“Isn’t it true that sheep eat bushes?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Ah! I’m glad.”
I didn’t understand why it was so important that the sheep should eat bushes. But the little prince added:
“And therefore they eat baobabs, too?”
I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs are not bushes but trees as tall as churches, and that even if he took a whole herd of elephants back to his planet, that herd couldn’t finish off a single baobab.
The idea of the herd of elephants made the little prince laugh.
“We’d have to pile them on top of one another.”
But he observed perceptively:
“Before they grow big, baobabs start out by being little.”
“True enough! But why do you want your sheep to eat little baobabs?”
He answered, “Oh, come on! You know!” as if we were talking about something quite obvious. And I was forced to make a great mental effort to understand this problem all by myself.
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupery
From Goodreads: Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.
Notes: Somehow I missed this classic when I was little. Whereas many a children’s tale reads differently in adulthood, though, this one made a little girl of me again for the reading; I might as well have been five, poring through the text and comparing the pictures to the words as I did with Billy and Blaze.
When I got to the end, and the author told me that I loved the little prince just as he did, I assented wholly—not as the thirty-five-year-old woman who would have wanted to sweep a child like that up into her arms and mother him, but as the prince’s equal in age and height and emotion: someone who would have sat beside him in the sand and talked about sheep and baobab trees with unquestioned confidence and sympathy.
The only grown-up part left me after the read, in retrospect—and it’s only half grown-up—is the part that desperately wants to know what to do with the heartbreaking loveliness of the tale. I couldn’t quite solve the ending; it left me breathless and sad and unsettled, hopeful and afraid.
Looking back, I see a thousand little things—places where the story reflects Christ-imagery as clearly as a stained-glass window, thoughtful moments depicting what it means to love and find meaning. But it’s all tied up with the part of me that wants to know what happened, wants to know it in terms that my mind, still so dependent on science despite all my devotion to imagination and fairy tales, can comprehend.
De Saint-Exupery says something similar of himself once: “...here you’ll have to forgive me. My friend never explained anything. Perhaps he thought I was like himself. But I, unfortunately, cannot see a sheep through the sides of a crate. I may be a little like the grown-ups. I must have become old.”
The author, who vanished with his airplane just two years after writing this book, bequeathed his readers a value for childlike understanding along with his love for his planet-hopping friend. The book is full of innocent, single-sentence philosophies that would seem aphoristic if they weren’t all of them bigger in meaning than in words. Like Lewis, de Saint-Exupery writes to children as equals; like Hodgson Burnett, he writes to them as intimates; like Carroll, he unchains his imagination for them. The result is that the adult reader must sit down in the sand and listen as a child—and from that perspective the whole world seems, for a time at least, infinitely clearer and more beautiful.
In the end, it’s no harder to understand why the book is a classic than it is to understand why it makes you cry.