Birth of the book

Why and how did Saint-Exupéry come to create his Little Prince? The subject has been widely canvassed, and there are now any number of answers and explanations to choose from.

A Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale…
After the armistice of 1940, Saint-Exupéry left France for the United States. While he was in hospital undergoing treatment for the consequences of his many accidents, he was also in the process of writing Flight to Arras. To keep him entertained, a friend (the actress Annabella) read him a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: The Little Mermaid. This gave him the idea of writing a tale of his own. At the same time, René Clair, another friend, made him a present of a box of watercolour paints. The timing was perfect: Saint-Exupéry could now illustrate the story that had found its origins in the loneliness of a hospital bed. He could at last bring truly to life the will ‘o the wisp little character he had been sketching for years.

A commission…
1942. Saint-Exupéry was dining with his US publisher Eugene Reynal. As usual, he sketched out a cast of invented characters on the table-cloth, including a little boy. Charmed by the silhouette of a child with wings, Reynald supposedly suggested that he write a fairy story to be published at Christmas. The suggestion has also been attributed to Elisabeth, wife of Eugene Reynal. She hoped it would give renewed sense of purpose to a writer suffering from his exile in a country that had no love for him, wounded by the controversy stirred up by his latest book, Flight to Arras, attacked from all sides by those seeking to win him over to their cause and bitterly angry with him for not sharing their ideas.

Unless…
According to other sources, Saint-Exupéry had been considering writing a fairy tale for the last seven years and more. A fairy story whose main character would be a child – his brother François, perhaps, so much beloved, lost so young and whom, in their play, he used to call « the Sun King ». From there, it is but one small step to a little prince…

Night shift
On the advice of his friend Paul-Émile Victor, Saint-Exupéry bought himself a set of watercolour crayons and left the urban jungle behind to set up home in a manor-house on Long Island. He sat down to his writing once night had fallen, helped by a continuous supply of coffee and cigarettes, to trace out the odyssey of his Little Prince. In the middle of the night, he would call up his friends to talk about the story or ask their advice. Sometimes he even asked them to pose for his drawings. The son of philosopher De Konnick supposedly served as the model for certain poses, Sylvia Reinhardt’s boxer dog for the tiger, and a friend’s poodle provided the inspiration for the drawing of the famous sheep. Occasionally, an exhausted Saint-Exupéry would fall asleep at his desk.

The book, at last!
Saint-Exupéry worked on Le Petit Prince for the whole summer and part of that autumn. At the end of 1942, he handed the manuscript over to his publisher. Eugene Reynal had the text translated into English and published the French original and its English version simultaneously on 6 April 1943, as Saint-Exupéry was leaving the US to join the Free French in Algeria. The first French edition of Le Petit Prince would be published by Editions Gallimard after the Liberation, and after the author’s death, in 1946