's Moving Castle that I found Online last night had missed it too. One of the most significant and important themes of Diana Wynne Jones' story is overcoming trauma.  

Howl is totally living with the impact of deep seated childhood trauma.

Other Online reviews of the film typically discuss themes like self-esteem, self-doubt, and other more basic common story motifs such as following one's destiny, being in love, growing old, and finding courage. Moreover, the common focus of most film reviews is on Sophie, the female character who falls in love with Howl, not on Howl himself.

It is so clear to me that Howl's story is so much deeper than just about finding courage. As the story develops we learn that in his youth as a student wizard, Howl is dazzled by a falling star. The interaction led him to lose his heart, and in the bargain, a fire demon named Calcifer came into his employ. 

Howl, now a beautiful young man is desired by many young women, but it is rumoured that any young woman that falls for him is destined to have their heart stolen for his evil purposes. Even Howl's apparent arch nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the Waste, had succumbed to Howl's beauty. She had fallen in love with him many years earlier, but vowed to make him suffer for never returning her affections. Her desire to possess Howl for herself eventually lead her to her own demise.

Howl's Moving Castle as seen from Sophie's Hat Shop Window.

Who is Howl as an archetype?

It is clear to me that Howl fits the orphan Motif. Howl lives in a moving castle, going from place to place, never staying in the same place for long. His magic castle allows him to enter different cities and places depending on the setting of a knob on the castle door. It also allows for a quick escape if so needed.

For further anonymity, Howl is known under many alias' throughout the kingdom. He claims this as be a way to stay totally free and in control of his own destiny, but he clearly becomes burdened by his alias' when multiple messages come from the King for each of his alias' to contribute their magical skills and gifts in support of the war. Howl shrinks back and begins to fear that he will be discovered at last.

This is typical of orphan characters: overwhelming fear of being discovered, and a preoccupation with regaining safety. When asked by Sophie, "Why does the castle move around so much?" Howl responds, "Moving around makes it harder to be found." 

My Theory about Howl's orphan character:
It was said that a falling star took Howl's heart. Howl also clearly has no parents, nor does he ever mention them. When Howl brings Sophie to his favourite place, a place of his youth, there are no adults around, only a mention of it being given to Howl by an uncle to get his thoughts together. Given the overwhelming sequences of war throughout the film, I see the falling star as analogous to an enemy air raid that took Howl's parents lives, leaving him orphaned and with overwhelming grief and loss that is too painful to face. Hence, Howl's lost heart.

Howl's Trauma
Like many survivors of trauma, Howl goes on to fight for others in life. He takes on a magical identity that allows him to fight warships on either front, claiming that it does not matter what side anyone is fighting for, all war is pointless. Sometimes the pain of personal loss is too heavy to face head on, and so often those wounded by tragic events go onto to support others. They become the wounded healers among us: therapists, social workers, doctors, nurses, special victims officers, activists, chaplains, priestesses, crisis counsellors. Like Howl, it through helping others that they are able to slowly come to face their own suffering.

While remaining care-free and autonomous in life is Howl's favourite aim, there is a deeper reason for not wanting to be found. Howl identifies as a coward at some point in the story, unable to stand up and be himself, always hiding from the truth. If anyone were to see Howl for what is true about his life, it would also force him to face that truth himself. Howl seems like anything but a coward, but in the case of facing his own truth he would rather turn and hide.  

After a fierce battle in which Howl seeks to save Sophie and everyone in his castle under his protection, he returns heavily wounded. We learn that Calcifer and Howl are linked, and Calcifer too is smouldering and struggling to reignite. It is said that if Calcifer were to go out Howl would also die. 

Sophie follows Howl back to his room which has now transformed into a deep dark cave. It is littered with child's toys embedded in rubble, resembling the aftermath of a warzone. In one of the far reaches in the dark Sophie finds Howl in his true form, a magical demonic mocking jay. "Leave me alone," he says.. He flees from Sophie who loves him either way, because Howl cannot bare to be seen like this.

Sophie goes in search of wounded Howl

Overcompensating for his weaknesses
Howl values his beauty like nothing else. He is blonde and blue-eyed, slim and suave. At one point he accidentally dyes his hair different colours and has a complete tantrum. He exclaims "I am nothing if I am not beautiful. I would rather die." 

