The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There is a copy of The Little Prince in French that has sat, unread, on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom for years. I knew that, as a children’s book, it wouldn’t take much time or effort to read even in a different language, but I just never managed to find the motivation. However, recently I was doing some research into famous literary works on friendship, and this novella kept coming up again and again. I finally downloaded it in English and sat down one sunny day in May to read through this beautiful tale. At the bottom of my page of notes is written, in capital letters, ‘why have I not read this before?’ Maybe now I will finally get round to reading my French copy!
The Little Prince tells the story of an unexpected friendship between two travellers: one a stranded pilot from this world, the other a Prince from another world entirely. There is a plethora of things that could be written about the world-building and narrative structure of this novella, but the aspect which first jumped out at me was the strong theme of friendship which permeates the narrative. It is clear, from the beginning, that the narrator is searching for a friend, someone who really understands him. The Prince, it is later disclosed, has searched world after world looking for the same. Their discovery of each other, two characters who understand each other on a fundamental level, is simultaneously a beautiful and tragic development. The reader knows, almost from the very beginning of the novella, that the Prince will leave at some point: the heartbreak in the moment that the Prince says his goodbyes is one of the saddest moments I have encountered as a reader. There aren’t many books which have moved me to tears, but this is one of them; the grief of a friendship lost is surely one of the most universal and under-represented experiences.
From the opening of the narrative, Saint-Exupéry sets up a division between the adult world and the child world; it is this, I am sure, which makes it such a beloved children’s book. It reminded me of reading Roald Dahl or C.S. Lewis as a child, with a tone that seems to say ‘I am letting you in on a secret which the grown-ups are too grown-up to understand’. This is a wonderful novella for giving a permission for the freedom of imagination and awe which marked my childhood and so many others. The magic and wonder of the Prince and his story, from his talking flower to his travel in the stars, lasts long after the reader has put the book down.
From the description of other worlds, though, comes an other-worldly view of our own world. Each world that the Prince visits reveals the folly of an aspect of our ‘grown-up’ society. From the King longing to give orders, to the map-maker who never leaves his desk, to the lamp-lighter who follows orders long after they have ceased to make sense, these characters are laughable, yes, but also inherently realistic. This is fantasy fiction at its best: exposing problematic aspects of real life with the gentle light of magic and other worlds. Seventy years or so later, these characters resonate as much with the modern reader as with Saint-Exupéry’s contemporaries.
This is one of those wonderful children’s books which leaves you wanting to read and reread to your heart’s content. It is a joyful celebration of imagination beautifully undercut with the grief of separated friends. I wish I could go back in time and give my childhood self a copy of this novella in the translated English: I know that I would have fallen in love with Saint-Exupéry’s world from a young age. However, it is good to know that this is a children’s book which remains a beautiful read even if you read it for the first time in your mid-twenties. This is a book I would recommend to adults and children alike, and I will definitely be rereading it before too long.