In 1988. author Paulo Coelho published a modern classic, The Alchemist. It was originally written in Portuguese, but since, has been translated into 67 different languages, including, thankfully English. As with a lot of writers, his novel took a while to find a publisher. Then it stalled in sales for a few years, but, a lucky break came with President Clinton. While he was in office, the President was photographed getting off Air Force One with a copy of the book in his hand. Can’t get much higher endorsement for your book. The sales soared.
The author says that the book tells his own story, allegorically. It’s the story of a young man, a shepherd, in search of treasure. While tending to his sheep, he has a dream of a buried treasure near a pyramid. Although his life is moving along the path that he thought would make him happy, he is still restless. He meets a fortune teller who tells him to pursue his search, and then an exiled king tells him the same. So he sells his sheep, goes to Africa, and then joins a caravan to heading to Egypt. Along the way he meets an alchemist-in-training. That leads him to begin to question his purpose. Then he meets a girl and falls in love. She also tells him to find his treasure, because it is part of his “Personal Legend”. Then he can come back to her, with his task settled.
He leaves with the alchemist that was training the student alchemist that had traveled with him so far. They have more adventures, the boy learns how to be an alchemist, and then continues looking for the treasure. When he reaches the pyramid, he is accosted by bandits, where he learns one of the bandits had also had a dream of a buried treasure while sleeping in that exact spot. It was buried under the tree the boy had been sleeping under when he had the original dream. So the boy goes back to his home town, digs up the treasure, and marries the girl. He lives happily ever after because he never stopped till he found his Personal Legend.
The story starts out with a young shepherd: “The boy’s name was Santiago.”. And that is the last time his name is mentioned. From then on he is called, “the boy”. He was an unusual keeper of sheep, because he could read. The boy’s parents sent him to school to become a priest. He had studied Latin, Spanish and theology. But, he wanted to travel. His father said the only way he could earn a living and travel was to become a shepherd. Shepherds traveled from village to village selling wool. With his travels he met a lot of people and learned to talk with his sheep. He could read their body language and the sounds they made to understand what they needed. Since he spent so much time with nature, he learned to read the signs from the world around him. He had begun learning the Language of the Universe.
One night, while sleeping in an abandoned church under a sycamore tree, he had a recurring dream about a treasure he was supposed to find by the Pyramids in Egypt. The dream was consuming and stayed with him as a craving to make him restless for answers. When he went into town to sell his wool he located a Gypsy woman to interpret his dream. He didn’t want to waste the few coins he had on her, in case she was a charlatan, but, he thought to at least ask the price. She grabbed his hand and told him to go to Egypt adding when he found his treasure to give her 10 percent as payment for her reading.
Figuring she was probably lying to him, he set off to find a nice place to watch the sunset, and read a book he had just traded for. Soon a man sits down next to him. He sees the boy reading a book and the man says he has already read it. Then the man proceeds to tell him what the book is about and how it ends. The man tells him it is a book describing “people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world’s greatest lie.” The words, Personal Legend are always capitalized throughout the book.
“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” He goes on to tell the boy that fate is letting life control you, but you are in control of your life. As children people know what their own Personal Legend is, or what they want to accomplish with their life, but they veer off course, and then blame fate. They forget to listen to the universe. The man teaches that when a person really wants something, the universe will conspire to help them achieve it.
These few sentences set the stage for the rest of the book. The boy notices the man is wearing armor made of gold, and thinks he must be a king. We discover the man is the “King of Salem”, Melchizedek. He sends the boy on his quest to find his own Personal Legend; finding his treasure. The king tells the boy that any time he needs him, he will be there, and the boy often hears his voice in his head, and even thinks he spots signs of Melchizedek in people who help him in continuing his journey.
After the boy leaves we learn that Melchizedek has been instrumental in sending many heroes on their hunts for their Personal Legend. Some have succeeded and some have failed. This quest for the treasure takes a few turns and pauses as the book progresses. But, with the advice of the King to “follow the omens” the boy keeps on his path. Melchizedek had advised him that if he would listen to the universe and pay attention to the messages it sends him through omens, he will always be on the right path. So, he sells his sheep and buys passage to Africa. It isn’t a long trip, but watching his homeland disappear and the shores of Africa appear is a definite shift in the road.
He is traveling further than anyone he knows. The sights and sounds of the city he lands in seem so alien to him that he is a bit overwhelmed at first. At a restaurant a young man comes up to the boy and offers to help him. Even though the universe is telling him to be cautious, the boy goes with the young man because the young man is the only person he has met who speaks his language, and therefore the boy trusts him. But, the young man steals all the boys money and leaves him destitute. The boy lands a job in a crystal shop. At first, he asks the owner of the shop if he can just dust the crystal for a meal, but after a while, the owner begins to trust the boy, and appreciates the help. The boy helps the merchant come up with good business plans that begin to help him turn a profit. He puts the best crystal out for people to purchase on their way up the mountain, and then starts serving tea in the crystal cups. The customers like the look of their tea in the cups so much, they buy them. With hard work, and listening to the crystal, he turns the business around and earns enough money to either return home or continue on his journey.
