Jesse Kornbluth investigates this powerful children’s book.
When Robin Williams died, my Facebook screen lit up with one quote after another from “The Little Prince.”
I didn’t understand why so many people responded with lines from this book.
And for a good reason: I’d never read it.
Why not? “The Little Prince” is my dream length: 160 pages, 15,000 words. (It was originally 30,000 words, but Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, bless him, ruthlessly cut the text to its core.) It’s also the most popular French book of the last century. Translated into 250 languages. Yearly sales: 2 million copies.
Feeling like the last human on the planet to read it, I plunged into “The Little Prince.”
Soon enough, I came upon the lines that had been quoted in Facebook.
One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.
But I was puzzled: This is a book for children?
Consider the story, which begins like this (with drawings by the author, which, sadly, I can’t reproduce):
Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal.
In the book it said: “Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion.”
I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One.
I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: “Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?”
My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.
Because adults don’t understand children — or anything imaginative, really — the narrator abandons his plan to become an artist and takes up aviation. As an adult, he flies everywhere. He has many encounters with his fellow adults — and still doesn’t understand them.
Then his plane crashes in the desert. In this desperate situation, a small person-like being appears. He’s from a distant planet — a strange planet, it’s just him and a rose. Unhappy there, he found a flock of birds to bring him here. And the aviator and the “little prince” begin an adventure. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the multi-media CD, read by Richard Gere, click here. For the French edition, click here.]
There are drawings. Encounters with citizens of other planets. A sheep we don’t see. A poignant ending. And after, a lifetime for the reader to ponder the idea of the book, which is both wonderfully French and profoundly metaphorical.
Metaphorical stories are often fact-based. In 1935, Saint-Exupéry crashed a plane in the Arabian desert. He was lost for a week — more than enough time to think deeply about his life, his marriage, his death. In 1940, when France fell to the Germans, he fled to the United States. He was sick and miserable here, unable to accept how quickly France had surrendered. The wife of one of his publishers suggested that a children’s story would divert him. And so he began. He often wrote all night. He called friends at 2AM to read new passages to them. He drew. He scribbled.
Finally, his book finished, Saint-Exupéry returned to Europe and the Free French Air Force. In 1944, on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean, his plane vanished without a trace. France mourned its double loss: hero and writer.
And those Facebook friends mourning a grown-up who never lost his connection to the child within? They knew just where to look.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.