cover of an ancient edition of Le Petit Prince with an illustration of the Prince in blue

Ineffectual Thorns

I recently pruned my roses, as I do every February. I used to do this on or after Valentine’s Day, but climate change is real and upon us, so now this chore gets done at the beginning of February. It’s a pleasant chore, the kind that makes a noticeable and immediate difference when it’s done. I live in Portland, Oregon, which calls itself the City of Roses (also Stumptown, Bridgetown, Rip City, Beervana, and Little Beirut). It’s the first gardening chore of the year, and one that can be done during a warm, sunny sun break on a false spring afternoon.

Roses grow with very little effort here, hence the nickname. Our house came with a dozen rose bushes of different sizes and colors, and they survived being transplanted nearly twenty years ago. Whoever had originally planted them had placed them so close together that they were crowding each other out, so we made a new little rose garden with five of the bushes under an apple tree that also came with the house. They’re equally happy there. In more recent years, they have survived a heat dome, record-setting forest fire smoke, and at least two ice storms that knocked out power to a quarter of the city and killed many of my other plants.

And yet roses sometimes have a reputation for being fussy and special and demanding of a gardener’s fealty. This made me think of the self-centered flower in Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, so I pulled out my ancient secondhand copy with the broken binding to reread its demands.

Not remembering exactly where the passage I was looking for could be found, I ended up one chapter too early, when the narrator is trying to fix his downed airplane and the Little Price is asking him questions. He wants to know if a sheep that eats saplings would also eat flowers. Sure, says the narrator. [All the translations are my own.]

“Even flowers with thorns?”
“Yes. Even flowers with thorns.”
“Then what good are the thorns?”

The narrator admits he has no clue. He’s dealing with a stubborn bolt, and he’s coming to realize that his situation is more serious than he thought. For one thing, he’s running out of water.

But the Little Prince won’t let it go. He never gives up on a question once he’s asked it.

I was irritated by my bolt and I answered without thinking.
“The thorns don’t serve a purpose at all, it’s just the pure cruelty of flowers!”

The Little Prince, not satisfied with this outburst, answers his own question.

“I don’t believe you! Flowers are weak. They’re naive. They reassure themselves however they can. They think that they’re ferocious with their thorns…[sic]”

The Little Prince goes on while the narrator tries to get back to fixing his busted airplane engine and the stuck bolt. But the Little Prince’s voice breaks his concentration, and the narrator loses his patience.

“And you think, do you, that flowers–“
“No! No! I don’t think anything! I’m just answering you to answer you. I’m busy with serious things!”
He looked at me, stunned.
“Serious! Things!”
He watched me, hammer in my hand and fingers black with engine oil, while I leaned over a very ugly-looking object.

The scene continues, with the Little Prince accusing the narrator of talking like a grown-up, which he definitely does because he is a grown man. More specifically, he is a grown man alone (but for a weird little blond kid) in the desert with a broken plane and little water. He is a grown, frightened man.

This is what struck me in accidentally reading this passage. The narrator, like pretty much everyone, is a flower with ineffective thorns. Not always, but sometimes. There are invariably situations where we find ourselves out of our depth, and we reassure ourselves however we can. We get angry. We insult other people. We start fights. We get frustrated with curious children who keep asking questions while we’re trying to figure out a problem because maybe, if we don’t figure to the problem, we will quickly die of dehydration.

Granted, the narrator’s problem is both dire and specific. He’s not puzzling out data in a spreadsheet or pondering the wider meaning of a passage of text in an eighty-year-old book written for French children. Yet if I were interrupted right now, by “just a quick question” — the worst kind — or a text message, I would in my mind say “I don’t know! I’m just answering you to answer you.” And my actual answer would be testy. I would be protecting my task, and my squishy, intellectual self, with my ineffectual thorns of irritation. I am busy with serious things.

The Little Prince himself becomes very upset with the narrator, first going pale with anger and then red with rage. And then he bursts into tears. His accusations of talking like an adult and his frustration at not having his questions answered are his own ineffectual thorns to protect his fear that his flower will be eaten by a sheep while he’s away from his planet.

Flowers do need thorns because some animals, even some sheep, will be put off by those spiky thorns, and the flower will live another day. There’s no good reason for humans to go out into the world every day like unprotected flowers waiting to be hurt. The thorns of irritation, of anger, of snappishness, of rage, sometimes do serve a protective purpose.

So how do the Little Prince and the narrator resolve this argument? Well, the narrator, being the adult, drops his frustrated thorns and rocks the Little Prince while telling him he’ll draw a muzzle for the sheep and a bell jar for the flower. These are sturdier solutions than thorns. But importantly, he says to himself:

I didn’t know what to say. I felt very awkward. I didn’t know how to get close to him, where to rejoin him … [sic] It’s so mysterious, the land of tears.

While the Little Prince is right that declaring oneself to be doing important things is a very grown-up way to talk, these final lines of the chapter are a very adult way to think. Admitting one’s perplexity, one’s awkwardness, one’s inability to join someone else in their sorrow, is difficult, and thorns aren’t going to help. But being there anyway, awkwardly rocking them in their distress, is good enough.

Order KHG’s latest translation, Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion, available now as a paperback or ebook.