alchemy /ælkəmI / n. medieval chemistry, esp. seeking to turn base metals into gold. alchemist n. [Arabic]1
“The Alchemist” was first published in Brazil, in 1988. Initially it was not so well received, the first edition selling only 9000 copies. After it was decided that the book should not be reprinted, the author, Paulo Coelho, moved to a new publishing house which decided to publish one of his more recent books, Brida. The attention that this book received inspired interest in his earlier work, including The Alchemist. As a result, it was a matter of a short time before the book became a best seller. At this time, however, the novel had only been published in Portuguese. Now, about sixteen years later, the success of The Alchemist is quite unique; it has been published in 56 languages, and hailed as the most successful book ever written in Portuguese in the history of the language. Although the material success of the book suggests a universal appeal, it also reflects one of the novels central tenets: namely, that incredible things can come about from the most unsuspected of places. I am fairly sure that the small publishing house that passed up The Alchemist, would agree.
Part of the universal appeal that radiates form the book lies in its simplicity. As will be discussed in the summary below, The Alchemist plots the tale of Santiago, a young shepherd boy, as he sets out in search of his treasure. Advised by an old gypsy woman he abandons that which he has come to know and understand in favor of something new and unknown, with only optimism, curiosity, and courage as his guides. Along the path the boy encounters many characters, all of who contribute to his quest in a unique manner. Ultimately, what the boy acquires as a result of his adventure and those that he meets extends beyond the material; the riches that he acquires are born of experience and of being within the world.
The spirituality of The Alchemist has attracted people from many different cultures and religious backgrounds. Whilst different religions and pious practices are represented within the text, it seems to be people’s faith in determinism and the unification of all things that is celebrated in the pages of The Alchemist. In advocating no particular belief system, Coelho achieves something brilliant in that he manages to appeal to some of the fundamental beliefs that are shared between people of different cultures and creeds by virtue of being human. And as such, trying to understand the nature of existence and one’s place in it.
Paulo Coelho was born to Catholic parents in Brazil, in 1947. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a housewife, had envisioned a life for Paulo, and it did not involve writing. Fortunately, he rebelled, suffered the consequences and has become one of the most valuable of contemporary writers in the world today. However, his global success has not made him complacent, he has worked on the UNESCO project “Spiritual Convergences and Intercultural Dialogues”, won numerous international awards and acknowledgements, and also founded the Instituto Paulo Coelho, which aims to provide opportunities for the underprivileged in Brazil.
Whilst at school Coelho discovered his talent for writing. A life devoted to literature stood at odds with his father’s ambitions for the young Coelho to become an engineer. The rebellion against what his parents had set out for him, was taken by Paulo’s father as a sign of insanity, and in his seventeenth year Coelho was twice committed to an asylum. Upon his release, Coelho, unbroken, set out to become a journalist and aligned himself with the theatre. Such behavior was considered provocative of immorality by his parents, and they responded by yet again committing their son to the care of an institution for the mentally ill. When, after his third release, Paulo Coelho’s aspirations of becoming a great writer had not waned, his parents consulted a doctor who informed them that Paulo was not actually ill, but just needed to get on with his life.
In the 1960’s Paulo Coelho identified with the hippies. At this time Coelho founded a magazine that sought to promote the values and ideologies of the counter culture – only two editions were published. It was also around this time that Coelho became involved with the musician and composer, Raul Sexias. Writing songs together, the Coelho – Sexias duo became highly influential in the Brazilian rock scene of the time.
During the 1970’s Coelho worked at Polygram records, although he still harbored desires to become a writer. With these designs in mind he moved to London in 1977, where he bought a typewriter and began to write. These initial determined forays into writing proved unsuccessful, and he returned to Brazil a year later. Working as an executive for another record label, Paulo once again shelved his ambitions to write.
It was in the 1980’s that Paulo Coelho undertook a venture that inspired his first novel, The Pilgrimage. The story was based on Coelho’s experiences walking The Road to Santiago, an 830 mile medieval pilgrim’s route between France and Spain. It was at this time, in the words of Patricia Martin and Montse Ballesteros2, that he discovered “the extraordinary occurs in the lives of ordinary people”. The Pilgrimage was published in 1987. The following year The Alchemist was published.
