How magic resides in the lessons of life–Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

When we hear a simple tale told by a grandparent in an unpretentious style, with a sort of humorous, or sad, or wry punchline attached to the end, we may make the mistake of assuming that it’s just a matter of another old country saying (or street-wise rejoinder, for that matter), that the punchline is something not really to be taken seriously.  But if we had lived that person’s life through, we might well think otherwise–in fact, that punchline or reduction of a piece of reality to what seems like a formulaic old saw might in that case be something to make us sit up and take notice, or mumble under our breaths, or sigh dramatically, or feel a shiver as if a “person just walked over our graves.”

Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist is all about the experience of attaining life wisdom through a sort of personal journey, paying attention to signs and omens along the way and always keeping one’s goal in sight even when it seems delayed by everything that happens to one.  And the book is full of teacher figures eager to share their principles with the right student and knowing more than he does himself about his dreams.  Signs and omens and pilgrimages to Mecca and belief in Jesus Christ and Allah and prophets and seers and Gypsy fortune tellers and scholars and merchants and even, yes, an alchemist all have their place.  Even encounters with rogues and thieves and people who threaten to murder one are or become learning experiences for an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago, who starts out only by having unusually troubling dreams.  When he asks a Gypsy woman to interpret, she tells him that if he goes to Egypt and visits the Pyramids, he will find a treasure that makes him a rich man.  It’s obvious that a kind of symbolic alchemy is going on in the text, however, because as Santiago is led on through the book by various prophesying and teaching figures, he accepts a spiritual sort of quest in place of a monetary one, and thus is in the process of refining himself and allowing himself to be refined by others.

Santiago learns that he is in search of living out his own “Personal Legend” and is being led by these others to perceive the “Soul of the World” in all living things.  Reading the signs and omens as he learns to do, he seems not ever actually to use or to use only once the two magic stones, one black and one white, Urim and Thummim, pronosticating stones given him by Melchizedek, a mysterious “king” with a Biblical name who says he is the “king of Salem” and wears (under a voluminous robe) a golden breastplate.  Santiago learns the importance of accepting his fate and learning to perceive it truly and follow it well because, as an Arabic crystal dealer for whom he works for a year says, “Maktub,” (“It is written”) by “the hand that writes all,” though the words used are always “Personal Legend” and never the less gentle and more dreaded word “Fate.”

What’s the most unusual is the combination in the book of an uncomplicated story line with what amounts almost to a treatise on belief, as Santiago goes from being a shepherd to a traveller to a temporary employee for a candy dealer in Tangier, then for a crystal merchant in Tangier, whom he so enriches by his merchandising concepts that he makes enough money to decide whether he wants to pay his passage back to Spain and forget the whole matter or go forward.  But he would have worked for neither of the two men had he not been robbed at a time in Tangier when he was unable to speak Arabic; what he later learns to speak fluently is known as “the universal language without words.”  He also learns that understanding and following one’s Personal Legend is a matter of not perceiving himself as a victim of the thief, but as someone following his own destiny.  After all, as he also knows by this time, “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.”  (In my edition of this book, there are questions for discussion, and one of them is centered around whether this does not convey at least a hint of narcissism–but when one has covered the entire book and realizes that the doctrine taught throughout is that the main unifying force of the whole world is love, and that acting in line with love in fact helps one find one’s Personal Legend, the point is dismissible, I believe.)

Santiago in fact goes to the Sahara and, surrounded by dangers such as tribal warfare, makes his way with his caravan to an oasis, meeting an Englishman along the way who first introduces him to the idea of alchemy, carries a load of books along, and also has two prognosticating Urim and Thummim stones.  The Englishman is trying to learn from books what the shepherd is learning from life.  At the oasis, the Englishman seeks for knowledge of the alchemist who is said to live just to the south of there, and Santiago falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Fatima whom they have stopped to ask for information.  This later becomes a temptation to him also, to forget about the treasure near the Pyramids and stay with her.  But fate intervenes again:  the boy reads the omen of two hawks warring in the sky, and reports back to the oasis chieftains (who are at peace with each other in the oasis) that a warring tribe is about to descend.  He is threatened with death if this turns out to be a false prediction, but he has spoken truly, and the chieftains muster in time successfully to defend the oasis from attack.

The boy’s fate takes another turn when the real alchemist seeks him out and challenges him because he read the signs of the desert accurately.  Because the boy shows courage at this meeting at swordpoint (said to be the most necessary thing to have in order to stand up to one’s Personal Legend), the alchemist leads him further into the desert, within a short distance of the Pyramids, to an old Coptic monastery.  There the alchemist shows the boy how to transmute lead into gold, but when the boy asks if he himself will ever be able to do so, the alchemist responds that it is his own Personal Legend to have done so, not the boy’s.

