The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is one of the important books in literature. After struggling to appease his parents with his career choices, dropping out of law school, and making a living as a lyricist for a few years, Coelho finally had a breakthrough and found inspiration to write one of his well-known books. He has always wanted to become a writer and has written a couple of books prior to The Alchemist in 1988, but they weren’t as successful. Although it is a simple read, the story has a lot of depth and meaning represented in its themes. The fable also reflects Coelho’s personal struggles growing up and finding his own destiny.
The story revolves around a shepherd named Santiago who, at first, was only interested in traveling with his herd of sheep. Every time he falls asleep under the sycamore tree next to the church ruins in his hometown in Spain, he has a reoccurring dream, where a child tells him to find his treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. Despite his doubts, he begins by paying a visit to a gypsy in Tarifa who interprets dreams. After reading his hands, she tells him that his dream is truly telling him that there’s a treasure waiting for him near the Egyptian pyramids. He was still skeptical about the interpretation, but they settled on paying one-tenth of the treasure once he found it.
While he was sitting on the side of the street trying to read his book and forget about his regretful visit to the gypsy, an old man sat beside him and disturbs him with empty questions. The old man finally gains Santiago’s attention when he tells him he has read his book but did not believe in its message that nobody is able to choose their own fate. Santiago reaffirms that he has chosen his destiny by becoming a shepherd rather than becoming a priest like his father’s wishes so he can travel and see the world.
The old man then reveals his true identity as Melchizedek, King of Salem who guides people to their destinies. Melchizedek explains that Personal Legends are one’s desires that start to become swayed as they grow up due to a mysterious force. He shows up to people when they are about to give up their Personal Legend, which is why he is encouraging Santiago to find the treasure. He tells him to give him one-tenth of his herd in order to tell him how to find it and leaves. Santiago is clearly troubled and hesitant to start a new journey, but the next day he gives the King one-tenth of his herd and the King gives him two stones that help him communicate with omens and the Soul of the World.
Santiago continues his journey, where trouble occurs right away in Tangier. He gets robbed of everything including his herd of sheep and is forced to find work with a local crystal merchant. From this point onwards, the book refers to Santiago as “the boy”, to add a mysterious element to the book’s mood as he encounters more people and because the author is aware of the reader’s sympathy to Santiago; thus disregarding his name. The crystal merchant in the story serves as a fate the boy should avoid. He has longed to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but fears that he will not have anything to live for after he achieves his dream.
After a year, the boy becomes rich enough to leave and as he prepares to leave, the boy encourages the merchant to make his trip to Mecca, but the merchant argues that he will not go because it is “Maktub” which means that “it is written”. The boy contemplates going back to Tarifa to buy a herd of sheep and returning to his shepherd position but decides otherwise because he believes that he can become a shepherd at any point in his life, but the treasure is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
His journey to find his Personal Legend and the treasure continues when he takes a caravan driving through the Sahara desert and meets an Englishman studying to become an alchemist and to find a 200-year-old alchemist in the Sahara oasis of Al-Fayoum to ask him the secret of his trade. Throughout the caravan trip, the Englishman talks to the boy more about alchemy when it is found that there’s an ongoing tribal war in the desert, elongating their stay. During their stay, the boy falls in love with a girl named Fatima. He later sees an omen that warns about a potential attack against the Al-Fayoum tribe. When he warned the tribe, the chieftains did not take it lightly. Thus, the tribe was able to successfully defend themselves and the Englishman was amazed by the boy that he encourages him to accompany him in his journey and leave Fatima.
On their way to the pyramids, the Alchemist teaches the boy more about the Soul of the World, when Arab soldiers halt their journey and capture them. The Alchemist gives the soldiers all the money they had and warns the soldiers that the boy is a powerful being and will turn to wind in the next three days. This, of course, was a complete lie and the boy was fearful because he had no idea how to turn into wind and the Alchemist was just bluffing to save their lives. However, three days later, the boy prays to the Hand That Wrote All, and a storm takes over the desert. He vanishes in the midst of the wind and when the storm died down, he reappears from the other side and the Arab soldiers, awed by his power, allow the Alchemist and the boy to leave.
When they got close to the pyramids, the Alchemist taught the boy how to turn lead into gold using the Philosopher’s stone before leaving him to find the treasure. As the boy was digging near the pyramid, two random strangers find and beat him up in an attempt to steal his belongings. He tells them he has nothing to lose and that he had a dream that he would find a treasure near the pyramid. The men eventually decide to leave him, but before they left, one of the men tells the boy that he had a dream about a treasure near a church in Spain beside sycamore trees , but only thought of it only as a worthless dream. The boy, after hearing this, smiles in relief. He knew where to find the treasure.
The boy returns to the church ruins and sleeps under the sycamore trees like he always had. When he wakes up, as he digs through the ground, he becomes amused by the idea of how God has made him journey to find the treasure only for it to be where he originally had his dream. He eventually finds a chest of gold and jewels and he promises himself to give one-tenth to the gypsy and as a wind blows his way, he feels Fatima’s kiss. He also promises to return to her.
“So why did he have to go through all this?” is what you’re probably thinking. Indeed, Santiago never needed to leave Spain and travel all the way to Egypt only to find that the treasure was where he left it. Nonetheless, the important takeaway from this story is that, as the saying goes, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”. Santiago, through his journey to find the treasure, encounters many people with different life experiences and he learns a lot from them. For instance, the crystal merchant’s hesitation to leave and perform a pilgrimage to Mecca acts as a warning to Santaigo to never fear change. The book includes other life lessons for Santiago to learn from and for readers to interpret in their own way.
Written by Jumana Raggam