Completed in a period of “no more than 10 days”3, The Alchemist was a reflection of Coelho’s own experiences with the art of alchemy; a discipline he had been exploring for some years previously. By choosing to represent alchemy allegorically through the fable of the young shepherd boy, instead of writing a scientific manual on the subject, Coelho succeeded in reaching millions of readers:
"I decided to write a fable, instead of writing in a sort of scientific way, because it's easier to reach your heart. I had to trust there was a soul of the world and it would help me to write the book. I wrote the book in no more than 10 days. It was like it was there, waiting, and I went and picked it up"4
The Alchemist was Coelho’s second book. He has since penned an additional 14 novels (a list is included below), and gained international recognition as an advocate of faith and utopia, of pursing one’s goals and ambitions by listening to one’s heart. As a writer, he has been admitted to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the most prestigious acknowledgement a Brazilian writer could aspire to. Further more, his recognition extends from the institutional to that of the common people; In 1998 Coelho was invited to join the World Economic Forum, and in 2000 he visited Iran, becoming the first non-Muslim writer to do so since 1979. As Iran has never signed the International Copyright Agreement, piracy is rife. However, Paulo Coelho has become the first non-Muslim writer in Iran to receive royalties for his work.
A SUMMARY OF THE ALCHEMIST
The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at the abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood.
(The Alchemist, p.5)
In this way the fable begins, with the shepherd boy Santiago coming upon an abandoned church with his flock of sheep. It is here that he decides to spend the night. And it is here in the abandoned church, nestled within the Andalusian terrain, that the shepherd boy has a dream. It is not the first time that he has had this dream, and even after he has walked for five days with his flock; even after he has become so enthralled in the beauty of a merchant’s daughter as to consider giving up the wandering life; even then, he cannot forget this dream. Upon arriving in Tarifa, He seeks out the counsel of an old Gypsy woman who is said to be able to interpret dreams.
Dubious at first, the boy decides to take a chance and recounts his dream to the Gypsy. In the dream, a child appears and begins to play with his sheep. This surprises the boy, as sheep are so often shy, timid animals. Suddenly the child grasps the shepherd’s hands and transports him to the pyramids of Egypt. Here the child tells Santiago that if he went to the pyramids he would find a hidden treasure.
It’s a dream in the language of the world…and this is my interpretation: you must go to the Pyramids in Egypt. I have never heard of them, but if it was a child who showed them to you, they exist. There you will find a treasure that will make you a rich man.
( p.16) The Gypsy charged the boy a tenth of the treasure that he would find for the interpretation that was given to him. The boy left feeling disenchanted. How was he to get to the pyramids? That was information that he would have paid gladly for, but all the Gypsy could offer him was that which he himself already understood from the dream: He needed to go to the Pyramids of Egypt in order to find a buried treasure. Disillusioned with dreams, the boy sat down in the town plaza, and began to read a thick book he had bought because it was thick (thick books, after all, make for better pillows). It is here that the boy meets the king of Salem, King Melchizedek. The shepherd boy was irritated at first because the king had interrupted his reveries of the merchant’s daughter, and how he was soon to impress her with his prowess in shearing sheep – although it appeared that he was reading a book. Taking the book from him the king divulged the world’s greatest lie to the boy
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It is this: that at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.
However, in order to truly capture the boy’s attention the king performed a trick where-by he wrote down the names of his family members, and “things that he had never told anyone”. Having done so the shepherd and the king talked. It was in this conversation with the king that the boy learned of Personal Legends, or Personal Myths – depending on the translation; further more, that he had discovered what his was: to travel to Egypt and discover the treasure near the Pyramids. The old man then assured the boy that for one tenth of his sheep he would tell him how to go about finding the treasure, thus enabling him to fulfill his Personal Legend. The boy, having sold nine tenths of his flock, then met with the king of Salem to part with the remaining tenth.
The boy and the king discussed the importance of omens in the quest for fulfilling one’s Personal Legend. It was the king’s assertion that if the omens are heeded, one will fulfill one’s Personal Legend more easily. That said, the king conceded that the omens were not always the easiest things to read, and so he gave the boy two stones, one white and one black. The stones were called Urim and Thummin.
