Books: ‘The Little Prince’

Artist impression of the original manuscript of The Little Prince. Credit: KPCC

This is an artist’s interpretation of the original handwritten pages that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry created when he wrote the book, The Little Prince. Says film director, Mark Osborne who was approached to adapt the classic 1943 children’s story into a computer-animated film: “No. I said you can’t make a big movie out of this little book. It’ll break.” Instead he came up the idea of another movie in which The Little Prince would be at the centre of the story. That move, titled The Magic Suitcase, is about a young girl who grows up in a dystopian future where obeying rules deprive people of spontaneity and imagination. Then she meets an old, eccentric aviator who tells her the story of The Little Prince. And the girl imagines Prince’s story in stop-motion animation. Reminiscing the project, Osborne says, “The first time I pitched it (The Little Prince), it was to an Italian film financier. She was an executive for an Italian film company that we were talking to. I pulled the book out, I handed it to her and she started bawling. She was apologizing to me and reaching for tissues in her purse and it was like proof positive.”

French poet and writer Antonine de Saint Expuery was also a real-life pilot. He wrote the book while staying at a hotel in New York, drawing on his own experience as a pilot. Many people are charmed by the book’s drawings as well as the simplicity of the language. The Little Prince remains one of the most translated books ever, a modern classic that is both a fairy tale and a philosopher’s tale.

The book’s central message is that the simplest things in life are the most important. Saint-Exupéry wanted to share his thoughts about the folly of mankind and the simple wisdom that adults forget when they grow up.

“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.”

In every chapter of the book, Prince meets a different hero who can be seen as absurd from the adult world. In the opening chapter, the narrator recounts a story he read when he was six. It is about a boa constrictor which swallowed an elephant. As a child, the narrator explains, he tried to picture the terrifying scene (below) but adults saw that there was nothing to be scared of; it was just a hat.

Exasperated, the child then drew an “x-ray” picture of the snake’s swollen belly, “so the grown-ups could understand. They always need explanations.”

With this little parable, Saint-Exupéry depicts grown-ups as dull, unimaginative and like Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of the hedgehog, stubbornly sure that their worldview is the only possible one. He depicts children on the other hand as open and sensitive to the mysteries and beauty of the world.

As the story continue, the narrator, now an adult, has grown up to be a pilot. Then one day, he crashed in a desert with no sign of civilization. Yet, the pilot remained irrepressibly optimistic and see something good even in the desert.

“The desert is beautiful.”

While struggling to fix his plane, the pilot meets the Little Prince, a young boy with golden hair out of nowhere. Over the next eight days, Prince tells vivid stories of his home, a faraway asteroid, his adventures on other planets, and how he fell to Earth.

The stories Prince tell are richly symbolic and hold many lessons. Perhaps the most important lesson is the wisdom of knowing how to deal with the ephemeral versus the eternal. Prince loves a flower on his home planet, but he has to leaveit behind when he explores the universe. He learns from a geographer that his flower is ephemeral but also learns from his friend, the fox, that once you have “tamed” something and made it yours, it is eternal. So Prince befriends the rose and it now lives forever in his heart.

Prince also tells the story of a man on a tiny planet who forgot to look after his bushes. As a result, bad seeds grew into powerful baobabs that could not be cut down. Soon trees were dying on his planet and destroyed it. After listening to this gripping tale, the narrator responds, “Children, watch out for the baobabs!”, an indictment of the indifference that grown-ups display towards things that truly matter.

Some people read The Little Prince as an oblique reference to the teachings of the Bible. In particular, the wisdom of children that the book focuses resonates with Matthew 18:3 in the New Testament: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Prince tells the pilot, “The important thing is what can’t be seen …” This could be interpreted as the wisdom of imagination of which children have in abundance. But it also recalls Jesus’ words to his doubting disciple, Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Prince is afraid to grow up, but he finally realizes that growing up is a good thing, as long as you keep the magic of a child. The last image of the book shows a desert landscape with only one star, with the narrator prodding the reader to find a child if he or she ever sees such a landscape.

I have read The Little Prince more than once and I will re-read it again, for the elegance of its writing, for its enchanting fairy tale imagery, for its abiding optimism, and perhaps most important of all, to “find my way” in a world where grown-ups have lost their innocence and imagination.

“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people.”


In 1944, Saint-Exupéry disappeared while on a wartime reconnaissance flight over Europe. The wreckage of his plane was discovered at sea almost exactly 60 years later, but what happened to him remains a mystery.

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