Prior to reading The Little Prince (or, in the original French, Le petite prince), I would have told you that I was “familiar” with it. I would have simply left out the fact that my familiarity only extended to the bits they quoted in One Tree Hill voice-overs and epigraphs of famous novels. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this children’s book than quaint aphorisms…
The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. How he managed to both write and illustrate such a perennially popular moral allegory, a “spiritual biography”, under those circumstances, I’ll never know…
It was first published in New York, in April 1943, but not published in France – or French, the language in which Saint-Exupéry wrote – until after Liberation, as all of the author’s writings had been banned by the Vichy regime. “The unusual bilingualism of the story’s publication,” explains the introduction to my edition, “means that the first translation, by Katherine Woods, is properly speaking as much the original work as the French text from which it was drawn.”
From that stumble start, The Little Prince has gone on to become the most translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects (my copy was translated into English – again – by T.V.F. Cuffe). Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide.
Another note on my particular edition (the Penguin Modern Classic): it also contains another work by Saint-Exupéry, Letter To A Hostage. It’s an open letter to a friend of the author’s, a Jewish intellectual who was in hiding in occupied France. They make for strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but reading the dedication of The Little Prince (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered), it made sense:
“To Léon Werth
I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a genuine excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up understands everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling. If all these excuses are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child whom this grown-up used to be, once upon a time. All grown-ups started off as children (though few of them remember). So I hereby correct my dedication:
To Léon Werth when he was a little boy.“The Little Prince (Page 3)
Could somebody please pass the tissues? *sniffle*
Ahem, to the story: The Little Prince begins with the narrator describing grown-ups, specifically their natural inability to perceive or understand the things that are truly important. He explains that, as a child, he’d hoped to become an artist, but none of the grown-ups understood his drawings and they encouraged him to pursue more “reasonable” lines of work.
So, from the beginning, you can see the magic of The Little Prince: as with all great children’s books, it addresses the reader on their level, with respect and empathy. The fantasy to follow in The Little Prince works precisely because it employs the logic of children, and celebrates their imaginative capacity, without getting bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.”The Little Prince (Page 6)
So, the narrator grew up to be a pilot, and one day his plane crashes in the Sahara desert (clearly drawing on Saint-Exupéry’s real-life experience, because believe it or not, that actually happened to him – more than once!). As he’s trying to fix his plane, and worrying about running out of water, a young boy – the titular “little prince” – appears as if by magic, demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. They become fast friends, and over the course of the following eight days, the little prince slowly reveals the story of his life.
The little prince came from a very tiny “home planet” (which the narrator identifies as a house-sized asteroid), with a few very small volcanoes and a variety of plant life, including one very special rose that the prince treasured above all else. He left the rose, and his home planet, to explore the universe. Along the way, he encountered a series of satirical caricatures of grown-ups (including the “king” who had no subjects, forced to issue commands to the sun to rise and set in order to exert his power, and the “businessman” who claimed he owned all the stars and proved it by counting them).
When the little prince landed on Earth, at first he assumed it was uninhabited, as he landed in the middle of stark desert. Eventually, he met a snake, and then some flowers, and then a fox (who begged the little prince to “tame” him, so that they might become friends).
At this point, the character of the fox offers perhaps the most often-shared gem of wisdom from The Little Prince. It is the story’s keynote aphorism: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) Judging by the drafts and notes, Saint-Exupéry reworded and rewrote that line at least 15 times before settling on this version.
Despite making all these new friends, by the time the little prince meets the pilot, he is dreadfully homesick, and by the time he’s told his story, the pilot is dying of thirst. The little prince finds the pilot a water well and then tells him that it’s time return to his home planet (which might “look like” him dying of a snake bite, but actually he’s simply leaving his shell behind).
The Little Prince ends with a drawing of the landscape where the little prince and the narrator met, and where the snake took the little prince’s corporeal life. The narrator asks the children reading the book that if they ever find themselves in that place, and they meet a little boy with golden curls, that they contact him immediately so that he may be reunited with his friend.
Do you need a(nother) tissue? I don’t blame you. It’s an incredibly moving ending, holy heck – unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary children’s book.
But here’s the clincher (take a deep breath, this is going to hurt): The Little Prince is a very strange case of life coming to imitate art. Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace on his eighth high-level reconnaissance flight on 31 July 1944, just over a year after The Little Prince was published. He was never found, nor does anyone have any clue what happened to him and his plane. Léon Werth, the dear friend to whom the book is dedicated, did not learn of Saint-Exupéry’s presumed death until a month later, via radio broadcast (remember that he was in hiding). Even then, it wasn’t until November that year that he learned of The Little Prince, the book his friend had written for him. Ugh, I can’t – it’s just TOO SAD!
Sad as it may be, I suppose it’s fitting: almost everything, every symbol and every character, in The Little Prince was drawn from some aspect of Saint-Exupéry’s life. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the pilot and his crash landing in the Sahara, but there’s also the little prince’s rose (reportedly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife), the small home planet with volcanoes (inspired by Guatemala, where Saint-Exupéry recuperated from another crash), and so on.
The Little Prince might be a short and simple story, but don’t be deceived: Saint-Exupéry poured his whole heart and soul into it. He wrote and illustrated the manuscript over the summer of ’42, working “long hours with great concentration”, usually at night (when he felt most creatively “free”), spurred on by truly scary quantities of black coffee. His biographer, Paul Webster, said: “Behind Saint-Exupéry’s quest for perfection was a laborious process of editing and rewriting which reduced original drafts by as much as two-thirds.” He would often wake up in the morning still at his desk, with his head on his arms over the pages. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from a number of stress-related health problems, and marital strife.
Initial reviewers were a bit flummoxed by the multi-layered story of The Little Prince. The book found only modest success at first, spending just two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. I think (or hope) we’re now more accepting of books with complex messages, ones that can appeal to multiple age groups – given that The Little Prince now sells almost two million copies each year and has become a cultural icon, it would seem to be the case. Still, don’t go into it if you’re looking for something twee and lighthearted. Every copy, in all the languages across the world, should probably be sold with a big box of tissues.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Little Prince:
- “there’s something about reading this book that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the whole world. The Little Prince knows whats up” – Malanie Beverly
- “What can be said about this little story. It is timeless. It is as fresh as spring water. Thank you” – Bea