Howl & The Heavy Burden of a Heart
My kids and I were in a Box Lunch (the less broody / less emo version of Hot Topic) and we were scouring through the pins and buttons as a very excited employee squealed “HAVE YOU SEEN THE NEW TURNIP HEAD PIN!!!!???” I had seen it, but hadn’t watched Howl’s Moving Castle yet. But she was soooo excited, and I didn’t want to bring her down, so I equally loudly replied “YES!!! It’s GREAT!” I then proceeded to purchase the pin. My kids and I left, and went home and watched Howl’s Moving Castle. We were in the process of making it through all the Ghibli movies, but this seemed like the most opportune time.
A few months later I announced on the Faith & Fandom Facebook page that I was writing a chapter on the movie, and a handful of you adamantly commented about the book version, so I put writing this off until I read the book. Which honestly was a really wise choice. While the movie is beautiful, the book has a much richer story and really has a more functional storyline, even though it is more elaborate. This essay/chapter will be a mix of the book and movie, but if you are missing one, the other, or both, just roll with it. There are so many great themes and messages within the story. How we perceive ourselves, how we project on others, the value of true beauty etc. The heart of the concept still remains though, and the heart of the concept is the heart itself. The themes and values of how we handle our hearts is what stuck with me most, and that’s what I'm sharing with you now.
As you delve through the story you find that Calcifer the fire demon had once been a shooting star.
““Calcifer,” Sophie said, “were you ever a falling star?”
Calcifer opened one orange eye at her. “Of course,” he said. “I can talk about that if you know. The contract allows me to.”
“And Howl caught you?” said Sophie.
“Five years ago,” said Calcifer, “out on Porthaven Marshes, just as he set up as Jenkin the Sorcerer. He chased me in seven-league boots. I was terrified of him. I was terrified anyway, because when you fall you know you’re going to die. When Howl offered to keep me alive the way humans stay alive, I suggested a contract on the spot. Neither of us knew what we were getting into. I was grateful, and Howl only offered because he was sorry for me.”
So, in a nutshell, Howl was chasing after something He shouldn’t have. And once He actually got hold of it, the only way to maintain it, was to sacrifice his heart. This truly sounds like something I've experienced, and I'm pretty sure many others have as well. Pursuing things that consume or crush out heart. Relationships you have no business or availability to pursue, chasing things to bring yourself fame and a shallow sense of validation, social media presence, the possibilities are endless. The result is the same, we chase things, and our heart is the collateral damage.
In a climactic battle in the book Sophie ends up holding Calcifer and comes to the realization she is truly holding Howl’s heart, “Sophie could feel that the dark lump of Howl’s heart was only beating very faintly between her fingers. It had to be Howl’s heart she was holding. He had given it away to Calcifer as his part of the contract, to keep Calcifer alive. He must have been sorry for Calcifer, but, all the same, what a silly thing to do.”
Sophie is right in saying it’s a silly thing to do. When we sacrifice and give our heart away too easily, we endanger not only our emotional well-being, but our lives as a whole. There’s a verse in Proverbs that warns us to actually make sure we are keeping our heart safe.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” - Proverbs 4:23.
Sure, keeping your heart in the center of a moving castle sounds like a pseudo logical way of keeping it guarded, you know your heart is damaged and wounded so you continually stay on the move, avoiding any real connections, and giving everyone false representations of yourself to make sure that what remains of your heart isn’t in danger. We don’t have disheveled castles around our hearts, but many of us spend so much effort on avoiding letting anyone close. Over the last generation the term of “catch feelings” has become standard. People literally trying to skate as close to intimacy and connection as possible, but without letting your heart getting involved. That’s not guarding your heart, that’s trying to function without it, and puts your heart in just as much danger. Howl was always reckless with his heart. This was Howl’s standard practice of existence, which built his reputation. As Michael states in the book,
“If you knew the trouble we’ve had because Howl will keep falling in love like this! We’ve had lawsuits, and suitors with swords, and mothers with rolling pins, and fathers and uncles with cudgels. And aunts. Aunts are terrible. They go for you with hat pins.”
And Calcifer echoes similarly,
“Howl’s very fickle,” said Calcifer. “He’s only interested until the girl falls in love with him. Then he can’t be bothered with her.”