Many adult survivors of childhood trauma, especially in cases of childhood sexual abuse, choose to focus on things like their appearance as their source of power. Many such survivors go on to use their appearance to leverage achievements or gain the favour of people around them. It is not uncommon for survivors of childhood trauma to enter personal relationships on the basis of their sexual appeal to a potential partner and the attention it gets them, and not through a heartfelt authentic connection with someone. Howl is an extremely powerful wizard, and yet he sees his beauty as his ultimate power, and yet he has never once fallen in love, not even with Sophie.

Its all in his head
To me it is no coincidence that Howl's story takes place in a magical world full of wizards and witches and marvellous flying machines. Much like in Kurt Vonnegut's, Slaughter House House, our main character is constantly materializing in time and magical space. He is not rooted in any time or place. He is preoccupied with magical kingdoms and realms of the mind. And yet, always the fight that Howl goes out to fight lays beyond the door to his deepest darkest fear. It is the black door to his psyche that always leads him to the battle field. It is in his truest, most wounded forms that he finds the strength he needs to fight.

We see further evidence to support this idea in the use of a clever device and the character Sophie. We first meet Sophie as an 18 year old woman working in a hat shop. She falls in love with Howl. The jaded former lover of Howl, the Wicked Witch of the Waste then curses Sophie in a fit of jealousy to become an old woman. Hence we see Sophie throughout the story changing and morphing through all ages of a woman's life, growing younger and older according to Howl's personal moods or abilities to be authentic with Sophie. In this way we see the analogous story of a young woman who falls in love with and marries a man traumatized in war. She spends the rest of her life trying to reunite her love with his heart.

At the end of the story Sophie discovers that Calcifer has Howl's heart. She reunites Howl with his lost heart and saves Calcifer too. The Queen seeing through her crystal ball that Howl has regained his heart then calls off the war. It is my belief that the war was always living on over and over as PTSD in Howl's head. Once he was able to face the weight of his own pain, and regain his heart, the war was finally over.

"My chest is so heavy," he says to Sophie after she restores his heart to him. The two live happily ever after as a married couple in sequels to the Howl's Moving Castle novel.


In my personal life, I am somewhat of a nomad. Rather I struggle to settle down. I have had 45 mailing addresses in my life. I suffer from PTSD from childhood trauma. I yearn for my own home, even to know what my own home sweet home would look like. 

I am heavily engaged with helping others to find their power and regain their sense of true self. I coach people on how to listen to their hearts. I have been blessed in my adulthood with so many people who are supportive and love me, and yet I constantly struggle to know what is in my own heart. I am torn between doing for myself and doing for others.

I love my adventures. I love the places they take me, the richness of my life experience will keep me telling stories for decades. But, in some ways I am tired of Robbie's Moving Castle. I am tired of carrying boxes from one place to another, of worrying about where to park myself, what to call home, of whether or not some one close is going to find out the truth about me. 

I suffered a number of traumatic events and conditions in my childhood including sexual abuse, lack of a stability in the home, violence, divorce, threats of being kidnapped, eviction from our home, poverty, emotional abuse, bullying, the list is long. My incredible single mother, bless her, was attacked in our own home by a drunk off duty police officer when I was five years old. Our lives were threatened with a repeat of rape, and a gun held to her head. The scars from that terrible invasion run deep even today. Unable to seek the support she needed, because the attacker was an officer of the law, my mother buried that terrible day in the back of her mind, but she was unable to keep it from poisoning us all. Without any other form of support and counselling, she confided in me instead. I knew about things I should not have known at my age.

My daily spiritual practice is always with me now, like Howl's hearth fire, Calcifer. One day I wish to root that flame into a physical cornerstone of my own. I am an artist, a dancer, a storyteller, a musician, a teacher, a writer, a healer, a spiritual counsellor. I live to help others realize their dreams, and to empower us all to share a path toward a greater and sustainable future for humanity and all living things. 

This is my truth. It has affected me deeply. It has made me into the beautiful angel that I am.


No matter what terrible events have happened in our lives we always have hope. We can always choose to cultivate and share our gifts and our strengths with each other, and eventually we will come home to ourselves. 

If you or someone you know suffers from childhood trauma, violence, PTSD or painful memories of sexual abuse there is hope. Look for it in your community. Get away from the dangers around you.  Find your allies. Have the courage to face the pain you feel inside. Work with them to heal you and each other. Help others do the same. 

You will find your power in this world. You are beautiful and you have so much to offer. There is much work to do now to heal our broken world, but we are well on our way. 

Be well!

May the peace and the love of the [Divine] go ever on in our hearts.

Robbie Sea

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