The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a charmingly written story that reads like a modern day fable, with insights into life, love, travel, and self-actualization scattered liberally throughout. It follows the journey of a young shepherd, named Santiago, from Spain, who seeks to actualize his Personal Legend, which he has learned about from a disguised king he meets. The Personal Legend is something everyone knows when they are young, and the universe will conspire to help one achieve it, giving one a taste of success through blessings and omens. The principle of favorability says that when one does something for the first time, one receives success, to whet one’s appetite for further pursuit. Santiago’s Personal Legend he sees in a dream, treasure which is supposedly located in Egypt near the Pyramids. After consulting a Gypsy and the king, he decides to strike out across Africa, guided by the omens of the universe, to seek his treasure.
The novel also touches on negative issues, on failings and suffering and how they relate to the pursuit of one’s dreams. For example, the king tells Santiago the world’s greatest lie is that “‘at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.’” He reiterates that we always have the choice to pursue our dreams, to follow the omens that help us; we do not ever need to give this up to fate. Another negative idea the king says is that “‘Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.’” If we do not appreciate our blessings, if we reject, ignore, or overlook them, they turn into a curse and we suffer from them. Likewise, the alchemist Santiago meets on his way to Egypt says “‘The omens will abandon you, because you’ve stopped listening to them.’” This goes along with the idea that luck is provided to all, but it stays with only those who listen and take the initiative to follow it.
The turning of the climax of the novel also comes from negative roots. Santiago reaches the Pyramids and begins digging for treasure in the sand. While he digs, a group of rough Arabs approaches and threatens him. One of them says that he was told in a dream that there was a sycamore growing out of the ruined church in Spain where shepherds slept. He says he “‘was told that, if I dug at the roots of the sycamore, I would find a hidden treasure. But I’m not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.’” The men leave, but the clue tells Santiago where his treasure is, ironically back home in Spain. This negative encounter led to the most beautiful resolution of his problem, directing him to the ending of his Personal Legend.
The novel also contains many other insights about life, such as when the camel driver knows that “any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things.” Similarly, the alchemist says, “‘all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.’” This shows that all we need to do to understand the whole world is understand well just one thing. Another insight is when the alchemist tells some armed Arab tribesman he has the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, and they laugh at him. He tells Santiago, one of life’s simple lessons is that “‘When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.’” Finally, another insight is an Arab proverb that says, “‘“Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”’” These insights make the novel well worth reading and provide ideas to think about.