“Le Petit Prince” – a French Tale of Innocence and Experience

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry having crashed in the desert. Saint-Exupéry/André Prévot / Public domain
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry having crashed in the desert. Saint-Exupéry/André Prévot / Public domain

Le Petit Prince (1943) is the most famous work of French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Its popularity has largely increased over the years, spawning a shop in Paris (one more item to add to my “next time I am in Paris” list), a theatrical production, an animated film, and even a theme park. The author celebrates his 120th birthday this year.

The tale is often deemed a children’s tale and still seems to stubbornly persist in schools’ or even universities’ syllabus’ as seen by the number of annotated and bilingual editions on the market. A pilot crashes in the desert, facing immediate death if he does not manage to repair his aircraft in time. This part of the tale is biographical. The accompanying photo shows Saint-Exupéry with his broken aircraft in the desert. The thus stranded narrator encounters a little prince, who is a child-like creature, but claims to have come from another planet and to have visited many other planets before. This encounter will change his life.

At a first glance, the parallels between the French tale and Blake’s work are on a superficial level. The tale can be read by adults and children alike, an attribution just as true for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” (1789, 1794) What is more, Saint-Exupéry tells his story by using both text and drawings, so his way of telling stories is very similar to that of the poet painter Blake. In a manner similar to Blake, image and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other. The little prince explains for example to the rose he finds on his planet that there are no tigers on this planet, but the accompanying drawing shows a rose and a tiger, thus contradicting the re-assurrance of the little prince.

Rose and tiger naturally remind further of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” both elements being central pieces of Blake’s poem collection. Here, too, the rose is rather a woman than a flower, but in the end, the killer threatening to end her life is not the tiger, but a relative of the lamb. In a fatal oversight, the narrator has forgotten to provide adequate protection for the rose which may provoke the sheep, which is nothing but a drawing, a drawing that is supposed to be alive, to have the rose for supper. The soft and innocent lamb has swapped places with the predator, the tiger, only to threaten the rose who is not sick, but will have to use her thorns to defend herself against the predator in her world, the herbivore (thus taking the place of the worm). Blakean characters appear and intermingle in a new way, thus evoking Blake and rejecting him at the same time. The Blakean references seem to fade in and out. The threesome of rose, sheep, and tiger seems to evoke Blake only to swap the roles of innocent creature and predatory beast.

As mentioned before, the sheep only appears as a drawing. This drawing, however, does not show the actual sheep, but only the box in which the sheep is sitting (a reference to quantum mechanics in its similarity to Schrödinger’s cat). When the narrator and little prince meet for the first time, the prince asks him to please draw him a sheep. The prince is choosy and finds fault with all the animals the narrator can provide, a pilot who has just crashed in the desert and thus has other pressing things occupyping his mind than the drawing of a sheep. He grows impatient and provides the drawing of the aforementioned box instead. Surprisingly, the prince can “see” the sheep inside the box and finds it befitting his expectations. What may be interpretated as the vivid imagination of a child, bears deeper meaning when seen in context of the tale. It is not only that he prince can see the sheep inside the box of the drawing, it is his firm belief that the sheep may eat the rose, a part of the real, materialistic world which wipes out borders between real and unreal, drawing and materialistic world, imagination and material world. The prince does not distinguish between the world that is real and the world that is drawn. Images are supposed to have just as much life as does the world around them; the prince believes that the sheep on his piece of paper is just as real as the rose he can touch. At the end of the tale, the narrator will share this world-view and worry about the rose to be killed by a sheep he has drawn himself. To the prince, imagination, or the painting, is as real as is the material world. He is a character Blake may have had sympathy for. His statement “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination[.]” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217) is, naturally, much more complex, but surly evokes sympathy for the world-view of the prince.

As may be expected the prince finds it difficult to understand characters who are meant to represent adulthood and who are through and through Urizenic, a business man counting the stars to “own” them, a cartograph who is interested in cartography only without ever leaving his desk, a king who rules without subjects to follow his rules, a night watch who blindly follows a set of rules which has become useless as the conditions of his planet have changed. He concludes:  “Les grandes personnes sont décidément bien bizarres. “(“The grown-ups are definitely very bizarre” (my translation)). (33) Adulthood seems to appear identical with everything that is Urizenic were it not for the narrator, whose complaints that he would rather have to focus on things like repairing his engine or finding a source of water are quite justified. Still,  the world of the prince in which a drawing of a box can threaten the life of a flower clashes heavily with adults who are preoccupied with measuring, owning, creating rules or following rules. The narrator explains earlier in the text that adults are preoccupied with numbers and will only believe information when given a certain amount of figures in addition. This passage is not directly Blakean, but the very open criticism of science makes me think of Newton measuring the ground in front of him and Urizen doing the very same – both seeking the figures they need to believe in information. The fact that both of them fail to look at the world around them instead of the ground in front of them reminds me of the cartograph who refuses to leave his desk. Or the businessman who counts the stars to own them.

Seen together, these Urizenic characters form the contrary to the threesome of rose, tiger, and sheep. It is the prince who moves between these two worlds and tries to make somehow sense of them. He is, after all, a traveller of different worlds. He leaves his world to gain understanding, only to end up in worlds he cannot make head or tails of. Yet, he too lives by the principle that there is no progression without contraries and the contrary is something to be encountered in the world of adulthood. This short visit to the world of adulthood and subsequent return makes him a relative of Thel.

