The Alchemist is the story of an initiatory journey: the search for something secret, concerning the mysterious ability of listening to one’s own heart.
The Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago loves travelling and for this reason he has become a shepherd. However, he keeps being troubled by something his heart is trying to say to him. In fact, it speaks a strange and wonderful language he can not understand and he needs to learn how to.
The dream and the journey
Even before knowing what an Alchemist is, Santiago is hunted by a recurring dream. He sees a treasure that he is destined to find in the middle of the desert. Therefore he decides to go on an adventure after it. His journey is both real and symbolic. In fact, the search for gold is hardly the only reason for him to leave. Rather, his fundamental impulse is related to the need to reach a harmony with world through a deep knowledge of his inner self.
So we see him crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to enter a new world. There, he soon realises the dangers of being far from home and the need to sharpen his senses. As a matter of fact, they have to be working in a faster, more instinctive and bolder way.
Since he is surrounded by a different reality he has to be able to grasp the signs and symbols of an universal language able to transcend the barriers of diversity.
Alchemy and the Alchemist
“The universe is shaped by a language that everyone understands, but that has been now forgotten. I am looking for this universal language, and many other things. That is the reason why I am here. I need to find a man who knows this universal language. An Alchemist.”
Alchemy is the art that aims at the transmutation of base metals into noble ones, and at the search for the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Immortality.
More broadly it consists in transferring spiritual perfection to the material level. So in this sense, the Alchemist is the man who knows the nature and the world in the deepest way.
The concept of the dream, with that of the journey, represents one of the fundamental themes of the novel. The dream is a desire not only for material objects but rather for reaching a total harmony with the world.
In order to implement such a bold mission he needs to get the comprehension of the universal language of courage, trust and wisdom the men have forgotten.
“The soul of the world is fuelled by the happiness of men. Or even by unhappiness, envy and jealousy. Realising one own Persona Legend is the only duty of men. Everything is a whole. When a person really desires something, the entire universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream”
The initiatory journey as a modern fairy tale
The book relates ideally to The Pilgrimage written by Coelho in 1987 on his journey on the road to Santiago. However it distances itself from it as The Alchimist has a symbolic and allegorical nature.
The symbolism is increased by the structure of plot. In fact, it follows some of the stages of the traditional initiatory journey. These are best outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, later developed by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. They are: ordinary world, the call to adventure, meeting with the mentor, entering the extraordinary world and return with an “elixir”.
The use of this structure has been proven by Campbell to recall a fundamental path of the unconscious dynamics and this helps the reader to rapidly empathise with Santiago.
He grows to represent an unconscious part of personality. A voice that, more o less loudly, whispers in everyone’s ears, telling about the multifaceted nature of life and the beauty of adventure.
Moreover, here, Coelho chooses to keep his narrative style simple. It results a readable and clear prose that frames complex topics within the atmosphere fairy tales.
A few thoughts
The book has a huge success. In fact, it is able to treat cryptic subjects such as mysticism, initiation and magic in a plain way. However, some have deemed the simple style to lead to an oversimplification of profound matters.
I’ve read the novel few years ago and I remember it as an engaging story able to convey a positive vision of the world and of human relations. Especially when picturing the relationship between Santiago an his mentor, the Alchemist.
In conclusion I think it would be nice to meet someone who can help you to understand the importance of dreams, showing you how to follow them. Someone who can help you give value to the idea of journey, meant not as a merely geographical movement, but rather as an occasion to question things and reach a greater emotional knowledge.