The Alchemist (1988) follows the story of a young Andalusian shepherd, who travels to the pyramids of Egypt to find a treasure he has recurrently dreamed about. On his journey, he has to overcome multiple obstacles – through which he learns valuable life lessons. Based on a thirteenth-century folktale, it explores topics such as following your dreams, finding your destiny, and the nature of love.
Introduction: Discover the magic of The Alchemist for yourself.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Discover the magic of The Alchemist for yourself.
- Dreams are a pathway to our most meaningful desires.
- The universe gifts each of us a Personal Legend.
- Love does not equate to possession.
- It’s up to you to follow the markers of your destiny.
- About the author
- Table of Contents
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a fable about an Andalusian shepherd and his dream. It went on to sell over 65 million copies, be translated into 80 languages, and cement itself as a contemporary literary classic.
What is it about this simple tale that has captured so many hearts?
Perhaps it’s the inspiring message about ignoring the superficial markers of success that society imposes, to instead uncover and achieve your deepest-held desires.
Perhaps it’s the cerebral yet accessible approach Coelho takes toward big themes like destiny, agency, and spirituality.
Perhaps it’s the deeply romantic yet resolutely unconventional love story that anchors the plot.
And perhaps it’s because, as the story itself contends, it’s often the simplest things that are the most mysterious, resonant, and powerful.
This summary uncovers the hidden meanings and rich symbols deployed in The Alchemist, and allows you to judge for yourself the source of its enduring appeal. It also offers timeless wisdom that you can apply to your own life.
Dreams are a pathway to our most meaningful desires.
Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel is a deceptively simple tale. On its surface, it is the story of Santiago, a shepherd who leaves his native Spanish countryside in search of treasure. Scratch a little deeper, though, and we find an allegory of self-discovery – of the journey we must all embark on if we are to uncover and fulfill our deepest desires.
For Santiago, the catalyst for this journey is a dream – a recurring dream that he has had since childhood. It’s apt that a dream sets The Alchemist’s plot in motion. The novel plays with a host of recurring motifs including omens, fate, and alchemy, but the dream is perhaps the most important motif of all. In fact, the story both begins and ends with a dream.
So, what was Santiago’s dream?
Let’s first set the scene; the details here will be important later on. Santiago has had a long day tending to his flock of sheep in the hills of the Spanish countryside. He searches for somewhere to shelter for the night and settles on an abandoned church. The church roof has crumbled away, and a sycamore tree has grown on the spot where the church sacristy once stood. Santiago falls asleep under the tree’s branches. As he sleeps, he dreams. In his dream, a child appears. She takes Santiago by the hand and transports him to the pyramids of Egypt, a place Santiago has never visited in waking life. At the pyramids, the child tells Santiago that if he visits the pyramids, he will find a treasure. But before she can tell him precisely where he’ll find this treasure, Santiago wakes up.
Convinced the dream has a hidden meaning, he visits a fortune-teller and asks her to interpret it. She tells him the dream means he should travel to the pyramids, where he will find a treasure. Santiago is frustrated – this is a far simpler interpretation than he expected. But the fortune-teller reproves him. In life, she tells him, it’s the simplest things that are the most extraordinary, and only the wisest among us can understand them.
Santiago does follow his dream. He sells his sheep and embarks on the journey to Egypt. But his dream is also intertwined with a long-held desire to travel. In fact, Santiago gave up a life of religious study to become a shepherd explicitly to pursue his desire for freedom and travel, much to his parents’ disappointment. Throughout the book, dreams – whether directly or obliquely – often reflect the truest desires of the dreamer.
But while dreams in The Alchemist often serve to articulate a desire, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Shortly before Santiago begins his journey, he meets a character called Melchizedek. Although he’s disguised as a shabby old man in eccentric clothes, Melchizedek is actually a magical king. Melchizedek introduces Santiago to an important concept – the “Soul of the World.” This is essentially the world’s spiritual framework, encompassing the soul of every living and nonliving being. But while this framework exists all around us, it is up to us to connect to it. One of the ways the Soul of the World communicates with us is through our dreams. So by listening to and acting on our dreams, we begin to tap into the spiritual power of the Soul of the World.
Let’s return, for now, to that first dream. Santiago’s vision of buried treasure takes him from Spain to Africa, where he is robbed by thieves of everything he has. He builds up his fortune once again by working in a shop that sells crystals, travels through the desert with a camel caravan, is caught up in conflict between warring desert tribes, falls in love at a desert oasis, and meets a genuine alchemist. At every step, there are distractions both positive – like love or wealth – and negative – like conflict or hardship – that threaten to sway Santiago from the pursuit of his dream. But he is resolute in the face of these diversions and ultimately arrives at the pyramids. He sees a scarab beetle scuttling along the sand and takes it for an omen, so he begins to dig.
