by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“Grown-ups can never understand anything on their own, and it’s exhausting for children always to have to be explaining things to them…”
I was vaguely aware of the children’s book, The Little Prince in early adulthood but unfamiliar with it as a child. The tiny bookshelf in my box bedroom was crammed full of volumes gifted by great aunts, grandparents and elderly neighbours, hence its distinctly Anglo-Victorian bias. Standard bedtime reading was Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll and Charles Kingsley – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a name unknown to me in those days.
In more recent years, his novella Le Petit Prince, first published in English in 1943, remained more or less in the middle of my to be read list. I often spotted it there and thought, “It’s about time…”, but the continual arrival of ‘must-read’ titles meant it never quite made it to the top. Only after committing to read a Young Adult/Middle Grade book for The Reading Challenge Group on Goodreads did I finally pull it from the cobwebbed stack leaning on the back wall of my library.
The Little Prince is one of two protagonists in the story, the other being the adult narrator, a character the author based on himself. The prince of the title is a pure and mystical traveller from outer space whom the narrator first encounters in the desert as he attempts to fix his plane. At first, he is unable to comprehend the subtle wisdom imparted by the prince, whereas the prince is wholly perceptive and instantly grasps truths revealed during his explorations.
The narrator is a very human figure who develops and grows in awareness as the tale progresses. He becomes the prince’s confidant and begins to feel protective towards him. The prince makes eloquent observations about life and human nature. He tells stories about his home, of a rose (said to be based on the author’s Salvadoran wife) he believes has spurned his affection and about meeting beings such as The Fox and The Snake. The narrator’s relationship with the prince is bittersweet, yet he learns important lessons, which he passes on to the reader six years after the event.
The story is a fable or allegory, written in 1942 when the author was living on Long Island, New York. It is a charming and deeply philosophical narrative set in a world that is at once unique and recognizable, but is also profoundly solemn in tone. Its descriptions of places, such as the Sahara Desert are vivid and often quite beautiful, and it is rich in symbolism. I regret that I did not read it for the first time as a young person.
My copy of The Little Prince is the 70th Anniversary Edition, translated by the poet, Wirton Arvel, which was published in 2015. It is unabridged with both original and additional illustrations by Saint-Exupéry, but is unfortunately out of print. If you come across a copy in a second-hand book store, my advise would be to snap it up. If, however, you are prepared to read it on an e-reader, it can still be purchased as a digital download. There are also any number alternative versions available.
Saint-Exupéry was, in many ways, an enigmatic character, more so because of the mystery surrounding his death. A French aristocrat, laureate of several of France’s highest literary awards and pioneering aviator, he was born in Lyon in 1900, and became a successful commercial pilot before the Second World War – working airmail routes across Europe, Africa and South America. At the outbreak of war, he joined the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) and flew reconnaissance missions until his country’s armistice with Germany in 1940.
After being demobbed, he spent just over two years in the USA, which was where he wrote three important early works before joining the Free French Air Force in North Africa. He was, by this point, past the maximum permitted age to continue doing such work, and his physical and mental health had started to decline. In July 1944, preceding the Allied invasion of southern France, he took off from an airbase in Corsica piloting an unarmed P-38 on an assignment to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley. He was never seen again.
“When you’ve attended to your own needs in the morning, you’ve got to attend carefully to the needs of the planet.”