The black signifies ‘yes’, and the white ‘no’. When you are unable to read the omen, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.
And so the boy set forth to Africa, the Pyramids, and his Personal Legend.
With enthusiasm for his quest the boy arrived in Tangiers. He felt almost as if the hard part was over. After all, he had given up everything that he knew and that he had worked for in order to pursue something only faith, a curious old man who claimed to be a king, and a Gypsy had told him about. He was considering omens when a boy turned up, who, whilst a local of Tangiers, spoke Spanish. Comforted by being able to speak in his native tongue, the two made acquaintances, and upon hearing of the shepherd’s quest the local offered his assistance in order to procure the necessary supplies for their trip across the desert. The boy entrusted his money to the local. Naturally, this was not the wisest course of action, as the boy found out for himself. In the confusion of the market place the young lad from Tangiers made off with all that the boy had had. All that remained in his possession was the thick book, his heavy jacket, and the two stones the king had given him. That morning, the boy had been walking in familiar fields with his sheep sure of the direction his life was taking. By sunset he sat in a foreign land with nothing. He felt cheated and lost. In looking for guidance he appealed to Urim and Thummin.
The old man had said to ask very clear questions, and to do that the boy had to know what he wanted. So he asked if the old man’s blessing was still with him. He took out one of the stones. It was ‘yes.’
“Am I going to find my treasure?” he asked.
He stuck his hand into the pouch and felt around for one of the stones. As he did so, both of them pushed through a hole in the pouch and fell to the ground. The boy had never even noticed that her was a hole in his pouch.
The boy comforted in the knowledge that the man was still with him decided not to consider himself to be a victim. Instead, he decided that he was “an adventurer looking for treasure”. This decision empowered the boy and gave him an insight that would be valuable to him in his quest. It was as if by making the decision to continue he had brought himself closer to who he truly was, and in doing that he could become more aware of the true nature of all of those things that surrounded him; in some way he and all of that which was around him were one and the same.
The boy came upon a crystal merchant and offered his services cleaning the crystal ware in exchange for food. As he was cleaning the merchant sold two pieces of crystal. Not being ignorant of omens himself, the merchant offered the boy a job cleaning crystal in his shop.
“Do you want to go to work for me?” the merchant asked.
“I can work for the rest of today,” the boy answered. “I’ll work all night, until dawn, and I’ll clean every piece of crystal in your shop. In return, I need money to get to Egypt tomorrow.”
The merchant laughed. “Even if you cleaned my crystal for an entire year…even if you earned a good commission selling every piece, you would still have to borrow money to get to Egypt. There are thousands of kilometers of desert between here and there.”
There was a moment of silence so profound that it seemed the city was asleep. No sound from the bazaars, no arguments among the merchants, no men climbing the towers to chant. No hope, no adventure, no old kings, or Personal Legends, no treasure, and no Pyramids. It was as if the world had fallen silent because the boy’s soul had. He sat there, staring blankly through the door of the café, wishing that he had died, and that everything would end forever at that moment.
The boy decided to stay and work for the crystal merchant. His bubble had burst. However, he would still need money to return home and to buy some sheep. Time passed and the boy worked and managed to save some money. The merchant had been selling crystal from the same store for some thirty years. He was not a man who welcomed change, nor one who was particularly prone to taking a chance.
“I’m already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends had moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it hasn’t been too bad. The shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be. I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I’m used to the way I am.”
The boy however, was of a slightly different ilk. He began to innovate and persuade the merchant to furnish his shop with new additions and promotions that could entice customers, such as a display cabinet outside the store, and the selling of tea in the crystal ware. Soon two more employees were required, and the shop’s reputation extended far and wide, drawing customers from everywhere.
“Never stop dreaming,” the old king had said. “Follow the omens.”
The boy was now faced with a dilemma. He had been working for almost a year, and he had saved enough money to return to Andalusia, to buy one hundred and twenty sheep, and to start an import business. Contemplating his next step, he came to the realization that one can always go back to what one knows – he could always return to the life of a shepherd, or now to that of a crystal merchant. But what would it cost to step forward into the unknown, with one’s only motivation being the pursuit of one’s dreams? He resolved that the cost would be nil in comparison to the rewards that could be gained from such a quest. The boy was beginning to extend himself beyond the material, he was beginning to judge experiences on the quality of those experiences as opposed to the material benefits that he could acquire by undertaking them. With this resolution in mind he set of in search of a caravan to take him across the desert.
