The Little Prince and its unlikely inspirations

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C. S. Lewis

One of my favourite books is The Little Prince. It’s also the first book that I read in Spanish. I remember quite clearly how I came across it. I had just arrived in Quito, and was learning the city by navigating the streets each day. Once I walked past an open stall of books, and there it was. At the time I thought only about how I loved the simple illustrations and odd characters, and that it might suit someone trying to get to grips with a new language; thinking about it now, Ecuador was the perfect place to have picked it up. Situated at the widest belt of a pockmarked earth, under stars, beside an active volcano which was frequently emptying its cinders. Only the baobabs were wrong, and the sense of scale: we couldn’t sweep out our volcanoes, and one could see the sunset only once a day.

Guagua Pichincha, the active volcanic centre that towers beside Quito.

The Little Prince is still a favourite story. Curiously, though, it’s become more fact than fiction. The book’s very first illustration hits close to home – the elephant swallowed by the snake is probably Cerro de Oro, a small volcanic centre on the south shore of Lake Atitlán.

We are fairly sure that Cerro de Oro does not contain an elephant. Beyond that, though, the contents and origin of the mound are shrouded in mystery. Some say it is related to the nearby Peñon de Siquinalá, another golden mountain. Some say it is a resurgent dome; others disagree. Still others talk of the remnants of an ancient civilization at its summit. Many of these stories are as fantastic as finding a pachyderm inside.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did not limit himself to Guatemala to find inspiration for fantasy. His wife was a tempestuous Salvadoran called Consuela Suncín-Sandoval Zeceña, and we believe that the Prince’s capricious rose was based on her character. Her country encompasses Cerro Verde National Park and within it the strange and surreal volcanoes of Izalco and Santa Ana. These appear in miniature as the two chimney-pots that the little Prince had to brush out every day on his home asteroid, B-612.

Daily reminder to brush your volcanoes and floss your baobabs.

Just like Guatemala, El Salvador blurs the line between fact and fiction. Its volcanoes are truly bizarre. To the south is Izalco, squat and studded with raisins like a Christmas pudding, lurking over the green shoulder of Cerro Verde. For two hundred years it erupted without pause. It was called “The Lighthouse of the Pacific”, so consistently active that sailors navigated by its light. And then, one day, it stopped. A friend told me that they built a hotel up there to watch the incandescence … and the very week it was inaugurated, Izalco stopped throwing fire and threw itself a funeral: its southern slopes are draped with black lobes like in mourning. Sister Ilamatepec, also known as Santa Ana, has caused trouble more recently. Apparently, before its eruption in October 2005, one could descend within the innermost of its three concentric craters. It’s hard to square that with what you see now: a turquoise jewel, gorgeous and exhaling poison.

These sites make me wonder about the other fanciful elements of The Little Prince. Is there a garden full of roses in the Ruta de Las Flores? Are the enormous baobabs actually the ceibas that tower over every town square? Is the lamplighter’s futile task perhaps inspired by the man who stands at the parking meter to put your ticket in for you? I know other people think of these things too. In any case, it’s lovely to find that the fantasy that inspired one of my favourite books is alive and well in 2022, in the life and breath of Central America.

Fantasía en la vida real: Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, El Salvador.

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