The Alchemist is the story of a boy who decides to follow his dreams. The young shepherd in this story sets off on an adventure to find the treasure he quite literally dreamed about one night.
Along the way, he meets many interesting people who help guide him in his quest for wisdom and riches. The Alchemist is but one of many significant people who act as guides illuminating the path the former shepherd must follow to learn to listen to his heart and discover his treasure.
Paolo Coelho has penned the almost perfect tale that mixes adventure with personal growth philosophy and wisdom. It is the kind of book where, even though you want to keep reading to see what happens next, you may find yourself pausing to contemplate some deep truth you’ve read that was casually woven into the narrative.
The main story opens with a young shepherd, whose name is Santiago, going into an abandoned church to rest. He needs to rest as he is always traveling with only his sheep and his book for company most of the time. The book also serves as a pillow, which is why he considers trading it in for a thicker book when he is finished reading it; the story will last longer and also make a more comfortable pillow.
While sleeping, the young boy dreams of treasure beyond his wildest imagination being buried near the pyramids of Egypt. In the dream, it is a young boy who shares this information. Because this information was shared with him by a child in the dream (and he has had the same dream more than once) he believes it must be true. The first person to give him the advice to go and seek out this treasure is a gypsy woman who does not charge him at the time; She only requests that he share a portion of his wealth once he has found it.
Unsure of what to do, the young shepherd contemplates if he should follow the gypsy’s instructions. He had really only ever known being a shepherd. And he was extremely good at it. Even though he felt some reservations, he had always longed to travel.
After meeting another man who claimed to be a king and who gave the young shepherd the same advice (and two stones to help make simple decisions), the boy sold his sheep and took off for treasure.
On his first day in the new city, the young man was robbed and everything he had was taken from him in a foreign land where he barely spoke the language. This delayed his search for the treasure as he had to regain what he had lost by taking a job working for the local crystal shop owner. During his year at the shop, he helped to make the shop owner’s business thrive again. While it was tempting for him to stay, or even to return to what he knew as a shepherd, he decided to continue on his search for the treasure he had dreamed about.
He would need to cross the desert to reach the pyramids in Egypt. So he joined a caravan where he met an Englishman who traveled with many books and claimed to be studying alchemy. The Englishman shared his books with the boy hoping that the boy may learn something from these many writings. When the boy shared what he had learned with a very basic question, the Englishman was disappointed and irritated that the boy didn’t learn anything. However, we learn later in the story that the boy’s question was very wise and that he did discover a certain truth; Often people get lost in complicating the questions and the quest, rather than focusing on and finding the simple answer.
Because there is a war in the desert, the caravan must take refuge at an oasis where it was supposed to be neutral territory during the conflict. Here, the shepherd turned treasure seeker, meets a young woman of the desert and falls deeply in love. The temptation to give up his quest is ever present in his heart. By this time the boy has met the alchemist that the Englishman had been searching for earlier in the story. The alchemist explained to the boy that if he settled down now, he would become restless and resentful after a few years, always wondering what could have been and knowing he had given up his quest.
So the alchemist decides to travel with the boy and help him along his journey even though the war in the desert has not stopped and traveling would be dangerous for both of them. The former shepherd said goodbye to the woman of the desert, promising to return to her once his quest was over.
Soon the alchemist and the boy found themselves captured. The alchemist made a bargain with the leader. They gave the boy three days to perform an unusual miracle that involved transforming himself into an element of nature. The most important lesson through these three days may have had less to do with the upcoming act of impossible wizardry, and more to do with the practical advice to not show fear to your enemies.
Somehow the boy was able to perform the impossible feat, or maybe the world was just on his side on this particular day, and he was set free to continue his quest.
Despite the somewhat predictable ending (although there is one final slight twist regarding the specific location of the treasure) the story conveys a delightful adventure sprinkled generously with common sense wisdom for those who find the value in such things.
According to one line in the book, “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; Only wise men are able to understand them.”
Paolo Coelho’s simple storytelling is entertaining and deep without being preachy or condescending in any way. Coelho has a knack for seeing into the depths of human nature and holding a mirror to our souls and psyche.
Throughout this story, Santiago is often tempted to settle down and give up on his dreams. However, as the book says, “It’s the possibility of having our dreams come true that makes life interesting.”
Some of the people who come into his life try to talk him out of following his dreams while other push him towards pursuing them. This is determined to be a good thing because, instead of fueling confusion and inner conflict, he learns to listen to his own heart and make decisions for himself regarding his path and his future.
The way some of the people he runs into who encourage him because they recognize what is in his heart is somewhat reminiscent of the way one of C.S. Lewes’s characters would be able to recognize a fellow traveler who had been to Narnia; There is just a certain fellowship to that kind of connection.
The book focuses a great deal on the ways of the world and how when we listen and pay attention to the world around us, the universe will conspire to give us everything we want in life. The story also shows how the shepherd must listen to the omens that the world provides as he struggles to find his way.
One thing that this book deserves much respect for is that it gives equal respect to all religions mentioned within. Muslims and Christians are treated with the same respect because “the same hand created everything.”
While most of the story was realistic (though full of coincidence), the part about the impossible act of transmogrification seemed to be a bit outlandish. Suddenly the boy was speaking to the wind, and the wind was talking back! Then the boy and the wind were talking to the sun. The sun was talking about the relationship it had with the Earth. Even though the story was well written and contained so much wisdom (even in this section), it just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story. Yes, in the prologue there was a story about a lake who spoke about its relationship with Narcissus. However, this could be self-contained. Natural elements being personified and speaking does not occur again until near the very end of the book.
Despite this one minor criticism, this is a book that should be on everyone’s “must-read” list. Not just once, but yearly. Some influencers (such as Lewes Howes of The School of Greatness podcast and New York Times bestselling author) claim to read the book once a year. This may be the best way to read a book like this. It is the kind of book that may speak to its readers in different ways depending on where they are in their personal journey.