Literature: The Alchemist

A 1988 novel by Paulo Coelho.

Santiago is a shepherd living a peaceful, carefree life tending his flock in the fields of Andalusia. Up till now, his greatest adventure has been working up the courage to talk to a wool merchant's daughter. That all changes one day when he visits a fortune teller with a request to interpret a recurring dream. The old gypsy tells Santiago that he is destined to find a great treasure in a far off land. Santiago laughs it off and gives it no more thought until he comes across a strange old man in a shining golden breastplate. Calling himself the King of Salem, he exhorts Santiago to follow his dream, lest he risk forfeiting his "Personal Legend" for good. Inspired, Santiago sells his flock and, taking with him two mysterious stones named Urim and Thummim, travels to North Africa in search of his Personal Legend. Along the way, he meets several characters that teach him important lessons: a crystal merchant dreaming of one day making Hajj, a desert-dwelling beauty named Fatima with whom he eventually falls in love, an Englishman seeking the philosopher's stone, and finally the titular Alchemist, from whom he learns the most important lessons of all.

Written in the span of two weeks, The Alchemist was an unexpected bestseller, remaining to this day one of Coelho's most popular works. Surrounding the main plot is a mythology combining the mystical traditions of the Abrahamic religions with Hermetic philosophy and aspects of Alchemy, a surprisingly sensitive (one might say affectionate) portrayal of Bedouin culture through the eyes of a Spanish youth, and an overarching message about following your dreams. These factors have contributed to the novel's success, giving it a broad appeal across cultures and age groups.

The Alchemist provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Why Santiago goes to Africa (without realizing it) and later returns to the oasis: to be with Fatima.
  • Alchemy Is Magic: Averted: Alchemy is used to do some pretty amazing stuff, but it's very explicitly not magic; it's a form of understanding "The Soul of the World". At the most, it can be considered a sort of Enlightenment Superpower.
  • All Myths Are True: The book treats some of the fundamental truths of Christianity, Islam, and Hermeticism not only as true, but ultimately in harmony with each other.
  • An Aesop: "Following what you truly want in your life, even if it is a lot of hard work, will ultimately make you happier than living a comfortable life dictated by what other people think that you should do."
  • Arc Words: Many, especially one's Personal Legend, The Language of the Soul, and maktub (Arabic for "destiny", literally "written").
  • As the Good Book Says: The Alchemist quotes the New Testament directly. "Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also" is a direct quote from Luke 12:34 (and Matthew 6:21). He also offers a paraphrase of the story of Joseph.
  • Blithe Spirit: Santiago, pretty much wherever he goes, but especially in the crystal shop.
  • BookEnds: The story begins and ends with Santiago in a church.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The sycamore tree.
  • Draw Sword, Draw Blood: While travelling with a caravan, Santiago gets a premonition that they're going to be attacked. He informs the chief, who tells him that they'll make defensive preparations, but if he was wrong they'll kill him, since apparently "blood must be shed once weapons are drawn". Fortunately for him, he was right.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: A journey from Andalusia to Egypt, which takes well over a year.
  • Hidden Depths: Melchizedek at first appears to be an annoying old man who asks to see Santiago's book. He's actually an angelic figure whose job it is to encourage people on their quests to find their own Personal Legends. Santiago appears to be just another shepherd, but is actually literate and quite intelligent. He was training to become a priest but left the seminary to pursue a life of adventure.
  • It's the Journey That Counts: Santiago goes through the whole book just to find out that the treasure was buried right under his location from the first page. While dismayed at first, he realizes that he never would have learned a new language, seen the Pyramids, met the love of his life, or learned how to turn himself into the wind.
  • It Was with You All Along: Santiago's knowledge of alchemy, which helps him transform into wind to escape from hostile Arabs, and find the treasure.
  • I Will Wait for You: Fatima to Santiago, before he leaves the oasis for Egypt.
  • Jumped at the Call: Santiago is eager to set out for Egypt immediately, but things don't quite turn out as planned at first...
  • Knight in Sour Armor: The Englishman, who has spent years searching for the secrets of alchemy without much luck, and is very bitter about it. Luckily, the Alchemist sets him on the right track.
  • Language of Love: Not what you think it is. It's that everything in the universe is connected and love renders one capable of understanding it.
  • Last Girl Wins: Santiago is infatuated with a girl from the village at first, and it looks like it might go somewhere. But at the end of the book, he decides to go back to Fatima.
  • Love at First Sight: Santiago and Fatima.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The Alchemist is over 200 years old, since he has the Elixir of Life.
  • Shown Their Work: Coelho mentions a lot of details about Islam and North Africa which he mostly gets right, as well as Christianity, classical mythology and of course alchemy.
  • The Obi-Wan: Melchizedek and the Alchemist, who may or may not be the same person.
  • The Power of Love: Directly invoked. Santiago's "listening to his heart" allows him to finally understand the secrets of alchemy and lets him turn himself into wind.
  • This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: The Alchemist leaves Santiago on the last stage of his journey.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: The crystal merchant and his pilgrimage to Mecca.