The King had given him two stones. They were called Urim and Thummim. One is black for “yes” and one is white for “no”. Although the stones had been available to him while the boy was staying with the crystal merchant, he never thought to handle them. Now, when he is questioning the path he should take, the boy notices them in his pocket. He comes across an Englishman waiting to join a caravan. The man is reading a book intently, so the boy waits with him. The boy is still trying to decide whether to go home and buy more sheep or to continue on his quest. The Englishman recognizes the stones as Urim and Thummim, stones that are used by prophets and asks the boy about them. This conversation leads to many more and is a good ice breaker to start a friendship.
The man is going to find the great Alchemist. He has studied for years, and under some of the best teachers around the world. The Englishman has brought a trunk stuffed full with books on alchemy and feels the only way to continue his training is with the greatest alchemist who ever lived. The Englishman is sure he can find the man, and he can convince him to train him. The boy decides to go to Egypt across the desert with the alchemist-in-training. It will be a long and dangerous trip, across the Sahara dessert, but meeting the Englishman must be an omen to continue to the pyramids and not return home to the sheep, yet. They learn from each other along the way. The boy reads the books the Englishman has brought along and the Englishman tries to listen to the sounds around him. From the books the boy learns about alchemy and from listening to the weather, the men leading the caravan, and the camels they ride on the Englishman learns how to listen to the universe.
When they reach the Oasis the man meets his teacher and the boy meets a girl. The girl’s name is Fatima. The boy meets her by the well every day and spends time with her. He meets her family and asks her to marry him. He considers staying there with her and giving up on his Personal Legend. But, she tells him she is a ‘woman of the desert’ and therefore wants him to continue on his quest. She will wait for him. She knows that if he gives up his dreams to stay with her, he would grow to be unhappy. She believes in their love, and trusts him to come back to her. He is still unsure about leaving her when he meets the next person to influence him, the Alchemist. He rides up on a powerful steed and is quite forbidding at first. But, when the boy begins to talk with him, he sees the man’s wisdom. The alchemist tells him that true love cannot stop the search for a Personal Legend, if it does, it’s not true love.
Knowing his new apprentice was coming the alchemist first met with the alchemist-in-training and gave him the task to start working on his Personal Legend of turning iron into gold. The Englishman is thrilled with this task and begins right away. But, the alchemist’s true apprentice is the boy. He agrees to lead the boy across the desert. Along the way the Alchemist teaches the boy how to speak to the desert. The boy learns to listen to his heart. His heart tells him of his dreams and wishes, but, the boy feels his heart his treasonous. It keeps telling him that he has found true love, go back to it and give up this quest. Finally, as he continues his travels, his heart admits that even though it complains sometimes, it’s happy. They meet a small group of rebel tribesmen in the dessert. They search the alchemist and find his philosopher’s stone, and elixir of immortality. When the alchemist tells the rebel’s what it is they don’t believe him. The lesson here is; when you have great treasures within you and try to tell others about them, seldom are you believed.
The boy learns the Language of the World. He learns of the Soul of the World. He learns to speak to the wind, the sun and then to God. Which is lucky, because the two are captured by a second band of rebels who want to kill them because they had spoken to the first band of rebels, who this band is at war with, so obviously they are spies for the first band. The alchemist calms their fears somewhat by offering all the boy’s money to them. Then he tells them the boy is a famous alchemist who can turn himself into the wind and destroy their camp. They give him three days to make the wind obey his commands. After many days of fruitlessly trying, the boy, once again asks the alchemist how to do it. The alchemist tells him that it is the boy’s quest that he must do. He does, causing a huge storm that almost destroys the rebel’s base.
After the storm has passed, the boy is not where he was when the storm started, but on the other side of the camp. Afterwards, everyone is afraid except for two men, the alchemist, because he had found his perfect disciple and the general, because he knew the boy understood the glory of God. They let the boy and the alchemist go. They two come to a monastery where the alchemist and the boy are to part company. But first the alchemist demonstrates to the boy how he can turn iron into gold. The boy asks if he could learn to do that. After all, then he wouldn’t need to hunt for the treasure. But the alchemist tells him that iron to gold was his own Personal Legend, he just wanted to show the boy it was possible and to replenish the boy’s purse. The boy’s Personal Legend is to find the treasure. The alchemist divides the gold into four parts. He gives a fourth of the gold to the monk of the monastery to restore what the monastery has given to the poor, the monk says that it is much more than they had provided for the poor. The alchemist tells him not to say that or the next time the universe will give him less. So, when the boy considers saying the fourth part of gold the alchemist gives him is also too much, he holds his tongue. Then the alchemist keeps a fourth of the gold for himself and has the monk keep the last fourth for the boy if he comes back through. Luckily, since the boy will need it.
