Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is about Santiago and his rollercoaster journey to follow his dream. In this book, Coelho uses concepts of magic, love, and religion and/or spirituality to narrate Santiago’s story, making it a best-selling international novel loved, accepted and critically acclaimed worldwide.
Coelho’s choice for the book title speaks in itself of what the story entails: magic and myth. According to Merriam-Webster.com, the word “alchemist” means “a person who studies or practices alchemy,” which is “a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” In layman’s understanding, an alchemist is a mythical person tantamount to a magician or a sorcerer who can do the aforementioned (almost) impossible feats. This is a good move for Coelho as people all over the world are fascinated by magic and anything supernatural, and by using a title that shouts magic, he makes sure that his book will capture anyone’s attention, entice them to take a moment and read its synopsis, then eventually persuade them to buy a copy.
Likewise, as we explore the story, we see that magic envelops the entire narrative as different forms of it are employed by Coelho all throughout. In the book’s prologue, we meet the alchemist reading the famous story of Narcissus, a Greek mythological hero, with a different twist. As we know, Greek mythology involves both myths and religion, and by starting the book with a character from a famous folklore—just like the title choice—the author “sets us up [again] for what we might expect in the story” (McGowan): a journey involving magic, myths and religion. In the beginning of Part One, we meet the shepherd protagonist, Santiago, being bothered by “the same dream that night as a week ago” (Coelho 4), that is, a recurring dream which is believed to be supernatural in nature and/or a message from God in most parts of the world. We also meet the Gypsy woman who “read[s] [Santiago’s] palm” and “interpret[s] [his] dream” (Coelho 12-15). Then there is the old king, Melchizedek, who “[knows] what [Santiago is] thinking” and writes in the sand of the plaza “the names of [the shepherd boy’s] father and his mother and the name of the seminary he [has] attended … the name of the merchant’s daughter, which he [hasn’t] even known, and … things he [has] never told anyone,” displaying a certain degree of omniscience (Coelho 18-21). There is, of course, the alchemist who exhibits a number of supernatural feats throughout the second half of the book’s Part Two: he is believed to be “more than two hundred years old, and that he [has] discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life” (Coelho 66); he suddenly appears before Santiago as a “strange horseman” with a “thundering sound” and a swirling wind, asking the boy about the hawks and the vision when he is not even present when Santiago tells the chieftains about them (Coelho 109); he doesn’t die after “surely [being] bitten” by the cobra he takes out of a hole among the stones somewhere in the desert (Coelho 117-118); he makes the same snake relax just by “[drawing] a circle in the sand … then [placing] the snake within it” (Coelho 118); he reveals to Santiago “what will happen” if he “[decides] to stay” at the oasis (Coelho 119-120); he turns lead into gold (Coelho 154-155); and he manifests amazing wisdom about life and the world throughout his encounter with Santiago (Coelho 109-159). Finally, Santiago himself also flashes magical stunts toward the end of the book by having conversations with his heart (Coelho 128-132), the desert (Coelho 144-145), the wind (Coelho 145-148), the sun (Coelho 149-151) and “the hand that wrote all” or “the Soul of God” (Coelho 151-152); and by “[turning] himself into the wind, almost destroying a military camp, in defiance of the most powerful chief in the desert,” though he doesn’t really transform himself into the wind but is just transported by the forces of the desert, the wind and the sun (McGowan). As we can see, the book is littered with various forms of magic, and by filling the book with them, Coelho guarantees that his readers will be entertained and hooked from cover to cover.
Another strategy used by Coelho for The Alchemist is love. All throughout his quest to achieve his Personal Legend, Santiago is a single, coming-of-age boy who doesn’t know anything about love, especially romantic love—until he lays his eyes on Fatima. In the beginning of the story, we see that his mind is focused on taking good care of his sheep (Coelho 3-4). Then we are taken back a year before the story starts when Santiago first meets a different girl, the merchant’s daughter, who unknowingly ignites in him a “desire to live in one place forever” (Coelho 6). We may think that this is a sign of the boy falling in love as he anticipates meeting with her again, but when he tells his sheep that “[he knows] other girls in other places” as he considers that “the girl [might have] already forgotten him” (Coelho 6), we know that this is not the case. For him, she is just “someone who [can] make him forget the joys of carefree wandering” (Coelho 7). Indeed, all he cares about at the time is for him to travel which he believes is “his purpose in life” (Coelho 8) and which, according to his father, he can only do by being a shepherd (Coelho 9). But as he strives toward his Personal Legend, we see him grow as a person and learn more about the world. He comes to understand the signs, the omens and the “languages” of the world. Then, as he and the Englishman search for the alchemist at the well in the oasis, Santiago meets the love of his life—Fatima:
When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and a silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke—the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two eyes met, as had theirs here at the well. She smiled, and that was certainly an omen—the omen he had been awaiting, without even knowing he was, for all his life. The omen he had sought to find with his sheep and in his books, in the crystals and in the silence of the desert.
