The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is often referred to as a “quick and enjoyable reminder for anyone who feels they have become distracted from pursuing their own Personal Legend”. This easy to read book has sold more than 150 million copies around the world, making Coelho one of the all-time bestselling authors in the Portuguese language.
The Alchemist was adapted and produced on all five continents in various theatrical forms: musicals, Dance Theater, puppets, dramatized readings and opera.
Coelho believes that each one of us has a dream, and we get the clues many times again and again so that we recognize them (“omens” as he calls them) and pursue our dream.
The book follows the journey of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy. Santiago has a dream, and the courage to follow that dream. After listening to “the signs”, the boy ventures in his personal journey of exploration and self-discovery, which is symbolically represented as the search for a hidden treasure located near the pyramids in Egypt. His father’s only advice to him is: “Travel the world until you see that our castle is the greatest, and our women the most beautiful.”
In his journey, Santiago sees the greatness of the world and meets all kinds of people, and he learns things from many sources – sheep, crystals, the desert, and other people. By the end of the novel he discovers that “treasure lies where your heart belongs”, and that the treasure he was searching for was the journey itself, with all the discoveries he made and all the wisdom he acquired.
The core of the novel’s philosophy can be found in the words of the alchemist that Santiago meets: “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true”. Coelho suggests that fear of failure is the greatest obstacle to happiness – those who don’t have the courage to follow their “personal myth” are doomed to a life of misery, emptiness and un-fulfillment.
In The Alchemist, there is also much reference to treasures and dreams, which are in fact the goals that we should be getting along our personal journey.
Santiago, a shepherd boy, spends a night in an abandoned church. He wakes up in the middle of the night, after having the same dream as the one he had a week before: a child transports him to the Egyptian Pyramids and tells him he’ll find a buried treasure there. He decides to pay an old woman in the next village to interpret his dream. The old woman tells Santiago that he must go to the pyramids, and makes him promise that he’ll give her one tenth of the treasure he finds.
Later, while Santiago sits on a bench in the plaza and reads his book, a man approaches to him. He is the King of Salem and his name is Melchizedek. As the boy later discovers, he’s an alchemist. Melchizedek tells him that he’ll help him find the treasure if the boy will give him 1/10 of his sheep, and Santiago is amazed at this, since he never mentioned his dream to the man. The boy decides to give 1/10 of his sheep to the man and sell the rest. Melchizedek also tells him that he has succeeded in discovering his Personal Legend, and he must decide if he’s brave enough to follow through on it.
In Africa, Santiago meets a man in a bar that speaks his language. The man quickly promises to help him cross the Sahara, but he soon disappears with all of Santiago’s money. Santiago is upset, but he quickly decides to look at the situation differently: yes, he’s left penniless, but he’s on a quest for his Personal Legend.
Later, Santiago comes across a crystal merchant and, needing food; he offers to clean up the crystal glasses. The merchant then sells two of the glasses, which he perceives as a good omen. When the boy tells him about going to find his treasure in the desert, the merchant laughs, telling him it would take years for the boy to save up enough to cross the desert. Santiago then decides to stay to work for the merchant.
After a month of working in a crystal shop, Santiago tries very hard not to think of his treasure, or the Pyramids, at all – he’s only working to save enough money to go home and to buy some sheep. The shop has more business than ever after the merchant accepts Santiago’s ideas to build a display case outside to attract more customers, and later to sell tea to people in crystal glasses. After 11 months, Santiago decides it is time to go, as he now has enough money to buy 120 sheep. But instead of going home, he changes his mind and decides to pursue his dream and to go to the pyramids.
He then comes across an Englishman who has spent fortunes and years of his life searching for the language of the universe, and the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone. He also wants to cross the desert to seek the alchemist who may have the answers he’s looking for, and they join a caravan with 200 other people. As they make their way through the desert day by day, the boy begins to understand that realizing his Personal Legend is his only real reason for being, and it is the same with the Englishman and everyone else in the world.
One day they come to an oasis, and they have to stay there because of the tribal wars in the desert. The Englishman asks Santiago to help him find the alchemist who lives in the oasis. Santiago, who speaks Arabic better, sees a young girl at the well who might help him; but after looking at her eyes, he’s lost, they both are. Her name is Fatima.
As the days pass Santiago and Fatima meet at the well. He asks her to marry him, she has become more important to him than his treasure, but she says that she wants him to continue on his quest to find his treasure. She wants him to wander free, and says that if she is truly part of his Personal Legend, he will come back to her one day.
In the meantime, Santiago finds out that the Englishman has built a furnace outside his tent because the alchemist told him that he must begin the process of separating the sulfur. Later that day, Santiago sees a vision of an army riding into the oasis; he warns the chefs about it, and thanks to him, they manage to defend themselves. The boy is offered to become the counselor of the oasis. Later that night Santiago meets with the alchemists, who tells him that he must continue his search for the Pyramids. They leave together.
As they ride, the boy tries to listen to his heart and learn its ways. He realizes that his heart is afraid of failing and wants to go back to the woman he loves, but as the days go by, he learns from the alchemist that every second of his search for his Personal Legend is a second spent in the company of God and eternity.
Suddenly one hundred horsemen surround them, and they’re taken to a nearby military camp. The alchemist informs the tribe leader that he is merely a guide for his friend, who is an alchemist, and who could destroy the camp by simply turning himself into the wind. The chief laughs, and grants them 3 days to perform this feat. The alchemist gently tells the terrified boy not to be afraid, that his heart has the answers he needs to do this. On the third day, Santiago starts listening to his heart, and has an interesting conversation with the desert, the wind, the sun and “the hand that wrote it all”. He then begins to realize that his soul is the Soul of the World, which is the Soul of God. He sees that his soul is one and the same as God’s soul, and that he can perform miracles. The chief realizes that the boy performed a miracle, and lets them go.
Finally, Santiago arrives at the pyramids. He digs all day, but suddenly is surrounded by a group of men who steal his money and then beat him severely. One of the thieves says that 2 years ago right at this very spot he had a dream of his own, that he should travel to a ruined church in Spain where shepherds slept and dig deep at the roots of a big sycamore tree to find a treasure. The thief says that he didn’t do it because he’s not stupid enough to cross an entire desert over a recurrent dream. Santiago starts laughing: he now knows where his treasure is.
Santiago is back home, digging under the sycamore tree. He finds a chest of gold Spanish coins and precious gemstones. The wind begins to blow from Africa, and he smells Fatima’s perfume.
You may also like to read Five Beautiful Lessons from “The Alchemist”.