As he shovels sand, two young men see him and are convinced he is burying treasure. They attack him, trying to steal this treasure. Eventually, Santiago explains to them that he is digging here because of what he saw in his dreams. The men release him, but they are scornful. He shouldn’t be so foolish as to believe in dreams, says one. After all, he himself has had a recurring dream all his life – but has never been so stupid as to devote his life to pursuing it.
The young man’s dream? That if he were to ever visit Spain and find a crumbling church in the countryside, he should dig deep down where a sycamore tree grows; there, he will find untold treasure.
In this sense, Santiago’s dream takes him full circle. On his return home, he does find the treasure. And the gypsy’s wisdom is proved correct – the location of the treasure couldn’t have been simpler for Santiago to find. Yet, to unearth it, he first had to experience an extraordinary journey.
The universe gifts each of us a Personal Legend.
Melchizedek, the king disguised as an old man, appears only briefly in the pages of The Alchemist, but his discussion with Santiago reverberates throughout the book – in many ways, Santiago’s journey is structured around understanding the concepts Melchizedek introduces. We’ve already discussed the Soul of the World, but Melchizedek also tells Santiago he needs to uncover his “Personal Legend.”
Everyone, according to Melchizedek, has a Personal Legend. It’s the thing you truly want to accomplish. But few of us ever achieve this. When we are young, our Personal Legend is very clear to us. As we grow older, though, most of us absorb society’s message that our Personal Legends are simply too hard to attain – and that we should focus, instead, on living safely and comfortably.
But if they put their mind to it, says Melchizedek, anyone can achieve their Personal Legend. They just need to desire it enough. Because if you really desire something, that desire is not yours – it is a desire that has originated from the universe, and the universe will help you accomplish it.
On his travels, Santiago meets two more figures connected to his Personal Legend. The first is an Englishman, whose Personal Legend is to become an alchemist. Santiago and the Englishman have very different approaches to pursuing their respective Personal Legends. Santiago studies the world around him; the Englishman immerses himself in books. Traveling together in the caravan, they quickly become friends, but they also challenge each other. From the Englishman, Santiago begins to understand the importance of study and reading – but the Englishman has perhaps even more to learn from Santiago, who shows him that life and experience are richer texts than any academic book.
The second figure is an alchemist. When Santiago meets him in a desert oasis, the alchemist explains that he has succeeded in becoming a true alchemist – someone who can transmute material from one form to another, including transmuting metal into gold – by living out his Personal Legend. Other alchemists, he says, fail because they are focused solely on creating gold rather than achieving their own Personal Legends. Through the figure of the alchemist, Coelho critiques people who work to achieve superficial rewards like wealth – or gold – instead of tuning into deeper desires.
Both the alchemist and Melchizedek tell Santiago that the only way to uncover his Personal Legend is by listening to his heart. But when Santiago tries to do this, he becomes confused and frustrated; his heart simply won’t cooperate. It is filled with fears and anxieties. It worries about his faraway lover, is overwhelmed by beauty, and beats quickly when he is scared. The alchemist reassures him. This is a good sign, he says. Santiago’s heart is alive and experiencing things. He should keep listening to it.
What about when his heart explicitly tells him to stop pursuing his Personal Legend, Santiago asks. When it tells him he is endangering the wealth he has accumulated and his romantic relationship by chasing a dream?
When his heart dissuades him from his quest, says the alchemist, Santiago must talk back to his heart and reassure it. Ignoring his heart is not an option – once he has learned to listen to it, he will never be able to stop. So while he receives his heart’s wisdom, Santiago must also counsel his heart when it falters. When, at last, Santiago tells his heart to stay true and not fear suffering, his heart finally starts to share the wisdom of the Soul of the World with him.
Love does not equate to possession.
The Alchemist is a story rich with meanings and ideas, and it offers different interpretations to different people. For many, though, it is a love story at heart.
One of the novel’s most compelling narrative threads is the story of Santiago and Fatima. Santiago meets Fatima at a desert oasis, where the caravan he is traveling with has stopped to avoid getting caught in a brewing conflict between warring desert tribes. He first encounters her at a well; she has come to fill her water jar. Santiago waits by the well every day, just to have the chance to talk with her. In these brief conversations, they share their hopes and dreams – and soon they are engaged to be married.
Through Fatima, Coelho introduces questions around love and possession: Can you truly possess something you love? And if you don’t truly love something, can you ever really possess it? Every stage of Santiago’s journey compels him to part with things that he holds dear, in one way or another – his flock of sheep when he leaves Spain, his accumulated fortune when he is robbed on his arrival in Tangiers, and eventually the gold given to him by the alchemist at the pyramids.
But the hardest thing to part with is Fatima. Santiago wonders if he should really be pursuing his Personal Legend if it means leaving her behind. Isn’t she part of his Personal Legend now, too?
Fatima sees things differently.
