House of Many WaysThis book is set in a magical otherworld, one in which wizards and witches abound and magic is somewhat commonplace, though there are those, like Charmain’s mother, who don’t think it quite respectable. Charmain, who has never been either encouraged or inclined to do anything except read, is quite unprepared to look after a magical house and a self-willed little dog, even with the help of a hapless would-be wizard’s apprentice. She would rather work in the king’s library, but even there she is enlisted by the Wizard Howl and his wife Sophie to help solve the mystery of the realm’s vanishing revenues.

Elves and kobolds are the members of the Folk who appear in this book. I do not of course count the loathsome insectile lubbock or its evil humanoid offspring.

The elves appear as a kind of magical medical personnel, taking the afflicted Wizard Norland away to be cured. “A procession of tall, tall elves walked quietly in. They were all most medically dressed in white and there was no expression on their beautiful faces at all.” Charmain finds them quite unnerving, their gentle gracefulness making her feel clumsy and disorderly. One of the elves returns later, and is similarly grave and calm, despite the alarming news he brings. We also learn that the royal family has elven ancestors, and indeed the King is notably tall and mild. He confides in Charmain: “Nobody really trusts elves. Great mistake, in my opinion.” He later mentions in connection with the unpleasant characters of some of his family: “They tell me it can be like that when elf blood goes sour, but I think it’s just people, really.” A mysterious Elfgift is supposed to bring prosperity and protection to the kingdom but it has been missing for a long time.

The kobolds, by contrast, are small, blue and ugly. Charmain first encounters Rollo, the wizard’s gardener, when he tries to trick her into letting him chop down the wizard’s hydrangeas. His face is described as “crumpled with bad-tempered wrinkles and almost filled with a big nose.” Later on, Charmain and Peter (the apprentice) are mobbed by angry kobolds, “little blue men with different shapes of large blue noses” and “little blue women… distinguished by their smaller, gentler noses and their rather stylish flounced blue skirts.” They are angry because they disapprove of the multicoloured hydrangeas – hydrangeas should be blue, and they blame the wizard. It seems the kobolds normally take care of the wizard’s house and garden, working only at night like brownies, but they are clearly on strike and have gone so far as to magically remove the taps from the wizard’s kitchen. It is later discovered that greedy Rollo has been bribed by the lubbock to make trouble.

The kobolds live in a cave which can be reached by one of the house’s “many ways”. They are clearly skilled craftsmen, making rocking horses, dolls’ houses, cuckoo clocks and so on. Charmain finds them building a magnificent sled chair, a commission for the elves – apparently the elves always pay well.

There is at least one other tribe of kobolds in the country, in the service of the unpleasant Crown Prince. This lot are more greyish-green than blue and look unhappy and unhealthy. The chief blue kobold agrees with Charmain that they are in a bad way, but shrugs “they have not asked for help yet.” It seems hydrangeas are more worth making a fuss about.

The ending of the book is quite splendidly satisfactory, with the wizard returning, and the Elfgift found, prosperity restored and in general everyone suited.

Robin: I think you should perhaps mention the fire demon Calcifer – who is not so much a demon in the usual sense, more of an elemental spirit in the form of a fiery blue teardrop. He also appears in the two earlier books Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air (heavily disguised in the latter), and it seems he was originally a star which fell to earth. Not conventional Folk, but very strongly magical.