Please, draw me a sheep!

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

  1. August 29, 2011 at 1:20 am

    I didn’t read this as a child, but I remember all the Babar the Elephant books.


    • August 29, 2011 at 8:10 am

      It’s really a classic. I was a great fan of Alice and of The Famous Five. (already crime fiction, as you see…)


  2. August 29, 2011 at 2:12 am

    It’s good to come across a children’s book that deals with bigger issues. You’re right, they are certainly all with us today! Might hunt out a copy of this for my nephew.


    • August 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

      There’s an English version and Saint-Exupéry did the illustrations himself.

      It’s a pleasant way to start a discussion with children. But it’s a nice book for adults too. Adults understand things that children don’t (For example, when he talks about the Asteroid B612, he says it was first discovered by a Turkish scientist dressed in traditional clothes. Nobody listened to him. After his president decided everybody should wear Western clothes, he was eventually heard)


  3. August 29, 2011 at 5:46 am

    He didn’t know about the Holocaust 1943? I would be surprised if he didn’t. But you may be right. I think they found him recently, didn’t they? His plane or something.
    I love this tale and it saddens me what has become of it. How many so-called spiritual writers just steal parts of it. It’s very sad. I should re-read it. It’s very lovely for children and grown-ups.
    My favourite part is the fox.
    When reading your post I remembered that you can buy a star for someone. With certificate and all and the star would then have the name of the person. I find this unbearably unpoetical.
    When they introduced the Euro it was the saddest thing for me to see the 5ofrancs note go.
    I loved that note.


    • August 29, 2011 at 8:25 am

      Yes, they found his plane in the Mediterranean sea. They’ve been looking for it all those years.
      I love the part with the fox and when he realises that his rose may look like all the other roses but she’s still unique because he interacts with her.
      You’re right, I think you can buy a star. Like you, I find it unpoetical. As unpoetical as when scientists want to explain feelings with hormones and other physical stuff. Even if it’s true, I don’t want to know it. I want to keep the magic and the mystery.

      I remember the 50 FRF blue note with Saint-Exupéry on it. He was born here, so he’s everywhere: airport name, mall name…


  4. August 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Now I know, having seen it with my own eyes, that the Place Bellecour in Lyon has the most adorable statue of the Little Prince and the aviator.


    • August 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      And a big statue of Louis XIV.
      I forgot to ask you, did you take a picture in front of the ONLYLYON sign?


      • August 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm

        No. We might have taken a picture of other people taking a picture in front of the giant ONLYLYON.


        • August 29, 2011 at 5:29 pm

          Yes there are a lot of tourists there.
          For other readers who haven’t been to Lyon, here is the sign


  5. leroyhunter
    August 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    I really like Saint-Exupery, but I haven’t read this.

    I can see why people would get a picture at that Lyon sign, although it never ceases to amaze me the things people consider worthy of recording when on holidays.


    • August 29, 2011 at 10:54 pm

      The Little Prince is worth reading.

      The ONLYLYON sign is a game. You take a picture and there’s a special web site to post it.


  6. September 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I read this as a child and hated it. I can’t quite remember why. I think it was because those who gave it to me invested such significance on it, made so many claims for it, that it came weighed down by them.

    The irony is I’ve since read some of his other work and loved it. I’ve one of Saint-Exupery’s on my blog (Wind, Sand and Stars – and another of his waiting at home.

    For me explanations don’t remove the magic. Sometimes I’m late for work because one of my cats (Raiju always) realises I’m on my way out and wants some time with me before I go. I know that in part I love my cats because they’ve evolved to trigger parenting responses in me and I know they love me (to the extent one can say that – but that’s a much longer comment) because they’re hardwired to be affectionate towards humans as an evolutionary strategy.

    I know all that, I understand a fair bit of the underlying mechanisms (though not the actual biochemistry, but I know that’s there too). None of that understanding stopped me spending ten minutes with Raiju this morning though, and being a bit later for work because of it. The emotion has biological roots for each of us, but yet it remains real.


    • September 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      I’m sorry you hated it and honestly, you’re the first personI hear saying so. The adult who gave it to you must have pushed too far and you started it prejudiced. Perhaps it needs a re-read with adult eyes?
      The irony is that I hated Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des hommes, in French. The French title is better but I can’t see how to translate it) thanks to a horrible teacher. It probably need a re-read as an adult too. I remember your review.

      I suppose that, if I had a cat, I’d forget to remember why my cat acts like this too and enjoy the moment. After all, babies weep and shriek on a special tone that is unbearable to the human ears to make adults take care of them. It never stopped me comforting and kissing my children and do whatever I could to ease their pain.


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