The Englishman was sitting on a bench in a structure that smelled of animals, sweat, and dust; it was part warehouse, part corral. I never thought I’d end up in a place like this, he thought, as he leafed through the pages of a chemical journal. Ten years at university, and here I am in a corral.
But he had to move on. He believed in omens. All his life and all his studies were aimed at finding the one true language of the universe. First he had studied Esperanto, then the world’s religions, and now it was alchemy. He knew how to speak Esperanto, he understood all the major religions well, but he wasn’t yet an alchemist.
The boy met an Englishman in search of an alchemist who was said to live at the Al-Fayoum desert oasis. The two struck up a conversation when the boy produced his two stones, Urim and Thummim. It turned out that the Englishman had not only heard of the stones but possessed two of his own. He explained to the boy how he had learned of them in the bible, and that the stones were the only form of divination permitted by God. Their relationship deepened as they began talk of omens, and the universal language of the world. The Englishman’s perspective born out for a fascination with the study of alchemy, and the boy’s from a desire to experience the world and discover a hidden treasure. They were both, in different ways, trying to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. With the two talking about the nature of coincidence and the Soul of the World, the caravan set off into the desert toward the oasis Al-Fayoum.
The boy went back to contemplating the silence of the desert, and the sand raised by the animals. “Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,” he said to himself. “His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we are both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.
It was in the desert that the boy gained a perspective on life and existence. Away from the hustle and bustle of Tangiers, in the silence of the desert with only the sound of the wind across the sand dunes, and the soft brushes of hooves across the sands, the boy learned about the magnitude and interconnectedness of existence, and of life. This education was compounded by conversations with the camel driver, one of the guides for the journey across the desert. The camel driver spoke of his past where he owned an olive orchard on the banks of the Nile. One day the ground shuddered, and the Nile overflowed flooding the surrounding areas, including the camel driver’s orchard.
The land was ruined, and I had to find some other way to earn a living. So now I am a camel driver. But the disaster told me to understand the word of Allah: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.
The path across the desert was rife with bandits and thieves. Bedouins patrolled the route, informing the caravans of any danger that might lie ahead for them. It was one of these Bedouins who informed the caravan, of tribal wars in the area. However, the group had come too far to return, their only choice was to press on towards the oasis, regardless of any uncertainty surrounding their arrival at their destination. The caravan moved a little faster, and did not light anymore fires at night so as not to attract any attention, and armed guards were posted around the camp. Then one morning…
…the boy awoke as the sun rose. There in front of him, where the small stars had been the night before, was an endless row of date palms, stretching across the entire desert.
Looking out towards the date palms, the boy savored the moment. He realized that in time his present would be but a memory, but for the time being it was everything. The oasis held the possibility of a future for the boy, the Englishman, and the other members of the caravan, something that the previous day had been dubious. The vast oasis with date palms as far as the eye could see, with three hundred wells and many different colored tents scattered amongst the trees, provided a refuge for travelers who braved the desert for long stretches of time. As such, it was considered neutral territory, the fighting took place in the desert, the oasis was considered a place of refuge, and no weapons were allowed there. It was also home to the alchemist. He had been informed by the omens that there was one person amongst the caravan that he should share his secrets with.
The Englishman was eager to seek out the alchemist. Even though he had traveled a great distance across the desert, he couldn’t rest. He sought out the boy to help him. Together they searched the oasis to no avail. The Englishman was reluctant to ask people of the alchemist’s whereabouts, at first. Later, as the search became more obviously futile the Englishman agreed to begin asking the people of the oasis. The boy proceeded to do so, as his Arabic was better than the Englishman’s. They quickly learned that the alchemist was indeed in residence at the oasis, but that he was so powerful that even the tribal chieftains could not get an audience with him without his prior consent. The Englishman was, however, jubilant at this news as it meant that they were on the right track. The boy and the Englishman continued to make enquiries. By doing so the boy met Fatima.
