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Literary Wonderlands: The World of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (1943)

A loving lament for a friend who fell to Earth, shared the desert, guilelessly offered parables of human truth, and died in order to return to his celestial home.

The Little Prince (published first in French as Le Petit Prince) is a bittersweet palimpsest that has entranced generations, deploying multiple layers of meaning to acknowledge gently the hard truths of life, leaving adults sad but hopeful, yearning for the child from the stars and his laughter. It is the best known work of the French writer, poet, and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900–44) and remains one of the most-translated books ever, a modern classic suggesting that the simplest things in life are the most important.

In writing The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery drew on his own experiences as a pilot (he had qualified as one in 1922), including a period serving in North Africa. In 1944 during World War II he attempted a reconnaissance mission over France and never returned. In 2004 the wreckage of his plane was recovered, although the exact cause of the crash remains unknown.

The story begins with one of Saint-Exupery’s watercolors, an image copied from a “true” jungle book the narrator read at age six. A boa constrictor coils around a “wild beast” whose eyes bulge as the snake’s mouth gapes to consume him. As a child, the narrator explains, he attempted to recreate the image; resulting in something “grown-ups” took for a hat, but which the six-year-old clearly saw as a snake digesting an elephant. On the next page, the narrator reprints the mundane, gray scale, explanatory cutaway view of the snake with a small, dismayed elephant standing inside it. In this simple depiction of mortality Saint-Exupery demonstrates the clash of potential meaning—which children see directly—and mundane interpretation, which blinds adults to seeing the potential. Within the narrative, however, this clash is productive: The Little Prince chides grown-ups, but enriches them, too.

The narrator, now an adult, has grown up to become a pilot who has crashed in a barren desert with no signs of civilization. While he struggles to fix his plane, a young boy with golden hair and a scarf appears as if from nowhere. Over the next eight days the Little Prince tells the narrator vivid tales of his home on a faraway asteroid, his adventures on other planets, and how he fell to Earth. These tales are parabolic and present culturally symbolic themes. The Little Prince tells the narrator, for example, of a man on a tiny planet who forgot to tend to his bushes. Three of the seeds should have been plucked when they began to sprout, because they were “bad.” Instead, they grew to be powerful baobabs that he could not cut down, trees that sucked the life out of his planet and shattered it. “Children,” the narrator writes, recounting this story, “Watch out for baobabs!” (We must learn for ourselves, of course, what are the baobabs in our own lives.)

This boy who fell to Earth is not an avatar of Jesus. His views, story, and effect are, however, consonant with the Christian thread in Western culture: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Furthermore, as Jesus told his doubting disciple Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29), the Little Prince tells the pilot, “The important thing is what can’t be seen. . . .” The Little Prince does not die for his friend, however. He dies to get back to his rose, which he loves because he has tended her. Still, his home asteroid, B-612, bears the number 4 (symbolic in the Bible of Earthly completeness) multiplied by 153 (the number of miraculous fish—or souls—that Peter nets in obeying the risen Jesus [John 21:11]).

The last image of the book shows a desert landscape with only a star. The narrator asks us to let him know if we ever see this landscape, and under that star, a child. “Don’t let me go on being so sad: Send word immediately that he’s come back.”

 

  • First published by Reynal and Hitchcock, Inc., in 1943.
  • Le Petit Prince is the second most widely translated book (after Pinocchio, 1883) and the third highest-selling single work of fiction ever (after A Tale of Two Cities, 1859, and The Hobbit, 1937).
  • The B612 Foundation, an NGO conducting research to defend Earth against asteroid collision, is named for the tiny home “planet” of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. A real asteroid has been named B612 to honor The Little Prince and another (Asteroid 2578) was renamed Saint-Exupéry.

 

An excerpt about The Little Prince  from Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, general editor Laura Miller.  Copyright © Elwin Street Productions Limited 2016.  First Published in North America November 2016 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, an imprint of Running Press, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used with permission.  All rights reserved.