The older I get, the more I am delighted by stories told with an appreciation for the perspectives of children. Amid the hubbub of 2020, I’ve found myself needing something quiet, spoken in gentle, simple words. I am a believer that books can boost mental and spiritual health, and so I temporarily left this planet to visit another, that of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
In rediscovering this slim volume that documents a grown-up pilot’s encounter with an unearthly child-prince in the midst of the Sahara Desert, I recovered a bit of childlike wonder.
The little prince lives on a tiny planet, and his tasks are simple. He watches for the growth of baobab trees, whose roots will destroy his planet if left untended. He cleans out his small volcanoes and cares for his beloved rose. When he decides to explore other planets near his own, he finds a series of disappointing grown-ups who are obsessed with things like power, alcohol, busyness, following rules, and their own ego. He then ends up wandering planet Earth until he encounters the pilot-narrator. As the pilot works to fix his plane, the little prince tells the stories of his travels.
Unearthing a child’s perspective
The pilot begins the story with his childhood drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor that all the adults mildly told him was a nice drawing of a hat. When the pilot meets the little prince, the little prince immediately recognizes the pilot’s picture as an elephant inside of a boa constrictor. This meeting establishes an intimacy that permeates the book.
It also shook me out of my “grown-up” perspective. The characters speak exactly what’s on their minds, and their straightforward manner is disarming. The illustrations particularly illuminate the honesty of the conversations. The book is populated with many of the pilot’s illustrations, which are rudimentary and childlike (the pilot having abandoned his artistic endeavors after adult perspectives on his work so discouraged him).
Over and over again, The Little Prince reminds me that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” With the simplicity of his story and honesty of his characters, Saint-Exupéry invites us to become little again, to abandon the dullness our adult concerns bring to our perspectives and relationships. He invites us to see what’s essential—love, simplicity, and curiosity about our world and those around us. As the pilot shows us, this way of seeing is just as possible for grown-ups as it is for children, though adults may have to work harder to recall that childlike perspective.
Taming and the beauties of friendship
For much of the book, the little prince is relatively isolated. He lives alone on his planet, and most of the characters he encounters in his travels are so preoccupied they have no time to answer the questions of a child. The most profound conversations happen when he arrives on planet Earth and encounters a fox. The fox tells the little prince that in order for them to play together—the little prince is desperate for company at this point—the fox must be tamed.
When we think of “taming” something, we usually mean bringing it under our control: we tame dogs by teaching them to fetch and come when called; we tame the forces of nature by building dams or creating vaccines. But the fox is talking about building a relationship. When the prince asks what “tame” means, the fox responds, “It is an act too often neglected… . It means to establish ties.” As the prince is still struggling to understand, the fox continues, “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
This concept of taming struck me as the root of what it means to become friends. In my own life, there are a few friendships where I can recall the particular moment in which I was “tamed.” For example, one of my friends moved from a pleasant acquaintance among many to a particular friend when he chose to sit by me at an event and invited me on a short errand afterward. The time we shared encouraged me to be more intentional in my relationship with this friend. Over time, we’ve grown our friendship through sharing our favorite music, what we’re reading, and the mundane goings-on of our days.
Research on relationship maintenance at the Gottman Institute posits that relationships thrive on this “shared meaning,” which is cultivated by “the use of rituals, roles, goals, and symbols.” Though Gottman research focuses on romantic and married relationships, creating shared meaning is important in friendships as well. Especially in the realms of ritual and symbol, this world of shared meaning is something the fox helps the little prince develop:
You see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat.
This passage reminds me of my friend Sarah, who introduced me more deeply to the world of tea. Through her invitation to events and shared experiences of drinking tea, I came to love it more. And because of Sarah, tea came to mean friendship and connection, and certain types of tea, like kombucha, especially remind me of her. So, for me, tea is endowed with meaning. Friendship has a meaning-making quality which enriches the world for us. When the fox and the little prince part, the fox takes comfort in the shared meaning they have created.
The creation of shared meaning also comes into play at the end of the book. As the little prince prepares to return to his planet, he imparts to the pilot a symbolism of their friendship, a way to remember each other even when parted: “At night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens…They will all be your friends.” Because the little prince will be ever associated with the stars for the pilot, the stars become endowed with special meaning.
The Little Prince portrays friendship with a tenderness I’ve seen in very few other places. The prince loves a rose that grows on his planet, and during his sojourn to other planets, he misses her. The fox tells the prince, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes it so important.” When the prince finds out that the rose is not as unique as he thought—he encounters a bush with hundreds of roses—he ultimately comes to the realization that she is actually singular when compared to all other roses because “she is my rose.” It is the unrepeatability of my relationship with another person that makes it beautiful, even when there are countless others who may have the same beliefs or interests.
Spending time in the desert
Near the end of the book, the little prince and the pilot search the desert for water. The little prince says, “What makes the desert beautiful . . . is that somewhere it hides a well.” In the eventual finding of a well both a physical and spiritual need are met at once, inextricably tying the act of searching to the sweetness of finding. It moves the pilot to wonder:
The water was indeed a different thing from ordinary nourishment. Its sweetness was born of the walk under the stars, the song of the pulley, the effort of my arms. It was good for the heart, like a present. When I was a little boy, the lights of the Christmas tree, the music of the Midnight Mass, the tenderness of smiling faces, used to make up, so, the radiance of the gifts I received.
The fox’s sage words that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly” come into play here as the child and grown-up prepare to part ways. The finding of water strikes me as being symbolic of the life-giving things in the world—deep conversations with a beloved friend, an invigorating wander through nature, the beauty of witnessing one human help another, bright memories of people who love us. We need the wells (the knowledge that there is goodness and hope in the world) as much as we need water (the goodness itself).
That Saint-Exupéry sets the pilot’s encounter and interaction with the little prince in the midst of a desert, and the desolation of having crashed his plane far from human aid, makes this encounter all the more important. The setting is a reminder that it is often in the midst of confusion, transition, and uncertainty that we are actually better equipped to sit alongside the unexpected and meet the gift of a new perspective.
For me, The Little Prince offers a timely reminder that seeing myself and others rightly requires cultivation. From this reading, I’ve learned that to better appreciate the goodness in life, I need to grow in my awareness of it. This requires stepping out of my everyday worries and encountering others with a desire to better know them and the world around me. It also requires approaching life with wonder, a desire to be moved by both the beautiful and the sorrowful. In reawakening my attentiveness to both the inner and outer worlds I occupy, I’m inspired to take action. I want to sit down and finally write that letter, reach out to someone I haven’t heard from in months, send a funny meme to a friend who’s reawakened my sense of humor. This is what matters most.