At that moment it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke – the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love.
Smitten, the boy was prompted to ask Fatima of the alchemist’s whereabouts. She told them of a man who communicates with “the genies of the desert”. With that information the Englishman was gone. He found the tent that Fatima had told him about and he sat there and waited. He waited, and waited until the alchemist arrived as the first stars of the evening were appearing. The Englishman explained his presence, and was asked if he had ever turned lead into gold. Responding that this was the purpose of his visit, to learn how to do so, the Englishman was instructed to just try to do so. This is what he proceeded to do, he tried to apply all that he had learned from this books over the years.
Meanwhile the boy and Fatima continued to meet at the well each day. They would spend fifteen minutes talking, and over the course of one month they became friends. The boy had already confessed his love to Fatima on their second meeting, and now a month later, she responded. Fatima told the boy what it was to be a woman of the desert. How that meant that the love between a man and a woman of the desert could only be possible if that love did not entail possession. She told him that he should continue on his quest to fulfill his Personal Legend, and that she would be waiting for him. For if he did not he would always remain a man unfulfilled, and thus that would also be her burden.
The caravan had been informed that they could not proceed as tribal wars were raging in the desert, and to go on would provoke unnecessary danger, so the boy stayed on at the oasis becoming more accustomed to desert life, and understanding more about the Soul of the World.
One day whilst walking out in the desert, he saw a pair of hawks flying in the sky.
He watched the hawks as they drifted on the wind. Although their flight appeared to have no pattern it made a certain kind of sense to the boy. It was just that he couldn’t grasp what it meant. He followed the movement of the birds trying to read something into it. Maybe these desert birds could explain to him the meaning of love without ownership.
As the boy watched the birds frolic about the sky, he began to feel that he understood their movements, that by watching them soar and dive he was gaining access to the Language of the World. Then suddenly, one of the hawks swooped down and began attacking the other. At that moment the boy had a flashing vision. He saw an army invading the oasis. Even though the image was fleeting it left him feeling uneasy afterwards. He remembered what the old king had said to him about always heeding the omens. He then returned to the oasis and told the camel driver of his experience.
The camel driver suggested to the boy that he go and share his vision with the tribal chieftains, which after some consideration that boy duly did. He told the guard at the chieftains’ tent what he had witnessed and what he believed it signified. After some time he was granted an audience with the chieftains and he once again recounted his story. The boy was told that it was a part of their way of life to listen to the messages of the desert, but that the problem lay with him. Why had the boy, and outsider, been chosen to relay this message? In the end it was settled that if it turned out that the boy was right he would be paid in gold for his information. If, however, he was mistaken, he would pay with his life.
The boy left the tent and started to walk back to his own.
Suddenly he heard a thundering sound, and he was thrown to the ground by a wind such as he had never known. The area was swirling in dust so intense that it hid the moon from view. Before him was an enormous white horse, rearing over him with a frightening scream.
When the blinding dust had settled a bit, the boy trembled at what he saw. Astride the animal was a horseman dressed completely in black, with a falcon perched on his left shoulder. He wore a turban and his entire face, except for his eyes, was covered with a black kerchief. He appeared to be a messenger from the desert, but his presence was much more powerful than that of a mere messenger.
The figure on the horse demanded to know how the boy had interpreted the flight of the hawks. He wanted to know how the boy could understand what was written by Allah’s almighty hand. The horseman then told the boy that if he was still alive after the army had come, he should come to find the horseman. With this, he rode away in a fury of hooves and sand.
The next day, the men of the oasis broke with tradition and carried weapons. Soon enough, tribesmen appeared on the horizon and made their way into the oasis. They appeared peaceful enough, but what was not at first obvious, was that they had concealed weapons in their robes. When the tribesmen came upon the chieftains’ tent they drew their weapons and attacked. However, the chieftains had anticipated the tribesmen’s attack and hid elsewhere. The men of the oasis soon retaliated. Outnumbered by the men of the oasis, the tribesmen were soon quelled. The boy received his gold, and set off in search of the alchemist.