When Santiago is actually standing in front of the Pyramids, he is remembering that his heart earlier told him to be aware of the place where his tears fall, because there is where his heart is and his treasure also.  At this point, he weeps at the beauty of the Pyramids and the desert night, and so takes the command literally and begins to dig with his hand in the desert soil beneath him, hoping to unearth a literal treasure.  But at the next moment, he is set upon by refugees who take his only remaining gold from him and beat him nearly senseless.  They have asked, though, what he is doing there, and when he tells them he is digging for treasure because he twice dreamed of it there, they scoff at him and prepare to depart.  One of them in mocking him, however, goes go far as to tell him that he had fallen asleep on just that spot on the desert two years before and had dreamed something about a treasure buried in an old sycamore tree near a ruined church on the field of Spain where the shepherds and their flocks sometimes stayed, but that he himself is not so stupid as to cross the whole desert and into another country to follow a dream.  They leave, and suddenly Santiago realizes that he is now rich beyond his dreams, because he does have that kind of belief, and he can get his way back again somehow and claim the treasure.

Lest one assume that this story ends with the usual lessons about alchemy being only a means of transforming a metal or only truly being about changing people from one state to another morally or spiritually, it is for Santiago both:  it is this complexity which means that if he is a wise man and a rich man, he will never confuse the two, but will always pay his debts of teaching and learning and of wealth in the proper coin.  It also is not a tale which rewards us only with the unadventurous thought that “happiness is best found in your own backyard.”  That would be a truly unrewarding moral to the story.  Luckily, Coelho provides an Epilogue in which Santiago goes back to Spain, retrieves his treasure, and feels the kiss in the wind of his desert woman, Fatima, waiting for him.  The optimism of the text leads us to believe that he will go back to the oasis, too.  Thus, though he has achieved his Personal Legend, he will never have to reproach himself, as others in the story do, with not having had the courage to act on their dreams.  He is both materially and spiritually successful, but it took the second to bring about the first, and it is the second which will ensure that he does not misuse his material goods.

The 1993 English edition of the text translated by Alan R. Clarke and published by HarperCollins has a brief biographic sketch of the author and tells how he himself was repressed first by his parents from following his dream to be a writer, and then imprisoned and tortured by a repressive political regime for defending free expression.  When he was freed, he first decided to live what he regarded as a more “normal” life.  But then he had “an encounter with a stranger,” whom he had first met in a dream.  “The stranger suggested that Paulo should return to Catholicism and study the benign side of magic.  He also encouraged Paulo to walk the Road of Santiago de Compostela, the medieval pilgrim’s route.”  After that pilgrimage, Coelho’s writing career took off.  As of the 1993 printing, “The Alchemist went on to sell more copies than any other book in Brazilian literary history.”  It just goes to show that what to one person might be a tall tale or a moralistic fantasy chockful of truisms is for another a guide to true wisdom, and that discovering one’s own Personal Legend means listening sometimes to older, wiser voices that speak of their own experience of things, so that one doesn’t have to find everything out through trial and error.  And Paulo Coelho is one of those voices who speak truly of life’s tribulations, though he disguises them ever so well as simple learning exercises, perhaps so that we can learn to resist discouragement as well as his character Santiago did, and as he himself obviously had to do.  This book, though, is a delight as a literary experience as well, with its simple style and clear explanations of complicated states of mind.  I predict that it is the fate of Santiago the shepherd boy in The Alchemist to continue to please readers for many years to come.

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4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “How magic resides in the lessons of life–Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

  1. A truly masterful writer is one who can make explanation of complex ideas seem simple. Many problems in the world that get answered with “it’s complicated” are not really; it is one’s emotions that create that illusion.

    A friend of mine from my last job was reading it, and said it was one of the best books he had ever read.

    And… one of my characters will make a similar journey. And I had made the character prior to knowing of Santiago. Truly there are no new ideas in the world haha.

    • In case you’re interested, Coelho’s also written a novel called “The Pilgrimage,” and though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I believe it also teaches some of the lessons that he’s learned from his own experience.

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this, Victoria. It’s a book I’d heard about and meant to read, and now I intend to do so!

    • Thank you, Richard. I’m glad I did too–it gave me a chance to reread the book. The simplicity of it is what I come back to time and time again: it’s so deceptively simple that it would be very tempting to say that it’s a book of easy, “magical” answers–but when you think about being on a quest somewhere, and actually having to delay your quest for a year or more to stop and work for your passage fee on a caravan without losing track of your quest–it really would be quite difficult. So then it seems that the book isn’t too easy at all, but is written in a kind of “code,” yet it’s a code (like the universal language without words in the book) that everyone can understand. I hope you too will enjoy the book and will feel that it adds something to your life.

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