An extraordinary tale of one young boy’s search for fulfilment has a message for people everywhere.
Santiago, an adventurous shepherd boy from a small Andalusian town, is the protagonist in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Throughout the novel, the term “personal legend” describes a person’s willingness to accomplish their greatest desire. The treasure that Santiago seeks, as metaphorically described in the book, lies at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids.
The boy resists his parents’ wishes to follow the traditional career path of becoming a priest and instead chooses to work as a shepherd: “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
Santiago starts to wonder if his sheep are like human beings, being preoccupied with physical contentment and no deeper appreciation for life. Santiago’s thoughts imply that he must seek a higher purpose in life if he wants to be happy.
Melchizedek, a mysterious old man who claims to be the king of Salem, appears and reveals to Santiago the magical powers of nature, encouraging him to become a spiritual seeker in search of his own destiny.
The word “maktub” – meaning “it is written” – appears throughout the novel. It suggests that all people are aware of their destiny from an early age, but, as time passes, a mysterious force convinces them that they’re incapable of succeeding.
Fear features throughout Santiago’s journey as the primary obstacle to his achieving his goal. Santiago meets a 200-year-old practitioner of alchemy and tells him that his heart does not want him to continue, because it fears it will lose everything. The alchemist tells him: “To pursue a dream is to encounter God.” The desert, with its harsh conditions and tribal wars, symbolises the difficulties confronting a person in pursuit of their personal legend. It also serves as an important teacher for Santiago during his journey to the pyramids.
Alchemists seek to rid metals of impurities in order to reveal the “Soul of the World”, just as Santiago must purify himself from material concerns and external pressures in order to focus on his personal legend.
For Santiago, the value of his journey does not lie in the treasure at the end, but in the knowledge and experience he gains from the journey itself.
As the elements of the world evolve in this way, they grow in accordance with a pyramid, resembling a “unified whole”. Santiago tells the sun that once something achieves its purpose, it evolves into something “new and better”.
As Santiago gets up to embrace his treasure, the pyramids seem be laughing at him, but “he laughed back, as his heart is bursting with joy.”
RI rating: 10/10