Sitting and eating with the alchemist the boy retold his exploits so far. He spoke of how he had been a shepherd, how he had left his home in search of his Personal Legend, how he had been robbed, and worked in the crystal shop. Then he considered what he had: a camel, fifty gold pieces, and Fatima. This, he believed, was enough. He felt that this was all he had been searching for, so therefore he questioned why should he continue to the pyramids. The alchemist offered him a response, and a glimpse of the future. Together, the response and the prophecy were enough to convince the boy that he should continue to the pyramids. After one final visit with Fatima, and a promise to return, the boy and the alchemist set off into the desert.
As they traveled together the alchemist respected the omens and shared some of his secrets with the boy. They spoke of the Language and the Soul of the World, and of Personal Legends. They discussed omens, and how the only way to understand them was through action. It was not enough to merely read of them. This much the Englishman was discovering as he sat trying to understand the language of the desert, trying to turn lead into gold.
Days passed as the two continued across the desert. As they progressed they came into contact with more and more armed tribesmen, reminding them of the danger that lay unseen all around them. During this time, the boy found his heart, his core. Through dialogue with his heart the boy understood what he needed to understand in order to be in communion with the Soul of the World.
The sun was setting when the boy’s heart sounded a danger signal. They were surrounded by gigantic dunes, and the boy looked at the alchemist to see if he had sensed anything. But he appeared to be unaware of any danger. Five minutes later the boy saw two horsemen waiting ahead of them. Before he could say anything to the alchemist, the two horsemen had become ten, and then a hundred. And then they were everywhere in the dunes.
(p. 140) The boy and the alchemist were arrested as it was assumed that they were spies. The alchemist told the tribal leader why they were crossing the desert, he gave away the boy’s gold, and told the leader that the boy was an alchemist.
“What is an alchemist?” he asked, finally.
“It’s a man who understands nature and the world. If he wanted to he could destroy this camp just with the force of the wind.”
Finding this both amusing and implausible, the tribal leader offered a challenge to the alchemist and the boy. He said that they had three days with which to do just that, destroy the camp with the wind. If they succeeded they could go free, if not they would die. Needless to say, the boy was petrified.
In the days that passed the boy came to terms with death, and realized that it changes very little in life. He listened to his heart and to the desert. On the third day the tribal leader and his aides went in search of the boy. The boy, the alchemist, the leader and his officers sat upon a cliff. Then the boy began to speak with the desert. He spoke of love in an attempt to enlist the help of the desert to accomplish this most difficult task before him. The desert realized its limitations and advised the boy to bring up this matter with the wind. The wind, a proud element, presented itself to the boy, who then asked if the wind could help him turn himself into the wind for just a few moments. The wind was curious, and although it felt that it had no limits, it did not know how to turn a person into the wind. Acknowledging its own limitations, the wind suggested that the boy ask the heavens how to proceed in this most difficult task. The wind blew up a storm, filling the air with sand so that the boy could look to the heavens without blinding himself and talk with the sun, meanwhile unnerving the soldiers who looked on. The boy spoke with the sun. The wind was interested to hear what the sun would say. The boy asked it for help and the sun acknowledged its own limitations. Instead, the sun suggested that the boy ask ‘the hand that wrote all’.
The boy turned to the hand that wrote all. As he did so, he sensed that the universe had fallen silent, and he decided not to speak…The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.
Satisfied, the tribal leader allowed the alchemist and the boy to proceed, offering them an escort that would accompany them as far as they wished it to. The party arrived at a monastery three hours away from the pyramids. Here, the alchemist told the boy that he would be on his own. Before he left, however, the alchemist performed one last feat: he transformed lead into gold.
The boy continued out towards the pyramids on his own, his faith intact after all his experiences of late. It was a month after he first set out form the oasis with the alchemist that he came upon the pyramids. He was overjoyed to have arrived, so overjoyed that he considered all that he had achieved, all that he had become, and all that he had acquired, and considered returning to the oasis, to Fatima. But then he recalled that “no project is completed until its objective has been achieved”. With this notion in mind the boy began to dig. He dug and he dug, his hands were sore and his arms were tired, but he still continued digging. Just then some people approached him. Announcing themselves as refugees form the tribal wars they asked what he was doing in this place.