Even though Howl was operating separately from his heart, he was still blindly following his emotions, and desires. He longed to feel love. He longed to be chosen, and desired. He wanted that spark that made him feel alive, but the condition of his heart made that almost impossible to be a reality. This is the same struggle we face when we are pursuing our feelings, desires, and heart. No, we haven’t made a contract with a fire demon to co-sign our hearts (maybe you have, I don’t know your life), but we are operating under the reality that our hearts are tainted with sin and that greatly throws of the calibration of trustworthiness.
Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Even Jesus stated that the stuff that comes from our heart isn’t always solid, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” - Matthew 15:19.
So yeah, our hearts aren’t always the most reliable. That doesn’t mean they are hopeless or beyond redemption, it just means that sometimes when they are left unattended or to fester in their own bitterness, our hearts can get worse. There’s this interaction between Michael, Sophie, and Calcifer in the book,
“At least, I suppose I can't blame Calcifer, since he's an evil demon. But you you Michael-!"
"I don't think I'm evil," Calcifer protested.”
Calcifer didn’t want to be simply labeled as evil, and I don’t want you to think because you have a heart tainted by sin that you are evil or hopeless either. We just need to be cautious and understanding of the conditions of our heart.
That’s what happened to the Witch of the Waste, she let her heart/fire demon go too far for too long. Her character was greatly neutered/watered down in the film. She became a sympathetic casualty of Howl’s exploits, but in the book, both she and her Fire Demon were fierce adversaries.
Mrs. Pentstemmon explains to Sophie what happened to the Witch in the book, “‘But I now see,’ she said, ‘what has happened to the Witch. She made a contract with a fire demon and, over the years, that demon has taken control of her.”
The Witch of the Waste let her fire demon have control of her heart for so long, that she completely lost herself. When we allow the sinful elements of our heart to have free reign, the same is possible for us as well. There have been so many times in my life I've given my heart over to things and people that had no business possessing it. Sometimes the intentions were great, other times they were purely selfish. But without fail when I let my heart remain in the wrong place, damage was done. Sadly, it was a lesson that wasn’t easily learned as I would even often make the same mistake repetitively.
Near the conclusion of the book Howl reveals that’s actually why he wanted Sophie to break the spell, so that both He and Calcifer could be free, and so that he wouldn’t end up as a hopeless case as the Witch of the Waste.
Others were worried about the damage Howl would do in his current state as well, "That boy is extremely dangerous. His powers are far too great for someone without a heart." Madam Suilaman. When we operate in heartless ways, we can do so much damage to ourselves, to others, and to the Kingdom of God.
Howl knew it was coming, that he was going too far, and needed his heart to be freed. "But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” The water running out of Howl's eyes was definitely tears now."
Howl brought Sophie into his life with the intention of breaking the contract that held his heart in captivity, even if the captivity wasn’t always torturous. Sophie’s stubborn love and determination proved enough to free Howl and Calcifer from their bond, and scripture teaches us that God can do the same for us.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you.” - Ezekiel 36:25-29
Having our hearts changed isn’t always peaceful and easy, sometimes it’s quite painful. As Sophie pushed Howl’s heart back in him in the movie he stated, “"I feel terrible like there's a weight on my chest." In the book Howl equated it to a hangover. Either one is not the most fun description. But it’s worth the temporary pain to be able to live more freely within ourselves and in the eyes of God.
When we know the condition of our hearts are in the wrong place, we need to do what we can to remedy them. Sometimes that’s as simple as repentance, or prayer. Sometimes though we need God to do a big work in them. David to me is the Biblical person the strikes me the most like Howl. The recklessness, the passion, the horrible life choices with women. But in the midst of all his failures and faults, he prays this prayer.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. - Psalm 51:10-17
In Acts 13, and 1 Samuel 13, David is referred to as a man after God’s heart. Not that he possessed God’s heart, but rather that he pursued God’s heart. We can be as fickle as Howl or as faulted as David, but if we actually pursue to have our hearts be right and restored, we are moving in a direction that brings life.
A heart is a heavy burden, but it’s a burden God can gladly bare.