The only one who can help him gain understanding during his voyage is his friend the fox. The fox teaches him what must be considered the core teaching and most famous quote of the tale: “[O]n ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“You can only see rightly with the heart. The essential things are invisible to the eye.” (my translation)). (55) This seems to directly echo Blake’s “The Eye sees more than the heart knows” which precedes Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) although both differ in their meaning.

In fact, both statements complement each other. Blake’s motto foreshadows Oothoon’s desperate attempt to actually talk to Theotormon who rejects her. She tries to communicate her plea to him, but he sits at the sea “conversing with shadows dire,” (P, 11) he closes his mind and heart to her alike. He may actually see what she explains to him, but his heart refuses to accept these truths. She laments: “does his eye behold the beam that brings Expansion to the eye of pity?” ( P, 11) Theotormon does not have an eye of pity. He was “form[ed]” by Urizen, the “mistaken demon of Heaven.” ( P, 8) Similar to the characters in the French tale representing adulthood who cling desperately to their Urizenic system unable to see how futile their activities are, Theotormon clings blindly to his system refusing to see its fault, injustice, and cruelty. The quote hints at a refusal to part with what the heart already knows and a subsequent discarding of information the eye sees but is deemed unfit for the already formed image found in the heart. This is the same mindset Saint-Exupéry’s adults live in. The king for instance does not accept the piece of information that he is alone on his planet and thus lacks subjects to rule over.

Saint-Exupéry’s quote, however, describes the world of the prince. The narrator explains that what makes certain objects and persons special to us cannot be perceived by the eyes. So, although the prince is horrified to find a garden of roses identical to the one on his planet, he learns that this one flower is special to him because he has an emotional bond to it. In a similar matter, Christmas presents gain their meaning through the accompanying festivities, dinner, mass etc. They are more than the actual item retrieved of a box, the whole procedure and idea of Christmas is attached to them and makes them Christmas presents instead of objects bought in the shop next door. All things we perceive carry meaning to us, and although all roses look the same to the eye, as do all foxes, it is one certain rose and one certain fox that have deeper meaning and value for the prince because he loves them. But the eye cannot distinguish between roses and foxes, only the heart can. His parting gift for the narrator is the starry night. Whenever the narrator will see stars, he will remember that the prince lives on one of them and this will be a happy thought for him. The starry night now carries meaning to the narrator it did not carry before because he has an emotional bond to the prince.

It is striking that Blake actually used the same explanation as Saint-Exupéry as to how we perceive things, only in an even more complicated way by pointing out that we all perceive different things because we give different meaning to these things:

I see Every thing I paint In This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a Bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217)

So, we are not only blind because we refuse to see with the heart to distinguish one rose from other roses and to value the beauty of a tree, the meaning we ascribe to things, be it the purse or the tree, is what makes them beautiful to us. There is no universal beauty and no universal truth that can be seen with the heart, because every heart sees something different. Saint-Exupéry’s quote is a simplified and much more positive outlook on this idea than Blake’s. It is exactly because the hearts of some people are hardened (considering that they see beauty in a money bag and regard trees as green hindrances) that they fail to see the essentials (taking that the beauty of nature is the essential). It is not their eyes which cannot see the essentials; their hearts are blind. As blind as Theotormon’s who cannot see the loving devotion of Oothoon. The eye sees indeed more than this hardened heart understands.

While the tale may not strike as explicitly Blakean, it echoes many of Blake’s ideas and topoi. Despite the lack of sexual references the child-prince who finds it difficult to understand the Urizenic and loveless world of adults combines problems of Thel and Ooothoon in his person. He too rejects the world of adulthood and he too criticises the inability to see love. He, however, returns with a better understanding of what love is and thus happily seeks reunion with his rose whom he now knows to be special. His journey is one towards understanding maturity. As mentioned above, while rose, tiger, and lamb are all part of his planet and thus stem from what he knows and loves as signified by his return, the Urizenic characters live on other planets. While his home planet may stands for childhood, imagination, and innocence, the other planets symbolise adulthood, Urizenic thought, and experience. Innocence and Experience thus become different worlds as well as different world-views opposing each other, exceeding the mere ideas of childhood and adulthood, in my eyes. And regarding these two world- views, I cannot help but imagine that the man who told a woman how he observed the funeral of a fairy might easily be friends with the little prince, thus transcending the border of childhood and adulthood all together. After all, the ability to see the essential should not be restricted to childhood. Reducing the tale to a praise of childhood misses out on the Blakean references that lurk underneath its surface. But probably the essential idea that imagination (for example the ability to see the beauty of a rose and a tree) should not be restricted to childhood can only be seen with the heart.

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London, Vintage Books, 1999.

Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Copy P. The Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/vda.p?descId=vda.p.illbk.01 (2020) [14.05.2020]

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince, avec les illustrations originales de l’auteur. Weimar, Aionas Verlag, 2017.

The Little Prince. https://www.thelittleprince.com/ (2017) [14.05.2020]

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  https://www.antoinedesaintexupery.com/ (2018) [14.05.2020]

Featured Image taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_Crash_-1935-_copyright_free_in_Egypt_3634_StEx_1_-cropped.jpg (14.02.2012) [14.05.2020]

 

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