by Natalie Tedder
A couple of weeks ago I rewatched one of my favorite movies, the 2015 animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella “The Little Prince.” It’s an unspeakable tender film, dealing with themes of grief, memory, imagination, love, and the achingly bittersweet journey from childhood to adulthood. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll give you a brief synopsis.
Instead of only using the Little Prince novella as its plot, being as brief a story as it is, the film places the story into a larger narrative. On the outset, a little girl (who is given no other name, hence why I’ll only refer to her as “the little girl”) and her mother have just moved into a new neighborhood to be in closer proximity to a prestigious prep school. The two are kind and love each other very much, but are intensely driven and plan to squeeze every ounce of their summer in preparation for the school year ahead. The mother creates a whole “life plan” for her daughter, telling her warmly that she’s “going to make a wonderful grown up.” However, a wrinkle in their plan appears in the person of their neighbor, an eccentric old man. In a neighborhood of identical gray modern homes, the man lives in a peculiar three-storied house bedecked with trailing ivy and complete with a precarious, perch-like wooden balcony for his telescope. The little girl avoids the old man at first, suspicious of his antics. But after receiving small installments of a story about a Little Prince via paper airplanes, the little girl becomes curious, and eventually befriends the man who is both an aviator and the narrator of the Little Prince. And thus the story of the Little Prince and our larger story of the little girl are interwoven through the film.
The Little Prince brims with scenes that both pull on your heartstrings and make you think. But on this viewing, I was struck most by one of our antagonists, the Businessman, who counts and owns the stars, eventually housing them in an enormous domed glass bell jar. He explains to the little girl that he’s finally found a way to make the stars “useful,” and the film shows how he crushes and converts stars into electricity for the whole city. The Businessman is our obvious enemy in the movie, turning bicycles into paperclips and tyrannically running a colorless planet.
We can clearly see that the Businessman is wicked, so we’re predisposed to think that his actions are evil. So I thought to myself, setting aside his selfish motivations, what is the true evil of capturing the stars as he does? After all, he certainly demonstrates how, in a strange way, it helps the planet. Well it strikes me that the Businessman’s problem, intertwined with his greed and endless quest for gain, is that he fails to recognize the Beauty of the stars. He only lives to see what might be gained from them. He has no use for the awe they inspire, only the energy they create.
And oh, what a mirror: how quickly we fail to relish Beauty. This scene made me ask perhaps not a preposterous question: Would humans turn from admiring stars to commodifying them if we could? If we could capture them, would we try and find their utilitarian use?
While I watched these scenes, I kept thinking of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
It’s a simple poem, one with meaning easily grasped, I think. Whitman writes a brief but poignant vignette of how the study of the natural world can often be devoid of wonder. The “Learn’d Astronomer” has come to mind many times when I think of how we race forward with technology but don’t seem to have a proper sense of what it means to be human. To what end are we racing forward? Mere understanding? Convenience and ease? The Little Prince sees the Businessman counting his stars and asks, “what good does that do you?” I think Whitman’s narrator asks the same: What good is it to know all of the charts and figures of stars but to forget what it is like to be dumbfounded by their glory? To be stilled by their brightness?
The morning after I rewatched the film I awoke to gray skies and the promise of a storm, and I sat by my window to read St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I have been slowly pacing through this month. And would you believe it, I began book 5 where Augustine laments all the brilliant, leaned philosophers who study the stars and yet do not know or praise their Creator. This felt like such an obvious wink from the Lord, bringing together a children’s movie, a poem, and the writings of a 4th century Church Father. Augustine recognizes what little good our knowledge does for us apart from the One who gave us our capacity to know in the first place. He writes to God, saying, “You draw near to none but to the contrite in heart, nor are you found by the proud, no, not even if by cunning skill they could count the number of the stars and the sand, and measure the starry regions and trace the courses of the planets” (70).
And I thought of the Businessman as Augustine made this following observation: “They did not know this way and fancied themselves exalted among the stars and shining, and lo! they fell to the earth, and their foolish heart was darkened. They say many true things concerning the creation; but Truth, the Architect of creation, they do not seek reverently, and therefore do not find him” (71).
There are so many good quotations from this section of the book that I could drop in here. I’ll refrain, but allow me just one more: “Even so, a just man to whom all the world of wealth belongs, and who, as having nothing, yet possesses all things by holding fast to you who all things serve, though he does not know even the circles of the Great Bear, is doubtless in a better state than the one who can measure the heavens, number the stars and weigh the elements, *but is forgetful of who you made all things in number, weight and measure”* (72). Forgetful. That’s a word worth stopping on. Augustine reminds us that we’re a forgetful people, and we forget our Creator. We forget that He spoke the world into being and sits enthroned above it.
Perhaps the most memorable quote from the Little Prince comes when the old man gives the little girl advice as she fears the idea of growing up. He tells her, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” But in that precise moment, he doesn’t name the object of our forgetfulness; what are we prone to forgetting? Wonder? Beauty? Awe? I think any and all of those suffice. I’m glad Augustine reminds us of the One who inspires those things.
Towards the end of the Little Prince, we have a teary-eyed scene in which the old man tells the little girl, repeating the phrase from the beginning of the movie, “You’re going to make a wonderful grownup,” and even with few words, it’s clear what he means. The little girl will be a child who grows up and remembers. She will not lose sight of the beauty of the world and the ones she loves. And I just love the word choice here: wonderful, full of wonder.
The movie ends with a shot of the little girl and her mother star-gazing with the aviator’s telescope. I love the very minor detail of how the mother cannot see anything until her daughter removes the lens cap. Her child helps her behold wonder. And I sit there, reminded to keep my child-like faith, and holdfast to my Creator.