Book Review: The Alchemist

An essay for twenty-somethings on the meaning of fate. Photo by: Holly Cook

            This year, I made a commitment to reading more books by authors of color and authors from marginalized identities. I had saved up a backlog of books that I never read even though I wanted to make the time for them. Once the Black Lives Matter protests occurred, I realized it was time to decolonize my bookshelf and learn to read perspectives that were different than my own. Many of us are taught classic American and European literature in high school and college, but literature from Black, Latinx, and Asian authors is often left out of the discussion. There are so many life lessons in these books that we may be missing out on, and it is important for people to start engaging with these texts so we have greater understanding of international cultures and traditions.

Before the pandemic began, my fiancé and I were browsing Barnes and Noble, and I happened upon The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, 25th Anniversary edition. It had been on my reading list for a while, so I picked it up to skim through before I bought it.  The Alchemist’s prologue is an alternate version of the myth of Narcissus. The original story consisted of a boy named Narcissus who looked at his reflection so often in a pond, that one day he fell in and drowned, and in his place grew a flower we call the Narcissus or daffodil. In this alternate version, Coelho describes how a woodland fairy came upon the pond after Narcissus’s death and found it to be saltwater instead of freshwater. The pond confessed it was mourning Narcissus’s death because “I could see in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty, reflected.” 

“Narcissus” by Caravaggio

I didn’t quite understand what the inclusion of Narcissus’s myth had to do with the story of the Alchemist, but I was curious enough, and put the book down with plans to purchase it after my next paycheck. 

Then the quarantine hit. 

I didn’t have the chance to pick it back up until after summer. I’m glad I went back for it, because the lessons I learned from The Alchemist are important for any 20-something to know. Our present-day lifestyles pull young adults in so many different directions, showing us ideals of what we think our future should be, but in the end these ideals are distractions from our destined paths. The Alchemist gives a clear understanding of how to live one’s life in a way that honors one’s personal destiny and respects the destinies of others. 

The plotline of The Alchemist centers around a young shepherd in Spain named Santiago, who is traveling across the desert with his flock to reach one of his wool patrons, a merchant. He is infatuated with the merchant’s daughter and wants to ask for her hand in marriage. One night, on his way to the town, he is interrupted by a dream about finding treasure at the pyramids in Egypt. He consults a nearby fortune teller who encourages him to go on this journey, and he meets a mystical king who tells him that it is his destiny to go in search of this treasure. Leaving his thoughts of betrothing the merchant’s daughter behind, he trades his flock to the king for enough gold to get him to Egypt. Over the course of the book, he runs into many challenges in the desert as he attempts to fulfill his destiny. He is thieved of all his money multiple times, he stops for a year to work with a glass-shop owner, he journeys with a caravan across a treacherous war-torn desert. All the while, he looks for signs from the universe to guide him on his way, as the king said he would need to pay close attention to the language of the universe to succeed. Santiago also wonders many times if it is better to give up his quest and settle down or go home. 

The Alchemist is part fable and part coming-of-age novel. It felt similar to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in all of the lifelong wisdom it held, but also was more practical, because instead of relating the wisdom in a series of fables, the story followed a character who consistently applied the wisdom he gathered on his journey. I appreciated the parallels Coelho made between Catholic and Islamic religious traditions as Santiago met different people on his journey and learned many similarities of how the two religions consider God the decider of their personal destinies. Coelho adamantly believes that everyone has a destiny given to them by the universe, and the universe “conspires to make it happen.”

1. Follow Your Personal Legend

Coelho refers to one’s personal legend, defined as “what you’ve always wanted to accomplish,” the mission we all have a responsibility to fulfill, and our only responsibility in life. Coelho explains through the King’s character that many people place what others think of them above their personal legend, and that is when they give up their destiny for social status or stability. During the story, Santiago meets different people. Some are still working to succeed in their personal legend, but some gave up: a baker who wanted to travel but settled down instead, a glass-shop owner who wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca but never did. The baker planned to travel later, but by procrastinating, took the risk that his life may come to an end before he could live out his dream. The glass-shop owner decided that his dream to go to Mecca would always be more beautiful than the real experience of going, and so he decided not to go at all. 

In the 90s, adults liked to tell us to follow our dreams. They told us we could be anything we wanted, and while it was true in some ways, it was wrong in others. We couldn’t be anything we wanted, like a princess or a prince or a mermaid. We could choose any career path we wanted early on, but eventually our personal circumstances narrowed down our list of feasible options. If you wanted to be a child actor, you only had a short amount of time to fulfill that dream, and Disney could only feature so many child-actors-turned-singers at a time. If you want to be a professional pianist or ballerina or gymnast, you had to have the privilege, money, and time to take lessons early on, or you would lose your golden years in the profession waiting for the chance to learn the craft. I have a feeling that adults used to tell us we could do anything because they had, in some form, given up on their own personal legends, and wanted us to aim to fulfill our dreams where they could not. 

But here’s the thing, Coelho also says that the biggest lie of the world is that there comes a point when you cannot pursue your personal legend. This is something we come to believe because so many people give up their personal legend before they reach it, but the truth is that one can pursue their legend at any time, no matter how much time has passed since they gave up. Granted, our societies are much more complicated now than in the time the Alchemist is supposed to take place. In The Alchemist, Santiago doesn’t have a laundry list of things he can become. He only ever wanted to travel as a shepherd, and that’s what he did, until he had a dream that changed his mind and made him go a different direction. I wonder how many people today feel burdened with the sheer amount of choices we have for our future careers and find themselves bogged down in those choices before they ever begin their journeys. In the presence of these choices, it’s easy to become distracted and veer off track from our legend or forget it completely, but that’s why it is incredibly important to learn the language of the world.