The men found the boy’s gold and presumed that more was hidden in the place where he was digging. They forced him to continue digging. He did so. The sun began to rise, and the boy had yet to present the men with any more gold, so they began to beat him. At the point where he felt he could take it no more, at the point where he felt that death was not far off, the boy told the men of his dream, that he had come to the pyramids in search of treasure. The leader of the group told the others to stop beating the boy. He said that the boy was silly to have believed in his dreams, that he would have been better off staying at home, in Andalusia with his sheep.
But before they left, he came back to the boy and said “You’re not going to die. You’ll live, and you’ll learn that a man shouldn’t be so stupid. Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream, too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and look for a ruined church where shepherds and their sheep slept. In my dream, there was a sycamore growing out of the ruins of the sacristy, and I was told that, If I dug at the roots of the sycamore, I would find a hidden treasure. But I’m not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.”
…the boy stood up shakily, and looked once more at the Pyramids. They seemed to laugh at him, and he laughed back his heart busting with joy.
MAIN IDEAS AND THEMES IN THE ALCHEMIST
As stated above The Alchemist has been translated into a number of different languages, and therefore read by a number (somewhere in the millions) of different readers from different cultures and backgrounds. How does Paulo Coelho manage to engage people from such diverse origins? This section will aim to answer this question by looking at the main themes and ideas that are presented in the book. Part of the attraction of this novel lies in its simplicity, in the clarity of its message. As such, we could possibly consider it as testimony of the similarities among human beings. Whilst, cultures and creeds mark obvious differences between people, underlying this is a more profound sense of unity in the manner with which we proceed through our lives.
Originally, Coelho had intended to write a book on alchemy, in an interview Dennison Berwick (1994), he offers the following explanation of why the book took the form it did:
Each one of us is an alchemist, able to change everything into gold, not the physical gold but the philosophical gold…I decided to write a fable, instead of writing in a sort of scientific way, because it's easier to reach your heart. I had to trust there was a soul of the world and it would help me to write the book.
Coelho also offers the four pillars of alchemy as being integral to the shape of the book. The four pillars are i) a belief in the soul of the world, ii) the voice of the heart, iii) one’s destiny, and iv) the omens.
From the summary above, the centrality of the four pillars should be apparent. Each will receive a little more attention below. In addition, the theme of religion is fairly prominent; with key references to Christianity and Islam interwoven into the backdrop of the story. To begin with, then, here is a brief discussion of the place of religion within The Alchemist.
In the beginning of the story Santiago, the shepherd boy visits an old gypsy woman in order to ask her to interpret his dreams, and ultimately set him out on his quest. He then meets the King of Salem, Melchizedek, who nurtures the boy’s sense of adventure and offers him a path, and something to belief in whilst undertaking his treasure hunt. Finally, the crystal merchant, the camel driver and the alchemist, conspire in the fable to help Santiago achieve fulfill his dream. A closer look at these characters offers a glimpse of the role religion plays in The Alchemist.
In the Gypsy’s back room hung the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a sign that inspired faith in the boy. Stories about Gypsies did not, generally, portray them as the most pious people. Some even said that they had entered into pacts with the devil, and most stories promoted Gypsies as tricksters. Coming from a Catholic background, Santiago felt ill at ease in the company of a pagan, and so recites a Catholic prayer to protect himself. But, the Gypsy’s role is central in that she ignites the possibility of adventure in the boy.
Next, the boy meets the King of Salem, Melchizedek. The King offers the boy guidance and inspires great faith in him. Indeed, later in the story, when the boy is desperate, or when things seem like they are falling down all around him, the boy remembers the king and seems to conjure up the strength to continue. It is argued (but not in The Alchemist) that the King of Salem was a real person. There are references to him in the Old Testament of the Bible. Some people belief that Melchizedek was actually the Son of God, or Jesus. As the boy moves through North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, the key characters who help him on his way are the crystal merchant, the camel driver, and the alchemist. Through these characters the boy encounters Islam, and the central tenet that all is written by the hand of Allah. Maktub is a prominent saying throughout the novel, characters appeal to it when they want to explain why things are the way they are, or how they came to be that way. The translation offered in the story is ‘it is written’.
