I'm somewhat surprised at myself for not writing a review of this, one of my all-time favorite books, before now. If I had to venture a guess as to why this is so, I'd have to say that it's probably because this beautiful little fable means too much to me personally; I've been afraid to write about it for fear of not doing it justice. Now I'll give it my best shot, and ask anyone who should happen to read this review, if you find my essay wanting in some way, please still give the book a read and judge for yourself as to the quality of the story.
Most bookstores carry this French novella in their children's section. I can understand why this is the case: the book is less than one hundred pages, the sentences are simple and flow with an easy, poetic grace, and interspersed with the clear text are more than forty watercolor pen-and-ink pictures drawn with a childlike gravity that is yet meticulously detailed - as fine a masquerade of children's literature as was ever created. But make no mistake - it is a masquerade; for, while a proper reading of this book requires a child's faith, acceptance, and willingness to make a complete suspension of disbelief, this story, difficult to define, comes closer to philosophy than to anything else.
Translated by Katherine Woods, the author is Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a French pilot and author of a number of books on the subject of aviation, many of which are considered classics of French and World literature in their own right. The Little Prince, however, stands in a class by itself, and expresses the world-weary and cynical author's yearning for a freer and more sincere and introspective world. Exupéry tells his story in a semi-autobiographical fashion, beginning the tale with an anecdote describing how, as a child, he was urged by sensible adults to put down his paints and colored pencils that he might concentrate on "matters of consequence" - thereby, declares Exupéry, checking "what might have been a magnificent career as a painter."
The book then skips ahead many years later. Exupéry, himself now a "sensible" adult who has resolutely put away childish things, has crashed his plane in the harshly beautiful but harshly unforgiving Sahara desert, is desperately working against time to fix his engine before his water supply runs out when he hears a child's voice address him thus: "If you please - draw me a sheep!" The astounded pilot turns to encounter the owner of the voice, a small boy with yellow curls, prince of distant asteroid.
Says the author, "I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales... 'Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep...' To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story."
Understanding life is what this story is about, for both the author and his subject. The Little Prince lived happily alone on his small planet until the wind planted for him a new seed, from which sprang the loveliest flower he had ever seen. He lavished his love and attention upon the flower, which in turn tormented him with her vanity and her pride, ultimately driving him to abandon his home and venture forth into the galaxy in search of the secret of what is really important in life. He learns this secret, finally, from a creature of the Earth - a fox. With his new level of understanding, the Little Prince is at last ready to return home, but not before he passes on his new knowledge to the author - knowledge of the healing power of love which makes all things unique, and how the pain of saying goodbye is worth it if it changes how we look at the world.
I'd like to close with a quote from the book's own jacket copy: "There are a few stories which in some way, in some degree, change the world forever for their readers. This is one."
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."