The Enduring Reign of The Little Prince
75 years after it was first published, we consider the enduring appeal of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic novel, The Little Prince.
After the aristocratic aviator, poet and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written the first draft of his manuscript for the story that would become The Little Prince, he dropped the pages – coffee and cigarette-stained - through the letterbox of a friend as a parting gift. ‘I’d like to give you something splendid’, he wrote in the accompanying note, ‘but this is all I have’.
Fast-forward 75 years and Saint-Exupéry’s modestly conceived novella has become a worldwide phenomenon. The most translated book in the French language, it has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, inspiring everything from Korean theme parks to hot water bottle covers, but first and foremost it has cultivated a legion of loyal and devoted readers, myself included.
I first encountered The Little Prince in a battered paperback copy in the holiday cottage my family stayed in almost every summer and immediately fell under its curious spell. Reading it became an odd kind of holiday ritual and - as books discovered and devoured secretly as a child often do - the story remained as a small, core part of me I have carried along ever since.
Yet, coming back to The Little Prince as an adult, what strikes me first and foremost is its strangeness. Describe the book’s key elements – a plane crash, a visitor from another planet carried from his home by a flock of birds, the taming of a talking fox – and you have all the ingredients of an intriguing children's fantasy, but The Little Prince is far from your usual children’s book fare. Strangeness is a crucial part of its charm: whimsical, melancholic, blending the simplest of storytelling with complex philosophy, there’s simply nothing else quite like it. Published first in the United States, it certainly puzzled early reviewers, who, for the most part, thought it too serious, too adult in its themes and tone to appeal to children. Mary Poppins’ author P.L. Travers proved to have a better measure of it, declaring, ‘children are like sponges. They soak into their pores the essence of any book they read, whether they understand it or not. The book she, she insisted, ‘is true in the most inward sense’ and that remains just as true for readers encountering it today.
That The Little Prince remains a firm-favourite certainly owes much to the universal resonance of its themes. The Little Prince leaves his little planet, his sheep and his single capricious rose, hoping for better, brighter, more exciting things in the far blue yonder of adulthood. What he finds instead are narcissism, pomposity, consumption and avarice aplenty, from a vainglorious king ruling over an empty kingdom to a businessman endlessly counting the stars only to say that he owns them. Through the Little Prince's experiences, the reader comes to learn that, ‘what it essential, is invisible to the eye’, not something you can count, capture or lock up in a drawer.
In amongst its lessons of friendship and loyalty is also a vital lesson that loss is the necessary flip-side of love. Love, the fox tells the Little Prince, is a risky business, ‘you risk tears if you let yourself be tamed’ but the reader understands that the taming is, ultimately, worth the risk. As the writer and journalist Azar Nafisi - who first encountered Saint-Exupéry’s story as a child in Iran – puts it, ‘I did not know it was teaching me to acquire what is essential to the greatest works of imagination: the magical throbbing of the heart, defining us as human beings, connecting us to one another, giving us a reason to live, a way to survive, and to understand not just the value of happiness and love, but their close proximity to pain and loss.'
For me, the key to The Little Prince’s enduring success lies in the book’s fly-leaf. Apologising to children everywhere for ‘dedicating this book to a grown-up’, Saint-Exupéry commits the story to his friend Léon Worth but, crucially, not to the adult he knows but to ‘the child from whom this grown-up grew’. It’s a telling detail. Saint-Exupéry wrote the book in the summer and autumn of 1942, a man grieving for a lost past identity, in exile from a country he no longer recognised. He had already written his own aviator’s adventure story, Wind, Sand and Stars. The Little Prince is another side to that story, a tale about the unspoken sadness of the inevitability of growing up and leaving a part of yourself behind. In this way The Little Prince - like that other more sinister story of an eternal child Peter Pan - resides somewhere in the shadowy, liminal space of growing up. It’s a book that speaks both to the child at the heart of the adult and the adult in the corner of children’s eyes. Its closing words are a reminder of the way the world looks as a child and a message to retain that sense of the world's mystery and wonder, whilst knowing deep down that ‘no grown-up will ever understand how such a thing could be so important!'