I first read Antoine de St-Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince” when I was a sophomore in high school, in Madame Labbe’s French class. We read it aloud, in a circle, our clumsy tongues tripping over words we had never spoken. At the time, we were too young to understand the weight of the story.
When the little prince left his rose to travel the universe, I didn’t get it. How could he leave if he loved her, I thought with 16-year-old naivete.
I get it now.
In the years that passed, I would read the story again, in English and in French, and I would always be astonished by its breathtaking sadness.
When I recently saw Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “The Little Prince,” it happened again. As the prince told his newfound aviator friend why he set off on his odyssey, the explanation echoed hauntingly in my head.
“I was too young to know how to love her,” the prince lamented.
Spoken in the voice of a child, these words are doubly heartbreaking. Regret should be the territory of grownups who have learned too little too late.
If only the rose’s demands hadn’t been too much to bear. If only she hadn’t distracted him from his work. If only she didn’t get so cold at night.
Of course, she was just doing what roses are bred to do. Who ever heard of a rose taking care of herself? Surely she couldn’t keep warm without a bell jar or a windscreen. She’d be hard pressed to tilt a watering can her way. And what’s the use in having layers of beautiful petals if there’s no one there to admire them?
But the prince had work to do. Important work. If he didn’t clean out the volcanoes on Asteroid B-612, they could erupt and destroy his tiny planet. If he didn’t dig up the baobab trees that kept sprouting up, their roots would take over and eventually shatter the asteroid. These things simply had to be done, and as a matter of discipline, he took care of them every day, much to the rose’s chagrin.
He didn’t understand that nurturing a relationship – even when it’s with a flower – is as important as cleaning out volcanoes or uprooting trees. In time, her need for attention grew tiring. Rather than enjoy the sweetness of her perfume, he became annoyed by her complicated, cryptic nature. He was too young to know the ways of roses.
So he took to the sky in search of answers, hitching a ride with a flock of wild birds. Along the way, he visited other small planets, each inhabited by a character conducting “very important” business – one counted stars, one longed for admirers, and one made maps of places he had never seen. They were no help, the prince thought, so he headed to Earth, which, according to the geographer, had a good reputation.
When he landed on Earth, he was shocked to find dozens of flowers that looked just like his rose, and even more shocked to find that none of them meant anything to him.
It took a wild fox to show him why. As the prince tamed the fox, he learned that it’s the time he spent on his rose that made her special. Though the others looked the same, it was the love and responsibility that he felt for his rose that set her apart.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” the fox told the prince. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Since I first read the story, there have been times when I let my eyes lead me where my heart would never go. I have met my share of wise foxes and scared princes. I have acted as vain and coy as the rose. I’ve demanded attention when work got in the way. And I’ve taken to the sky when things got rough. Like the little prince, I didn’t realize any of this until it was too late.
I couldn’t. The prince couldn’t. The rose couldn’t either. It takes time to figure these things out, even if you have a clever fox to guide you. It’s easier to fly away than it is to stay and work things out. It takes courage to admit you were wrong when you’d rather shift the blame. And it takes patience to see petty annoyances for what they are: petty.
After a while, I learned that being “too young” was no longer a viable excuse. I stopped trusting what my eyes told me and started looking with my heart. And I realized that “The Little Prince” wasn’t really about a prince or a rose or a fox at all. But that didn’t stop me from wishing the prince a safe return to Asteroid B-612. After all, he had someone waiting for him. And the nights get so cold on his planet – too cold for a lonely rose.
Penobscot Theatre Company will perform “The Little Prince” at 2 p.m. Friday-Sunday at the Bangor Opera House. For tickets or information, call 942-3333.