A couple of years ago, I received a gift from my brother-in-law’s fiancé. (Back in May, Di shortened her title to my sister-in-law by having a wedding.) The gift was a beautifully illustrated copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”. Somehow, I had never read this lovely little allegory about the travels of a prince from another planet. I made up for that all in one evening. I thought it would be a light read, an imaginative romp. I was wrong. It made me cry. It occupied my thoughts for days. There is so much to learn in this book.The lessons are jumbled, and don’t really follow a theme, but they’re so clear and sweet and true that I want to share them with you.
“Because where I live, everything is very small ….” When we meet the little prince, he’s imploring the narrator (a man whose plane has crashed in a desert) to draw him a sheep. The narrator offers an elephant, but the prince says an elephant would get in the way. It has to be a sheep, and the sheep has to be small, because his planet is small. It’s so small that he wonders if there’s enough grass for the sheep to eat. He laughs at the notion that the narrator would draw him a tether for his sheep – there’s nowhere the sheep can go anyway. Everything he has can be surveyed in one sweep of the eyes. I thought about the similarity of my situation: my world is very small. My home, my circle of friends, my concerns are like a drop of water in an ocean. At least the little prince is wise enough to know that. I keep forgetting.
“But, of course, those of us who understand life couldn’t care less about numbers!” We are told that the little prince’s planet is called Asteroid B-612, which was discovered in 1909 and presented to the astronomical community in 1920. The author tells us these cold, dry facts so that we’ll believe his story. To him, the proof that the prince was real is “that he was delightful, that he laughed and that he wanted a sheep”. But he knows that most people focus on how old something is, how much it cost, how many others there are like it – not the intrinsic value of its beauty and dearness.
“…. if it’s the seed of a bad plant, you must pull the plant up right away, as soon as you can recognise it.” The little prince details how he spends his time on his planet. A good deal of it is devoted to tending his garden, including ridding it of baobab trees. They are, apparently, as tall as churches and would destroy the prince’s tiny planet if they were allowed to grow to their full size. So, the prince pulls the baobab seedlings up as soon as he knows what they are; they start out looking like all the other plants, “charming, harmless” sprouts “reaching toward the sun”. Would our tendencies, criticisms, regrets and troubles grow so large and overwhelming if we spent more time inside ourselves? Maybe a few minutes every day of reflection over the state of our life would help us cope with it …. “When you’re finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.”
“You know, when you’re feeling very sad, sunsets are wonderful ….” Little things give the prince great joy – even when he’s feeling down. We, too, can find contentment in the little things – but we need to actually notice them, and make an effort to focus on them.
“I should have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions …. but I was too young to know how to love her.” In the eighth chapter, we are introduced to the flower …. On the prince’s tiny planet, there were only plain flowers – until a rose grew. She’s vain, unfurling slowly, “selecting her colours with the greatest care” and “adjusting her petals one by one”. She has only four thorns, but thinks herself “ready for tigers”. She needs a screen to protect her from drafts, and glass over her at night. She coughs occasionally to make him mindful of her delicacy and guilty about his lack of concern for her. The prince grew tired of her neediness. She was too complicated for him. So, he left the bell jar over her, and flew off to explore other planets. It is only when he is away from her that he realizes what she did for him every day. “She perfumed my planet and lit up my life …. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words.” We all have people who love us in clumsy, complicated ways – ways that are not always easily recognizable. We’ve all, at some point, thrown kindness aside because it comes with obligations and mixed feelings. Sometimes, it takes a long time – and great deal of examination – to truly appreciate what we have received from the people around us.
After bidding adieu to his flower, the prince visits several planets before falling to Earth. He meets a king who “insists that his authority be universally respected”, but has no real authority. So he will only command what can be performed, when conditions are favourable, convincing himself that he is in charge because his demands are always for the obvious and inevitable. A vain man, alone on his planet, demands and happily accepts admiration – which is easy to give him, because he’s the only man around (a fact he conveniently ignores). There is a businessman who believes he owns the stars, because he’s the first person who’s ever thought of owning them. Owning the stars makes him rich, because he can use them to buy other stars. It doesn’t make him happy, though, because now he is obsessed with the need to take inventory – and he just can’t count all the stars. The prince meets a geographer who demands information about the Asteroid B-612. The first thing the prince mentions is the flower, but the geographer explains that he doesn’t want to hear about ephemeral things – things that are “threatened by imminent disappearance”. Hearing this, the little prince regrets leaving his flower.
He then visits Earth, where he encounters the narrator and coaxes him to draw a sheep with a crate and a muzzle. He also meets a yellow snake who pities him, “being so weak on this granite earth”. The snake offers to send him back to his planet, but the prince isn’t ready to leave yet. He has more exploring to do. He comes across a blossoming rose bush, and weeps. He thought his flower was the only one of her kind; now that he knows there are thousands like her, he is disappointed. “I thought I was rich because I had just one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose.” He was happier when he focused on what he has, rather than everything he doesn’t have. Sound familiar? He isn’t crying over the rose, but the loss of his innocence – the feeling of being special just isn’t there anymore, because greed has eaten it up.
“It was then that the fox appeared.” The little prince’s encounter with the fox is the loveliest part of the story, in my opinion. The fox greets the weeping prince, and asks to be loved. The fox explains to the prince what it means to love and be loved (or, as the fox calls it, to tame and be tamed). “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” He explains that if they love each other, the prince’s footsteps will become precious to him – he won’t notice other footsteps, but the prince’s footsteps will call him out of his burrow “like music”. Wheat means nothing to the fox, because he doesn’t eat bread – but the wheat would become dear to the fox, because it’s the same colour as the prince’s hair.
“I’ll discover what it costs to be happy!” In the same conversation, the fox tells the prince about the sad side of being loved – that now he will have something to be anxious over, something to lose. In time, the prince and the fox tame each other – coming together and sitting side by side, every day. Edging closer together. Not speaking, because “language is the source of misunderstandings”.
“You’re lovely, but you’re empty …. my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen …. Since she’s my rose.” When it is time for the prince to return to his planet, the fox says “I shall weep”. The prince points out that the fox asked to be tamed, and expresses sorrow that the fox will “get nothing out of it”. The fox answers that he does get something, “because of the colour of the wheat”. The wheat is the colour of the prince’s hair, and now the fox will think of the prince every time he sees a field of wheat. He urges the prince to go back to the roses before they say goodbye. Upon returning to the roses, the prince – having had his eyes opened to the beautiful and terrible world of love – sees that the roses are nothing special, because none of them is his rose. When he comes back to the fox, the fox reveals a secret:
“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes …. It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important …. People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”
After leaving the fox, the little prince meets the narrator again, and they go in search of water. They find a well, and they agree that the water is sweet, because they are so thirsty. That the desert is lovely because “it hides a well”. That the stars are beautiful because, somewhere in the midst of them, the prince’s flower waits for him. The surface of anything is only that: the surface. Trappings. “What’s most important is invisible.”
At the end of the story, there’s one last lesson – that of death. The narrator is heartbroken because he knows his little friend is about to leave him. The prince pleads with him to understand that he cannot fly away unless he leaves the shell of himself behind. “It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me. It’s too heavy.” He needs to return to his planet, to the core of himself – to his rose. Holding onto the solid is keeping him away from all that. Sometimes, we have to let go of what we can see, touch and quantify – to fly free and find what’s essential. And, though we grieve, we must give those we love the same chance.