Finally, when the boy reaches the pyramids and begins to dig in the spot he dreamed the treasure was hidden, he is once again set on by thieves. “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will happen a third time.” This was the third time the boy lost all his money. First to the young man when he first arrived in Africa, and then to the rebels, and now to bandits. When the thieves had beaten him and learned about his treasure, and that he hadn’t found it where he was supposed to dig, one of the thieves told the boy he was stupid to follow the message in a dream. That he, himself, had had a dream in this very spot about a treasure hid under a sycamore tree in an abandoned church. The thief hadn’t gone to find the treasure, instead his “fate” was to become a thief.
The boy realized the treasure he was supposed to find was back in his hometown. We could laugh at the irony, but the lessons the trip provided were worth the travel. The boy returns home, after stopping by the monastery for the gold the alchemist had left with the monk for him, and then goes to the abandoned church where he had slept under the sycamore tree at the beginning of the story. He digs for the treasure and finds it right under where he had lain and dreamed of it. After finding his treasure, the boy sets off to go back to Fatima, with his Personal Legend complete, after dropping off 10 percent to the Gypsy, that is.
This book was full of platitudes and morals. Learning to find our own Personal Legend, what we’ve always wanted to accomplish, is important. To not give up on our dreams even when we meet with obstacles along the way, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Paulo Coelho has written a very thought-provoking book that should be savored and reread often.
Santiago (the boy) – he is the protagonist of The Alchemist. He is only called by name once, at the first of the book, then always referred to as boy from then on. His character changes and grows the most. He begins the story as a shepherd. He became a shepherd because he wanted to travel. His parents had sent him to seminary school to become a priest, but the boy wanted to travel so his father told him his best choice would be as a shepherd. Since the boy loved to read, he always had a book with him. He was a deep thinker, and learned to listen to nature and read the signs. He spent a lot of time alone with his sheep, so he learned their unique language also. One day he has a dream about a treasure and sets out to find it. Along the way, his adventures and the people he meets who teach him the lessons of that lead to his Personal Legend, are what makes the book so wonderful. He starts out as a restless young boy and ends up as a wise young man.
Melchizedek – When the boy meets him he appears to be a bit of a hobo. But, as they speak he becomes more and more stately. Melchizedek tells him he is the King of Salem. He travels from place to place helping people to find their Personal Legends, or what they are supposed to accomplish. As children we all know what it is, but life gets in the way and we let our dreams die, blaming fate. He tells the boy that anytime someone is in need of his help, he appears in one form or another. Often throughout the book, the boy sees glimpses of Melchizedek in places or people when he is questioning his quest.
At the first meeting, the boy sees the gold bejeweled breastplate Melchizedek wears. Then, as the boy believes his tale, Melchizedek sends the boy off on his quest to find the treasure, which is his Personal Legend. Melchizedek pulls two stones from his breastplate, Urim and Thummim. One stone is white and one is black. He tells the boy that if he has a question, the stones will answer it. Black is for yes and white is for no.
The Englishman – the boy meets the Englishman while waiting for a caravan to travel across the Sahara. The Englishman has a lot of books on alchemy and is traveling to meet a 200 year old alchemist who knows the secret of turning metal into gold. He wants to learn from the alchemist. The Englishman has been studying alchemy for most of his life, but still can’t grasp the magic. He and the boy become friends and travel next to each other on camels. The alchemist is fascinated by the boy and his ability to listen to the world around him. They strike a deal to learn from each other. The boy reads all the books the alchemist-in-training has and learn what he can about alchemy and the Englishman learns to listen to the world around him. Become more zen. The last we see of the Englishman, he has met the great alchemist and is left with the task of finding his own way to the magic of turning metal into gold.
Fatima – the girl Santiago falls in love with. She is a woman of the dessert. The women know to wait for the men to come home. The men travel, the women wait. The boy meets her by the well every day for a while and then finally asks her to marry him. He’s ready to stay with her at the oasis and make his life. But, she tells him she will marry him, but only after he has completed his Personal Legend. She knows that if he doesn’t he will someday regret not finding it, and be unhappy. So, she promises to wait for him until he returns. Because true love should never get in the way of dreams.
The Alchemist – the greatest alchemist. He is rumored to be over 200 years old. Wearing all black, and hunting with a falcon, he is a man of mystery. The boy first hears of him from the Englishman, who wants to be his apprentice, but the reader soon learns the real apprentice of the alchemist is the boy. He then trains the boy to listen to his heart and learn the Language of the World. The alchemist helps the boy to find his Personal Legend and shows the boy his own Personal Legend,which is the Philosopher’s Stone, which he made, and the elixir of life, which is made with the philosopher’s stone and keeps him from getting sick or dying.