Fatima tells Santiago to continue on his journey to the pyramids. She has always dreamed that the desert will bring her a great gift – and she sees that gift is Santiago. She has become part of his Personal Legend, she tells him, and if that is meant to be, she will still be here when he returns. She is a woman of the desert and knows that men must leave in order to return. She also knows if they don’t return, their soul has simply moved elsewhere – into an animal or a sand dune or some other element of the Soul of the World.
The alchemist reinforces Fatima’s perspective. If Santiago stays in the oasis, he says, it is because he does not trust in his love for Fatima – because he does not trust himself to return if he leaves. Leaving Fatima, and then returning to her, is the purest way that Santiago can express his love for her.
Love, in the broader sense, also plays a large role in the story – Coelho is interested in the love that is embodied in the universe. The scene where Santiago must prove to suspicious tribesmen that he is, indeed, an alchemist, is a striking embodiment of this.
The alchemist tells them that, in three days’ time, the boy will prove he is a true alchemist by transforming himself into the wind. Santiago has no idea how he will manage this. But he has learned to speak the language of the universe. He asks the desert to transform him into the wind – he tells it he is in love with a woman and would like to travel back to her in the form of a desert wind. The desert says it can’t help him but tells him to speak to the sand, which tells him to speak to the sun. In the language of the universe, Santiago talks of love to all of these natural elements. None have the power to help him – Santiago understands, then, that these natural elements, like him, are simply trying to follow their personal journeys. He is one with them.
This realization, unfortunately, does not turn him into a gust of air. But the desert, the wind, and the sun are so excited by the talk of love and the universe that together they create a dramatic desert wind. In this moment, Santiago becomes a true alchemist.
It’s up to you to follow the markers of your destiny.
There’s an inescapable tension underpinning The Alchemist – that of the struggle between fate and free will. If our Personal Legend is predetermined by the universe, why do we have to struggle so much to accomplish it? Conversely, if we fail to achieve our Personal Legend, shouldn’t we blame the universe for this failure rather than ourselves? Santiago grapples with these questions over the course of the story. In the end, it’s a discussion with a camel driver that resolves his internal conflict. But before we get to that, let’s touch on another central motif: omens.
Omens, in The Alchemist, are the universe’s signposts. They’re objects or events freighted with meaning that can guide us down a path or give us a glimpse of the future. The story is bookended with omens. At the outset of Santiago’s journey, Melchizedek gives him two stones that will help him interpret omens. When he reaches the pyramids, Santiago interprets the scarab beetle as an omen, showing him where to find the buried treasure. But the most significant omen occurs when Santiago sees two hawks locked in airborne battle. He understands this is an omen foretelling that an enemy tribe will attack the desert oasis where he and his caravan are resting. This turns out to be right.
These omens are presented as the universe conspiring with Santiago, to help him fulfill his destiny. Moreover, the phrase maktub, meaning “It is written,” is uttered by characters at turning points along Santiago’s journey – suggesting that the contours of Santiago’s path are predetermined by fate.
If, then, we are fated to fulfill our destinies, why must we struggle to accomplish our Personal Legends? Why do so many people fail in their attempt? What is meant to be will surely come to pass – won’t it?
Let’s return to the camel driver. After he has seen the omen of the hawks, Santiago shares it with the camel driver. This camel driver has visited many seers in a bid to know his future. The wisest seer, he tells Santiago, said that no man can know the future; only God can. Seers merely guess at it by reading the omens of the present.
Paying attention to the omens around us allows us to improve our present and shape our future. In other words, the secret to fulfilling your future destiny is living attentively in the moment.
Let’s finish with a brief recap of the events and themes of Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist. Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd, decides to journey to the pyramids of Egypt after an encounter with the mysterious king Melchizedek convinces him it is his destiny to pursue the recurring dream he has had since childhood.
Along the way, Santiago experiences setbacks and distractions. He is robbed and must rebuild his fortune by working in a crystal shop; a desert conflict impedes his journey; he meets an erudite yet inexperienced Englishman; and he falls in love with Fatima. He also meets an alchemist who shows him the importance of listening to his heart and connecting with the Soul of the World. When he arrives at the pyramids, his dream is proved prophetic, if in a roundabout fashion.
The Alchemist grapples with themes of fate, destiny, love, and our place in the universe. Its overarching message is that, when we accept, we are one with the universe, we can achieve extraordinary feats and realize our deepest desires.
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian novelist. He is best known for writing The Alchemist, but many of his other books have become best sellers around the world. His work has been translated into 83 languages.
Motivation, Inspiration, Creativity, Society, Culture, Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Philosophy, Novels, Spirituality, Self Help, Literature, Adventure, Inspirational, Metaphysical and Visionary Fiction, Contemporary Literature, Literary Fiction, Religion
Table of Contents
A Preview of Paulo Coelho’s: Warrior of the Light
About the Author
International Acclaim for Paulo Coelho’s: The Alchemist
Also by Paulo Coelho
About the Publisher
Stay tuned for book review…