The references to the different religions are apparent enough to warrant attention, but not so prominent as to provoke scrutiny. It would seem that Coelho is portraying religion as distinct from spirituality; that religion is a way for people to understand the world around them, to help them get to where they need to be in life, and ultimately to satisfy the necessary spiritual urge of contentment. Whilst religion and faith are cornerstones of any given society, they are secondary to what they promote – namely spiritual satisfaction among the members of a community. This is how Paulo Coelho portrays religion in The Alchemist. Religions, he argues, point towards the same light and help us answer the questions that lie between that light and where one is at in their life.5
Ultimately, each individual on earth has a purpose, in the novel this idea is referred to as a one’s Personal Legend. Our only obligation in life, it is said, is to fulfill our destiny. It seems like Coelho is suggesting that religion is a means by which individuals can do this, it is a means to each individual’s respective end. This idea may be a little hard to grasp when considered in isolation, however to understand it more fully we should consider the four pillars of alchemy.
THE SOUL OF THE WORLD
This is suggested by Coelho as being the first of the four pillars. A belief in the Soul of the World is a belief that all things in life are connected; they are parts of the same whole. As is the case with things working in unity, that which occurs in the world affects each individual, and the actions of each individual affect the world, to a greater or lesser degree. Because the Soul of the World would be an expression of all things that exist, it would be rather large. To understand the enormity and the extent of this Soul would take more than a thousand lifetimes, thus it is enough, for most people, to acknowledge its existence through their beliefs and spend their time more fruitfully by trying to find out what their unique part in it all actually is.
THE VOICE OF THE HEART
The second of the four pillars is the voice of the heart. This is understood to mean the core of an individual, the part of them that is unique and distinct, whilst at the same time being connected to all things, connected to the Soul of the World. In the story it is only by getting in touch with his heart and listening to what it has to say that the boy is able to find his treasure, that he is able to fulfill his Personal Legend. It seems like Coelho is presenting the idea that if we listen to our hearts we can understand truth. Our hearts can tell us what is right for us in any situation, and what it is we should and should not be doing. That said, it is not always easy to listen to what our hearts have to say, as the boy discovers himself.
“But my heart is agitated,” the boy said. “It has its dreams, it gets emotional, and it’s become passionate over a woman of the desert. It asks things of me, and it keeps me from sleeping many nights, when I’m thinking about her.”
“Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say.”
The third pillar is your destiny. You have to follow your dreams. You have to try to be happy. You have to be faithful to your dreams because they are there for a reason. There is a meaning for them. God doesn't mean you to be frustrated. They are there to test you, but also to be fulfilled
Above, is how Coelho outlines the significance of destiny. For Santiago, without an idea of destiny he may not have set out on his journey in the first place, and settled for marrying the merchant’s daughter back in the Andalusian countryside. In the story the idea of each person having a pre-determined destiny is presented to readers through the idea of the Personal Legend. It seems from what Coelho says, above, that each person’s destiny is alive in her or his heart, and it is presented to that person through their dreams. It was after all the dream that spurred Santiago’s journey in the first place.
The omens are the fourth pillar of alchemy and are indispensable to Santiago in his quest for his hidden treasure. Through the omens one can listen to the universe, tune in to the Soul of the World, and understand the true nature of things. The omens tell the boy of things that have come to pass, things that are, and how things will soon be. It is by listening to the omens that the boy’s fortunes change, often for the better. For example, because he understands the Language of the World, he is able to interpret the hawks flying in the desert as a sign of what is to come. By relaying this information to the Chieftains his status is elevated at the oasis, and he gets the alchemist’s attention. The omens require faith to be understood, as they might be suggesting something that goes against one’s own judgment. In order for them to be heeded, one needs to surrender to the will of the universe.
One of the main ideas in the story is about how we learn. In The Alchemist it is suggested that we learn best by doing. What do you think this means? Do you agree or disagree? How do you think that this idea is relevant to how you learn?
In the story the boy finds spiritual fulfillment not by following a particular religion, but by pursuing his destiny. How far do you agree with this? Can religion and spiritual fulfillment be separated?
When you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor.
Do you agree? Why or why not? Can you think of any examples in your life that support your answer?
OTHER BOOKS BY PAULO COELHO (in English)