“Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters … only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him”
I’ve recently been enquiring as to my friends and colleagues most treasured childhood reads, having opted for a module in Children’s Literature for my next academic year.
Quite naturally, several have been suggested to me as ‘the best children’s book EVER!’, but, no one was quite as visibly passionate when explaining to me the effects that their piece of literature had on them as a child as my colleague – who went as far as to purchase me my own copy!
Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is a beautifully simplistic, yet incredibly detailed reflection of pilot de Saint-Exupéry’s state of mind during the German invasion of France in 1943, whereby he was forced to give up flying and move to America.
As abruptly as de Saint-Exupéry’s flying career stopped, our narrator, also a pilot, crash lands in the Sahara and meets the Little Prince, who in turn has travelled from his own planet having begun to doubt all he knows to be true. What follows is a beautiful parable in appreciating what you have, what you actually need, and what you should most definitely treasure.
The opening paragraphs of The Little Prince convey a strong message, that adults have been conditioned to see, believe and repeat only what is known to them, focusing on bleak reality – the picture to the adult looks like a hat, therefore it must be a hat! What else could it be? Who has the time to think outside the box?
The Little Prince is proud of his planet, tending to the volcanoes and ensuring the Baobabs do not take over, as once they do, they are impossible to get rid of! A bit like an adult’s attitude, in my opinion. But after realising that his only friend may not have been entirely truthful in her knowledge – the rose who he nurtured so attentively – he feels he must travel to find solace from her misgivings. On his journey he encounters various adults in their simplified forms, performing what he perceives as mundane tasks for little to no reason.
THE KING orders The Little Prince to obey him, but only in actions that he knows The Little Prince will successfully perform, otherwise the King’s orders will not have been obeyed and it is HE who will look silly – but does this represent our fear of branching out and trying new things?
THE CONCEITED MAN asks The Little Prince if he admires him – but The Little Prince cannot understand why he asks? Surely it should be a wonderful thing to see someone, anyone, given ‘nobody at all ever passes this way’ – do we put so much emphasis on what we have and how we portray ourselves that we do not take enjoyment from seeing distant friends and relatives? Are we worrying more about how we present ourselves to them?
Upon meeting THE TIPPLER, The Little Prince ascertains that he drinks to forget that he is ashamed of his drinking – a short but sharp encounter that defines for us as the reader the vicious circle of addiction.
THE BUSINESSMAN has little time to greet The Little Prince, as he is too busy working, concerned only ‘with matters of consequence’. He states that he owns all the stars, unlike the King, who merely reigns over them. The Little Prince is baffled at what good it does to own the stars, to which the Businessman responds it makes him rich. The Little Prince is further baffled at what good it does to be rich, to which the Businessman responds that he can purchase more stars, despite having no time for ‘idle dreaming’ to enjoy them. The Little Prince sees the Businessman’s logic as no different to that of the Tippler, neither the stars nor the Businessman gain enrichment from the financial arrangement.
THE LAMPLIGHTER resides on a tiny planet with just enough room for him and his lamp. Despite his role being seemingly unimportant, as there are no people on his planet for the lamp to be lit for, The Little Prince thinks the Lamplighter is the most sensible of all those he has encountered thus far, as what he does serves an actual purpose and function. ‘Orders are orders’ he says, and despite his tiredness he continues on with his duty as it is his to fulfill – perhaps an allegory on war? Despite the bigger picture and plan or desired outcome, those on the front line continue their duties devotedly, necessary or not.
THE OLD GENTLEMAN GEOGRAPHER explains that he knows the locations of all ‘seas, rivers, towns, mountains and deserts’ but relies on the expeditions of others to obtain this information. However, in order that he might believe the existence of these discoveries, he requires material proof. He asks The Little Prince to describe his own planet, but as the Prince begins to describe his flower, the Geographer becomes uninterested as it is ‘ephemeral’ and ‘in danger of speedy disappearance’. The Little Prince becomes sad at this, he had never realised that his flower might not be there, should he choose to return to it. For me this indicates the sad idea that we have no time for that which is not permanent, and we do not take the time to appreciate that which we may one day lose. We are all ephemeral in the grand scheme of things!
On EARTH The Little Prince describes the ‘veritable army’ of lamplighters working across the globe, and the 200,000,000 grown ups that perceive themselves as great Baobabs of their land, despite him landing in the vacant Sahara desert. He encounters the RAILWAY SWITCHMAN, who denotes that the humans of earth are fluid, continuously moving around and satisfying our needs for travel. Further still THE MERCHANT offers The Little Prince a tablet that will save him 53 minutes per week, as he will no longer require a drink of water. The Little Prince sees this as illogical, and states that he would use his extra 53 minutes to track down a natural water source in order to enjoy it. In sculpting our lives around convenience, do we take away the beauty of doing things properly? Of tasting the true freshness of the water?
Eventually The Little Prince is ready to return from whence he came; unable to carry his body with him, leaving it an ‘old abandoned shell’ on earth much like humans do when they die.
I found this story initially frustrating, as I continuously waited for the story to neatly wrap itself up into one great morality tale – it doesn’t. And, the magnificence of this book is in the reader’s contemplation. We are forced to sit back and think about how each of the beautifully intertwined messages can relate to our lives individually: a hauntingly beautiful reflection of de Saint-Exupéry’s state of mind for adults; a wonderful moral-led story for children.