“All grown-ups were once children… but few of them remember it.”
I had occasionally wondered why Lyon airport has such an exotic name – Saint Exupéry. But a couple of week ago we were sightseeing in Lyon with Marie Antoinette. She pointed out a statue almost hidden amongst the trees in the Place Bellecour. Here was Saint-Exupéry the famous aviator and, standing behind him, the Little Prince.
Saint-Exupéry with the Little Prince
In his role as diplomat, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went to the US in 1941 to convince the Americans that they had to enter the war. While exiled in New York, he wrote Le Petit Prince which was first published in 1943. He went on to rejoin his old squadron in North Africa and was shot down in July 1944, only three weeks before the liberation of Paris.
Le Petit Prince is one of the best selling books ever published, with about 200 million copies worldwide, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. So why had I never read it?
Le Petit Prince was written as a children’s book but, although the language is very simple, each phrase is thought provoking and packed with meaning. It’s the story of an encounter between a pilot who makes a forced landing in the Sahara desert and the Little Prince from Asteroid B-612. The pilot gradually learns about the boy’s journey where he hops from one small planet to another and meets a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a businessman, a lamplighter and a geographer, thereby witnessing a whole spectrum of adult behaviour. It isn’t until he comes to Earth that the Little Prince learns the important things in life when he encounters a desert fox.
The Little Prince
Saint-Exupéry draws upon his own experiences. He himself had once crash-landed in the desert and was saved. The petulant rose which causes the little Prince to leave his planet is thought to refer to Saint-Exupéry’s difficult Salvadoran wife, and the field of roses his infidelity. The planet itself is like El Salvador with its three volcanos, two active and one extinct (but you never know!). The fearsome baobabs that have to be rooted out before they take over the planet refer to Nazism.
The Little Prince realises that he loves his rose when the fox tells him “It is the time you have devoted to the rose that makes your rose so important”.
Above all Saint-Exupéry describes the different way children and adults look at the world. Being grown up is a state of mind. The pilot suffers loneliness as he retains a childlike perspective of the world and is frustrated by the stupidity of people who cannot recognise a drawing of an elephant inside a boa but say it’s a hat.
He also learns why some individuals are dear to us even though they are only one of many. The fox says “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed….” The downside to the joy of friendship is the pain of parting, as the pilot discovers when the Little Prince disappears, to return to his planet we hope.
Saint-Exupéry lived and died long before most of us were born but he left a legacy which is perhaps more relevant to us today than it was in the 1940s.