Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved tale of a pilot and a young alien prince has been delighting readers since it was first published in 1943. Even if you know The Little Prince (or Le Petit Prince in its original French) by heart, there are probably a few things you may not know about the novella.
1. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry knew a thing or two about desert plane crashes.
When he depicted the novel’s narrator crashing in the Sahara at the opening of the book, Saint-Exupéry was writing what he knew. While today he’s largely remembered for The Little Prince, before World War II Saint-Exupéry was celebrated as an aristocratic aviator and writer who had flown mail routes in Africa and South America and even worked as a test pilot. During an attempt to break the record for the fastest trip between Paris and Saigon, Saint-Exupéry crashed his plane in the desert 125 miles outside of Cairo.
2. "The Little Mermaid" may have inspired Saint-Exupéry to write The Little Prince.
Although the true origin of the story is widely debated, one common theory is that Saint-Exupéry was inspired by this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. In the early 1940s, Saint-Exupéry was stuck in a hospital while he recovered from various injuries that had piled up from his plane crashes, and he was bored out of his mind. His friend Annabella decided to read him a story—"The Little Mermaid"—that got Saint-Exupéry thinking about writing a fairy tale of his own.
3. Saint-Exupéry wrote while in a self-imposed exile in the United States during World War II.
Saint-Exupéry had been a pilot in the French Air Force until the armistice between France and Germany in 1940, which resulted in the demobilization of the French forces. He had a poor opinion of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and refused to join the Royal Air Force; he left for the U.S. instead, where he unsuccessfully tried to get the government to enter the war against Germany.
4. Saint-Exupéry’s wife, Consuelo, likely inspired the Prince’s Rose.
Antoine and Consuelo had a volatile relationship, living apart for most of their lives, but she always remained his muse. Just as Saint-Exupéry held Consuelo close to his heart, the Prince protects his rose, watering her and shielding her from the elements. Although the Prince encounters other roses (in Saint-Exupéry’s case, other women) on his journey, the fox reminds him that his rose is unique to him because "you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." This theory is further supported by the title of Consuelo’s autobiography, The Tale of the Rose.
5. Saint-Exupéry both wrote and illustrated The Little Prince.
Saint-Exupéry himself painted all of the story’s simple watercolor illustrations. He did not consider himself an "artist," but he had been a lifelong doodler and was always sketching little people on scraps of paper.
6. He had to improvise on some of the illustrations’ models.
Saint-Exupéry didn’t have access to a vast menagerie, so he based the illustrations on what he could find. Pulling inspiration from his own life, he modeled many of the characters from real figures—a friend’s poodle became the sheep, while his own pet boxer became the tiger.
7. One of the main characters in The Little Prince is never actually shown to the reader.
Curiously, the pilot—the narrator and one of the main characters—is never depicted in The Little Prince. A 2014 exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York showcased many of Saint-Exupéry’s unpublished drawings, including one depicting the narrator sleeping beside his plane. Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, shared her thoughts on the piece: "We can only speculate about why [he] decided to remove that image. But he was very good at excising what was not essential to his story." A fitting analysis, considering that the story famously says, "L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux" ("What is essential is invisible to the eyes," a line that itself went through many revisions).
8. Saint-Exupéry dropped his manuscript for The Little Prince off at a friend’s before rushing off to rejoin the military.
One of the most famous books of all time had an unassuming trip to its publisher. Saint-Exupéry tossed a "rumpled paper bag" containing his draft manuscript and original illustrations onto a friend’s entryway table and immediately took off for France again. The 140-page handwritten draft was a mess of struck-through prose, illegible handwriting, coffee stains, and even cigarette scorch marks. He left it as a parting gift, saying, "I’d like to give you something splendid, but this is all I have."
9. Saint-Exupéry never saw the book published in his home country.
First published in 1943, The Little Prince was released in French and English, but only in the United States. Due to his controversial political views, Saint-Exupéry‘s works were not easily available under the Vichy regime, so it wasn’t until the liberation of France that the book was made available in the author’s homeland.
10. Saint-Exupéry mysteriously disappeared after finishing the book.
By the time his work was available in France, Saint-Exupéry had already been presumed dead for a year, and his death was every bit as mysterious and fascinating as his life. After making his way to Algiers and talking his way into the Free French Air Force, he was once more able to fly even though both his physical and mental health were questionable. On a 1944 reconnaissance mission, his plane disappeared, and he was never seen again. Whether he was shot down by an enemy or perhaps crashed the plane himself remains unclear. The author’s body was never recovered, and it wasn’t until 1998 that a clue to his fate was found in the form of his silver identity bracelet, which was discovered by a fisherman off the coast of Marseille in the Mediterranean. The remains of his plane were found there by a diver in 2000.
11. Orson Welles wanted to adapt the novella into a film, with help from Walt Disney.
Welles was apparently so taken with the story that he purchased the film rights the day after reading it. He wanted to work with Walt Disney and even asked Disney to handle the special effects, but the two brilliant artists did not work brilliantly as collaborators. Disney felt that such a film would upstage his own work, and reportedly stormed out of a meeting shouting, "There is not room on this lot for two geniuses." Welles’s original screenplay was showcased during the Morgan exhibit.
12. The Little Prince has been translated into over 250 languages.
One of the most-read and most-translated books in the world, the story is often used in schools as a teaching tool for learning other languages. The book’s crisp style makes it a particularly good choice for translation into small and endangered languages. In 2005, it was translated into an Amerindian language of northern Argentina called Toba—a real distinction since up to that point the only other book translated into Toba was the Bible.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.