I started reading The Alchemist soon after its publication in 1988, but I didn’t finish it then, for reasons I don’t clearly remember. I picked it up again after author and writing friend, Amy Rogers, recommended the book for its affinity with the folk and fairytales I’ve recently spent so much time writing about.
She was right. This time the story drew me in with its “Once upon a time” feeling. It is not a fairytale by any measure; it’s far too sophisticated, yet it’s filled with folklorish magic. The hero, Santiago, is named just once, when we meet him. Through the rest of the tale, he is simply “the boy.” Ironically, this generic quality, so typical of fairytales, allows us to identify with his journey, project our own yearnings into his far more closely than a modern, “three dimensional” characterization would have allowed. In addition, the plot twist that ends The Alchemist is drawn directly from a folktale that appears around the world.
The Alchemist is a tale of spiritual self-realization. From the start, Santiago tries to follow his “personal legend,” a term taken from alchemy. At first, it is an instinct. His search becomes explicit after a gypsy tells him his treasure lies near the pyramids. A “chance” meeting with Melchizedek , the mysterious priest and king mentioned in Genesis, sets him on the path after he witnesses the unrequited longing of those who abandon the quest for their legends for the sake of expediency. In order to follow his personal legend, Santiago learns to listen to the Soul of the World in his heart. The world soul, or Anima Mundi is one of the key principles in the alchemical manuscripts that survive.
Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro. When he was a teenager and told his mother he wanted to be a writer, she praised the steadiness of his father, an engineer, and asked if he knew what it meant to be a writer. After research, Coelho concluded that a writer, “always wears glasses and never combs his hair” and “has a duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation.”
At age 16, because of his introversion and refusal to follow a traditional career path, his parents had him committed to a mental institution from which he escaped three times before his release at age 20. He agreed to attend law school but dropped out to become a hippie and travel through South America, Mexico, North Africa, and Europe. Upon his return to Brazil, he worked as a song writer, an actor, journalist, and theatre director.
In 1986, he walked the 500 mile pilgrimage road of Santiago de Compostela to the cathedral where St. James the apostle’s remains are believed to be buried. Since the middle ages, it has been one of three major Christian pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome and Jerusalem. On the way, Coelho had a spiritual awakening, which he described in his autobiographical novel, The Pilgrimage, 1987. He published The Alchemist the following year, with a small Brazilian publisher that ran 900 copies and decided against a reprint. Sales now total 65 million.
I do not clearly remember why I disliked The Alchemist when I first read it more than 20 years ago. I suspect, to put it in Santiago’s language, that at the time, I feared I’d lost hold of my own personal legend. I’m glad I picked up The Alchemist again. Our world is darker, harder, and more cynical now, and more than ever I think we need Coelho’s gentle parable. However difficult it may be, it’s good to try to remember this conversation between King Melchizedek and Santiago:
“What’s 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.”