2. Learn the Language of the World

Coelho talks about the language of the world as a form of communication the universe uses to tell us we are on the right path to our destinies. When Santiago meets the King who encourages him to go on his journey, the King gives him two rocks, one white, representing “no”, one black, representing “yes.” Santiago draws one of these rocks from his pocket to answer binary questions, helping him read omens of the universe in times of uncertainty. Santiago feels like he already knows how to read some of the language of the world. He’s learned from his sheep. Even though they can’t talk, they have their own language, and it allows him to see what they need and take care of them. In time he learns to read other signs such as a pair of hawks that fighting overhead that symbolize the coming war, or when a candy merchant’s kindness gave him hope even though they spoke different languages. By learning to read these omens and make decisions he is eventually able to fulfill his personal legend in an unconventional way, but without understanding how the universe was guiding him, he never would have made it that far. 

I believe we’re fairly good at reading signs as children, little things in life that tell us that we’re on the right track, but when we grow up, we get so bogged down in the details of everyday life, we forget to look for what the world is telling us about our purpose. People in our lives will always tell us what they think we’re supposed to do, but only we know our own personal legend, and it’s up to us to read the signs to help us fulfill our legend, even if that’s very different from what society tells us to do. 

3. You Didn’t Find Love at the Pyramids

One of my favorite parts of the story is when the caravan stops in an Oasis village, and Santiago finally finds meets the alchemist. He talks to the alchemist about his life. Santiago saw signs that told him it was time to continue looking for his treasure in the desert, but he was afraid of leaving the girl he fell in love with, Fatima, behind. He feared that if he didn’t settle down right away that he may lose her. The Alchemist told him, “You didn’t find Fatima at the pyramids.” 

Image from The Alchemist: A Graphic Novel

Especially for young women, we are often told that you need to choose whether to have a career or have a family, because it’s too difficult to have both. Or rather, if you choose to have a family at any point, it will be the end of your career goals. And if you choose to go after your career goals first, you’ll never have the chance to have a family. When the Alchemist made the comment about not finding Fatima at the pyramids, he was reminding Santiago that he did not start on his journey to find love. He also told him that if Fatima was the woman he was destined to be with, she would understand and wait for him to return from his journey. Just as the Alchemist said, Fatima was very understanding of Santiago’s journey and agreed to continue her life in the Oasis and wait for him until he returned. 

The Alchemist was the first time I experienced a story that told me it’s reasonable to expect both. You can still find love, but don’t stop following your dreams because of it. Real love won’t make your career goals difficult, and if you are following your personal legend, you will surely find love at the right time. Even though it wasn’t directed specifically at women, I felt some reassurance from this message that doesn’t come from mainstream media: that things can turn out for the better as long as you are putting your personal destiny first.  

4. Embrace Misfortune

When Santiago first starts his journey, the King tells him that events of misfortune are meant to challenge our courage. They work as omens, not only to tell us we are on the right path to our destinies, but to challenge our will to continue. If we want our personal destiny bad enough, we will work past the misfortunes to reach our goals, but if misfortune persuades us to quit, then we were not yet worthy of our destiny. 

Along Santiago’s journey, he is robbed several times of all his earnings, making his journey even more difficult. Instead of reading those as opportunities to quit, he continues his journey with the faith that the universe will conspire to help him reach his goal. There are other famous anecdotes we tell with similar morals, how it took Thomas Edison however many hundred times to create a working lightbulb, or the number of times J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected before a publisher accepted it. I think we depend on these stories so that we don’t give up on our personal destinies when we experience failure. Yet there are times in our life when we don’t know if we will make it past a challenge, even if we face it directly, and some of the outcome is up to the will of the universe. When Santiago’s caravan sets out to cross the desert to Egypt, the caravan leader tells the people to pray to their own Gods. He would do his best to protect them, but he could not guarantee their survival. The caravan is made up of Christian and Muslim people, and in that moment, each member expresses their intention to their god to survive the journey, but also accepts that they may never reach the other side. It is up to the universe to see them through to the end. 

I don’t believe it’s possible to live without regrets. We make too many mistakes as humans to look back on our lives and say we did everything perfectly, but if we’re making steps towards our own personal legend, even if we fail in the pursuit of our goal, we can take misfortune with a grain of salt. Therefore, it is the hope that we will someday fulfill our destinies, not the actual fulfillment, that gives our lives meaning and direction. 

Final Thoughts

When I finished The Alchemist, I again wondered why it was so important to place the myth of Narcissus at the beginning of the book. After all, Santiago isn’t a particularly vain character. In fact, he seems to perceive himself as naïve for trying to fulfill his dreams. But at one point in the narrative, Coelho gives a quote that is now famous and carries the meaning of the entire story, “once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” 

So, taking this quote into account, maybe the reason Coelho included the Narcissus myth is not to say that Santiago was vain for wanting to fulfill his dreams of finding treasure, but to say that just as we are fixated on fulfilling our personal legends, the universe is also fixated on creating beauty within itself by seeing our journeys through to the end. 

Recommended Posts