The Red Balloon by A. Lamorisse, was first published as Le Ballon Rouge, in France in 1956, and became an instant children’s classic. The book is a companion product to the 34-minute short film by the same title that many consider one of the best short films of all time. One critic exclaimed, “More than any other children’s film, The Red Balloon turns me into a kid again.”
The book, memorable for its beautiful black-and-white stills from the movie, on the cobblestone streets of post-war Paris, is the story of a young boy who lives alone with his mother and notices, on his way to school one day, a big, perfectly spherical red balloon tied to a lamppost. Climbing up the lamppost, he frees the balloon and takes it to school with him, putting it in safe keeping with a kind janitor until school is out.
Since the operator of the trolley he usually rides home on won’t allow the balloon on board, he has to walk home, making him quite late and worrying his mother. When she finds out it was the balloon that made him late, she throws it out the apartment window, which is when the magic begins. For instead of flying away like any helium balloon would do, the balloon hovers right outside the apartment window. So later, when his mother isn’t looking, the boy brings the balloon back inside and hides it in his room. In the morning, he puts the balloon back outside the window and tells it to wait. When he gets downstairs and out onto the street, he calls to the balloon and it comes right to him, following him to school — even sailing behind the trolley. Thus begins a relationship with the balloon which resembles a relationship a child might have with a loving pet, complete with obedience, disobedience, and scolding, as if the balloon had a mind of its own.
Trouble comes when the bullies of the school try to steal the balloon away from the boy. For a while he is able to elude them, but soon, they prove too much for him and, surrounding him and his red balloon, they throw rocks at it until one hits the balloon and breaks it.
The boy is obviously devastated by this and sits on the ground sad and angry over his deflated magic companion. Suddenly another balloon sails to him from out of the sky, then another, and another. Soon a whole line of balloons start arriving from everywhere. “It was the revolt of all captive balloons!” And as the balloons come to him they start dancing and twisting their strings together until there is one single strand of string which the boy grabs and is lifted up into the air, over his problems, until he is sailing out over the city. And as the book concludes this fantasy, “he took a wonderful trip all around the world.”
The Christian symbolism is obvious. The balloon is loyal but doesn’t always fit into expectations. Just as Jesus operated outside the confines of tradition, so the balloon has a mind of its own. As C.S. Lewis observed numerous times in The Chronicles of Narnia, “Aslan is not a tame lion.” And of course, in the end, it takes a death for life to be released, and the one who was the boy’s companion (our Lord who walked with us on earth) becomes the source of his freedom (the Holy Spirit He left with us). The Spirit of God doesn’t just come alongside us; it carries us — buoys us, at least in spirit, over the things that hold us down.