Thursday, August 20, 2009

Great Book #27: The Little Prince

Back in high school one of my friends gave me a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince as a birthday present. I remember her giving it to me with a certain air of momentousness, as if the book had changed her life and she wanted that experience for me. I'm ashamed that it took me so long to read it, but now that I have, I see why she felt that way.

The narrator is a pilot who has crashed in the Sahara and needs to fix his engine before his water supply runs out. A mysterious 'little man' with a head of golden curls appears out of nowhere, and asks him to draw a sheep. The little prince answers none of the narrator's questions about who he is or where he came from, but he always seems to know what the narrator is thinking, and the narrator eventually finds out that the little prince lives on an asteroid with three volcanoes (one extinct, but you never know) and only one flower, of which the prince is very fond. His planet is so small you can watch the sunset dozens of times a day just by going for a walk.

In his interstellar travels the prince meets several adults, each on their own tiny planet, and each engaged in something completely pointless. I tend to think of myself as an overgrown child, but I’m certainly not immune to the grown-up absurdities the prince points out. But above all, The Little Prince is a fable about love, loneliness, and letting go. He meets a fox who begs to be tamed: "Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..." Of course, the little prince must eventually part with the narrator, too—the scene is poignant but not overly sentimental.

What's all too poignant is the fate of the author, which you can't help ruminating on as you look at his watercolors. Saint-Exupéry was a World War II pilot who was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in 1944, the year after The Little Prince was published.

He cried out, then:
"What! You dropped down from the sky?"
"Yes," I answered, modestly.
"Oh! That is funny!"
And the little prince broke into a lovely peal of laughter, which irritated me very much. I like my misfortunes to be taken seriously.

When I was a little boy, the lights of the Christmas tree, the music of the Midnight Mass, the tenderness of smiling faces, used to make up, so, the radiance of the gifts I received.

"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend."


Kate said...

I like the lesson of letting go--it's an important one that I'm learning oh too well.

Seanan said...

Rather randomly, we have a copy of this in Irish in Foyles.