A true prince among men

16th June 2000 at 01:00
The fox gazed at the Little Prince for a long time. "Please - tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the Little Prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me ..."

Antoine de Saint Exupery was born on June 29,1900. Aviator, journalist, freedom fighter, "Saint-Ex" as his friends called him, wrote one of the century's best loved books, 'Le Petit Prince' (1941), a fable about human values. He also wrote 'Wind, Sand and Stars', an account of his survival when his plane came down in the Libyan desert, and 'Flight to Arras'.

Though his father died when he was four, his childhood was idyllic, with loving aunts, grandparents, an adoring mother and several brothers and sisters. War was declared when he was 14; three years later his younger brother died.

Driven by a love of adventure, Saint-Exupery became an aviation mechanic and then, in 1927, a pilot. For him, flying was not just a mens of transport, it was also a vehicle for meditation. Writing and flying were creatively linked as well but, while he won prizes for his stories, he was a nonchalant pilot, prone to dreaming, and had many near-fatal brushes with death. He left France when it was defeated in 1940 and went to the United States where he wrote 'The Little Prince'. But, although too old for active service, he persuaded Allied commanders to let him fly again and, in 1944, was shot down over the Mediterranean.

'Le Petit Prince' holds a very special place in its readers' hearts. In pellucid French, it explores universal themes of freedom, responsibility, love and work, solitude and friendship, through the parable of a space-travelling child who meets a stranded airman. But who is the child and who is really the adult? Saint-Exupery's own death, at once selfless (to die for one's country) and irresponsible (to court disaster) seems to embody the novel's mixture of whimsy and profundity.

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox.

"But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."


'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, translated by Katherine Woods, Heinemann, gift edition pound;20

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