I first read the Alchemist 20 or so years ago, and I was captivated. A story, which is really a parable/fable, about a young boy, who is actually a shepherd, who is searching—for an ineffable something. What’s not to love? A quest story woven through with innocence.
I just reread the Alchemist. And I have to say, it wasn’t all I remembered it to be, mostly because of the ending. Santiago, the young shepherd, wanted to travel, to have an interesting life, and to find a treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. The story follows the classic Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. Santiago meets an old woman who he thinks is probably a Gypsy, and she reads his palm. He meets a wise old man, the King of Salem, who warns Santiago of the world’s greatest lie, “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.” From the King, Santiago learns about Personal Legends, what you always wanted to accomplish; the Soul of the World, which is nourished by people’s happiness; he learns about the language of omens; and the importance of following your Personal Legend through to its conclusion. The last piece of advice the King of Salem shares with Santiago is that the secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and to never forget to care for the drops of oil on the spoon he carried.
Santiago earns money to fund his journey, and he foolishly loses it. He earns some more money to fund his journey and is robbed. He works for a crystal merchant from whom he learns about the principle of favorability. The merchant dreams about making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (or perhaps his dream is to dream about the dream of going to Mecca).
Finally, Santiago prepares to join a caravan on its way through the desert to Egypt. He meets an English man rich in books and book learning who is searching for a famous alchemist. From the English man, Santiago learns about the Soul of the World—the principle that governs all things. At an oasis, Santiago meets Fatima, and together they learn the meaning of love without ownership. Yes, Santiago meets the Alchemist. There are warring chieftains, there are trials and challenges for Santiago to confront and overcome and from which he learns.
There are no spoilers here. You will have to read the book to learn the ending. But I will say this. I wanted a different ending. Paulo Coelho is a master of the craft of storytelling. The Alchemist is an engaging fable. It made me think. It opened my heart and mind in some ways. And it left me wondering, what if a woman had written it? What if Santiago was a girl? What if the story was Fatima’s story? Ah, the joy of what ifs. Thank you Paulo Coelho. Maybe I’m not so disappointed after all.