It was the pure Language of the World . . . Without such love, one’s dreams would have no meaning. (Coelho 92-93)
Here, we see that it only takes Santiago one girl to recognize love and its significance. And as we witness him fall in love at first sight with Fatima, Coelho is suggesting that all of us will also find “The One” at the right time, without us even looking for it. This wondrous moment with Fatima—together with the rest of his entire encounter with her and his conversations with his heart, the desert, the wind and the sun—is Coelho’s offering to all the hopeless romantics in the world, and it is common knowledge that almost everyone—if not all—regardless of their age, gender or cultural background, is a hopeless romantic, whether they admit it or not. By injecting a love interest in Santiago’s journey, the author ensures that he touches on the universal language or the “Language of the World” which is understood by all, making his book universally accepted.
Finally, the last effective concept that Coelho adapts in his book is religion and/or spirituality. A Catholic himself, he uses a number of Biblical references and/or allusions in the story. The name Santiago is a “reference to Saint James, brother of John the Apostle, and possible cousin to Jesus of Nazareth” (McGowan). His protagonist’s occupation, a shepherd, is an allusion to the Lord Jesus who is referred to as the “Good Shepherd” in the Bible (King James Version, John 10.11), while the sheep is the mankind (Ezek. 34.31). When Santiago points out that “[his sheep] don’t even realize that they’re walking a new road every day … [;] all they think about is food and water” and that “maybe we’re all that way” (Coelho 10-11), the author is “[suggesting] that it is human nature to be blind to other options, to be blind to subtle changes, to be blind to God” (McGowan). He is implying that when man’s basic needs are met, he tends to forget God. Another allusion to the Bible is the old king of Salem (Jerusalem), Melchizedek, who Coelho hints as the very same Melchizedek mentioned in the Bible by having him mention a famous Biblical character, Abraham, in his point of view (33). More references to the Bible used by Coelho are the Urim and Thummim (30), the story of Joseph (106-107), the truth about what makes a man evil (115), the connection between hearts and treasures (128), and the story of the centurion (156-158). That Coelho uses Biblical allusions is proof that he is reaching out to all the Christians in the world, which is “the largest religious group in the world” (Gilani), making it possible to speak to millions of people and make them interested in his book.
But Coelho doesn’t end there. He also tries to connect to the polytheists, the atheists and the Muslims. He chooses the Egyptian pyramids as the place where Santiago’s treasure is hidden according to the boy’s dream (15-16), and Egypt and the rest of Africa where it is located are known to believe in and worship many gods. Coelho even lets Melchizedek mention “gods” in his thoughts (33), suggesting that it might be true that they exist. For the atheists, his representative is the Englishman whom Santiago meets at a warehouse in Tangier (Morocco) as a huge caravan that will carry them to Al-Fayoum, Egypt is being prepared (67-69). When the caravan leader asks his passengers to “swear by the God [they] believe in that [they] will follow [his] orders no matter what,” every one “[swears] quietly to his or her own God” including Santiago, but “the Englishman [says] nothing,” indicating that he doesn’t have a God he believes in. Moreover, some of Coelho’s representatives for the Muslims in the book are the crystal merchant, the caravan leader, and “the camel driver who traveled alongside [Santiago]” (75). Firstly, in Tangier, after Santiago cleans the crystal merchant’s glasses in the window in exchange for something to eat, the latter informs the boy that “[he doesn’t] have to do any cleaning [because] the Koran requires [him] to feed a hungry person” (Coelho 45-46). He also shares with Santiago the “five obligations to satisfy during [the Muslims’] lives” (Coelho 54). Then, before Santiago and his fellow passengers leave for Egypt, the caravan leader declares to them that “the only God [he serves] is Allah, and in his name [he] swear[s] that [he] will do everything possible once again to win out over the desert.” Lastly, during one of Santiago’s friendly conversations with the camel driver, the latter tells of his own life and his understanding of “the word of Allah: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.” As what is shown here, Coelho includes a number of religious beliefs and ideas in his story to speak to the spiritual man in every human being. By doing so, he is able to make the reader think of his own spirituality and consider the proposed truths and principles in the book, making it intriguing to and talked about by many.
In conclusion, Coelho’s use of magic, love and religion and/or spirituality makes The Alchemist a mythic, universally applicable story. The magical element of his book tends to the imagination of the readers, keeping them captivated from the first page of his book until the very end. The sprinkle of love in the book speaks to the hopeless romantic side of its vast audience and moves them to think differently about love. The religious component of the story communicates to the soul and the intellect of the readers, giving depth and solemnity to the book and making it appealing and relatable to people of all religious backgrounds. We can say, hence, that the combination of these concepts—magic, love and religion/spirituality—proves to be a perfect recipe for a global phenomenon The Alchemist is.
theyellowninja’s note: I’m proud of this essay I wrote for my English course, that’s why I gave it the privilege to be my first ever post here on WordPress. ^^,