A classic children’s book full of ageless wisdom.
The novella is both the most-read and most-translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
Odd that I should live 53 years before managing to squeeze such a famous 98-page read into my busy schedule.
On the surface, this children’s book, which includes simple watercolor illustrations by the author, tells the story of an aviator who has crash-landed in the Sahara Desert. He’s working hard to repair his plane when he meets a small prince who has travelled to earth (and a few other places) from a tiny asteroid. What follows are stories from the little prince’s travels, each of which has an important message that isn’t just for children.
Chapter XXI made the biggest impact on me. In that Chapter, the little prince meets a fox who explains to him, in the course of their conversation, the meaning of the word tame:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just 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…”
Later, the fox adds:
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: 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…”
Can you think of a more beautiful way to describe the bond between two people who have come to love and depend upon each other?
There’s more to the story than that, but I’ll let you discover it on your own. I’ll just say this: the end of the story of the fox made me cry when I read it yesterday and it made me cry again today. There’s so much truth in the words. I’m filled with sadness at the knowledge that so few people understand this simple wisdom and how it applies in their lives.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
Matters of Consequence
Underlying most of the book is the idea of what’s really important in life. Saint-Exupéry refers to this as “matters of consequence.”
In the little prince’s travels, he meets a businessman who is busy counting and doing sums. He’s too busy to relight his cigarette and almost too busy to answer the prince’s questions between counting and adding. He tells the prince that he can’t stop, that he has so much to do, that he is concerned with matters of consequence. Those matters turn out to be counting the stars, which he has claimed ownership of, despite the fact that he’s not even sure, at first, what they’re called. The prince has questions about this:
“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”
“It does me the good of making me rich.”
“And what good does it do you to be rich?”
“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”
Later, the prince asks the man what he does with the stars.
“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”
The little prince was still not satisfied.
“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”
“No. But I can put them in the bank.”
It’s that what it’s all about for too many people? Slaving their life away in pursuit of the almighty dollar, neglecting what’s really important in life? All so they can accumulate what they believe is wealth and keep it safe from others?
Later, the little prince is angry with the pilot because the pilot has failed to answer a question the prince thinks is important. He sums up his meeting with the businessman and what it means to him:
“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man — he is a mushroom!”
In my life, I’ve spent far too much time with mushrooms. Indeed, I think I was a mushroom for a time myself.
Read the Book
If you’re more interested in morals and philosophy than what’s on reality TV, celebrity gossip shows, or the business press, do yourself a favor and read the book.
Read it slowly and savor the lessons revealed in the little prince’s travels. I’m sure you’ll take away a lot more than what I’ve shared here — I know I did.