The Alchemist as Hero Tale
In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho explores the importance of following your dreams in order to have a fulfilling and successful life. The story opens with Santiago contemplating returning to a small town he had visited a year earlier with his sheep, when he fell in love with a young girl. He has become a shepherd because of a desire to see the world, yet he has seen little more than the wild places of Spain. He leaves Andalusia for Africa to seek his fortune, his goal being to discover his personal legend. Related in third person omniscent in a timeless universe that could as easily be the middle ages as it could be yesterday, Santiago’s quest is to find his treasure, which is not necessarily the gold coins he brings home with him.
Santiago is the protagonist of the story. He is a young man, ready to try his hand at the world and make his own decisions regarding his destiny. Recognizing this, his father offers him what would have been his inheritance if he wishes to purchase some sheep and become a shepherd, who can travel much more easily than can a farmer who is tied to his land. In this respect, he is exactly at the right age for the heroic quest as this is a quest that is typically undertaken just when the individual has reached early adolescence. He is guided by numerous individuals, beginning with the old king, Melchizedek, who sends him on his quest. He does this by pointing out to Santiago that “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” This guidance continues as Santiago meets up with the Englishman who introduces him to the concept of alchemy and the alchemist who helps him to learn the Language of the World. There isn’t really a true antagonist identified; however, the tribal warlord who captures Santiago and the alchemist forces Santiago to a new level of awareness by promising freedom if he can turn himself into the wind and death if he cannot.
The primary conflict faced by Santiago is the problem of whether he should continue to search for his treasure or if he should simply settle down and follow the ways of the societies in which he finds himself – the easier, safer route to travel. For example, when he arrives in Tangier, he is almost immediately robbed of all his money and left friendless and penniless in a city he’s completely unfamiliar with. While he initially falls into despair, further thought helps him overcome even this setback. “As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.” There are several instances where Santiago is tempted to remain where he is such as the crystal merchant’s shop and the oasis where Fatima lives, but he continues to be driven on by his mentors and his own realizations. While he eventually finds a treasure in the form of gold coins, the true treasure of the quest is his ability to speak with the Language of the World and accomplish what others would consider miracles through his direct realization of God within him.
The concept of the omen continues to drive the story forward. It is an omen in the form of a dream that sends Santiago to the fortune teller before moving on to the next town and the girl he thought he liked at the beginning of the story and it is an omen that he is forced to make his own decisions rather than using the rocks given him by Melchizedek, which have fallen out through a hole in his pouch. Down on his luck, he begins cleaning a few glasses for a crystal merchant and two new customers walk through the door to make purchases, which the crystal merchant interprets as an omen and hires Santiago to give him a new start. Santiago is able to prevent the heavy losses that would have inevitably followed a desert attack on the oasis by correctly interpreting the omen of the hawks flying above the desert and a scarab beetle shows him where to begin digging for his treasure before he is interrupted by the raider who inadvertently revealed its true location. Through this consistent portrayal of omens, Coelho continues to illustrate the interconnectedness of the individual with the divine and with the external, indicating how life will continue to give you what you want if you are in connection with it and know what you are seeking.
Reading through the book opened my eyes to a very simple-seeming philosophy that is often clouded with numerous exterior and unnecessary rituals and rules. Using the quest approach to discover the meaning within the book prevented me from being distracted by the brief love story of Santiago’s journey or simply passing over the story as a simple journey tale without much meaning and with fairly simplistic language. Analyzing the steps of the journey in terms of a heroic quest drew out the important elements of the story for me and really highlighted the philosophy of it more than the simple plotline. It also helped me to recognize the various characters that played important roles in Santiago’s life even though some of them may have seemed relatively minor.
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1995.