Summary of “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho: The Alchemist is a philosophical fable that tells the journey of a young shepherd who believes he is on a quest to find treasure. As his journey unfolds, he comes to understand that he is really on a spiritual quest. Reader can identify with the hero of the story and understand that each of us must follow our own dreams and that we must do so whatever the cost. That is the meaning of life.
By Paulo Coelho, 1994, 189 pages.
Original title: O Alquimista
Chronicle and summary of “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho:
The Alchemist is the start of a philosophical discussion about each person’s place in society. There is a story by Oscar Wilde about Narcissus, a young man who liked to gaze at his own reflection in a lake. It makes the point that our self-esteem largely depends on the importance we give to what other people think.
Note: This is a guest article by Nicolas Galli of the blog “Développer sa confiance”
The young shepherd Santiago was minding his sheep when he began to think about the closeness between him and his herd. More than just closeness, there was a kind of a bond between them. He felt sure that they could understand him. That is why he liked to read them passages from books that made an impression on him. He would tell them about his loneliness and the happiness of his life as a nomad. Lately, his main topic of conversation had been the young girl that he would soon meet again, on his next visit to her father’s shop.
Santiago met a young dark-haired girl while waiting to sell the wool from his sheep in the town. When they first met, she was surprised to see a shepherd take a book from his bag. He told her about his life and his travels. For once, he was able to talk to someone other than his animals! “Well, if you know how to read, why are you just a shepherd?” asked the merchant’s daughter. He was sure she would not understand his taste for the nomadic life. The young shepherd simply wanted to enjoy spending time with her. He realised that this was something he had never felt before.
Now, in four days, he would be back in the village. He could hardly disguise his impatience at the thought of meeting the young girl again, although he tried to brace himself against disappointment. What if she had forgotten him?
As he watched his sheep, Santiago, began to think about whether it was a lucky or unlucky thing not to have to make any decisions… At the end of the day, his sheep did nothing but follow their master, he thought to himself. The boy thought about his dream he had not reached the end of, and stopped complaining about the weight of the jacket he had to wear despite the heat of the day. He weighed things up. He was not cold at dawn thanks to his jacket. This time, he would explain to the young girl how a young shepherd knew how to read.
Although he came from a family of limited means, his parents wanted him to become a priest. And so, he became a student. But it was more important for him to discover the world than to know God. After explaining his choice to his parents, who tried to dissuade him, Santiago’s father gave him some gold coins and his blessing.
Nothing in the world could make him exchange this life of adventure for the life of a man of religion. The fact that every day brought a new adventure was precious to him. His sheep did not realise how lucky they were to discover new landscapes every day. With each day drawing him closer to the hypothetical encounter with the merchant’s daughter, Santiago mused that the possibility of having a dream come true is what makes life interesting.
When he reached Tarifa, his next stop, Santiago met an old Gypsy woman who knew how to interpret dreams. He asked her to explain the meaning of the dream he had already had twice. In the dream, a child was playing with his sheep and then took him to the Pyramids of Egypt where she told him that there was a hidden treasure. He began to think the old woman was crazy when she refused payment for the visit, but instead asked him for one tenth of the treasure. The Gypsy’s interpretation was that he must go the Pyramids.
Disappointed, the young man went on his way, enjoying the freedom that allowed him to meet new people every day. Then Santiago met and began to talk with an old man. The old man had some surprising things to say. His point seemed to be that human beings are controlled by destiny. The old man said his name was Melchizedek and that he was king of Salem. Santiago was sceptical about this claim. The man’s probing questions began to irritate the young shepherd and he decided to end the conversation. Then the man asked him to give him one of his sheep… in exchange for an explanation about how to find the hidden treasure.
After a brief, yet convincing show of his gift of foresight, Melchizedek said he wanted to help him because he deserved it. He had successfully achieved his destiny. According to the king, Santiago had succeeded in following what every person has inside them, from their youngest age, to realise their destiny. When you sincerely and deeply want something, this desire is born in the Soul of the Universe. “…When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” When the young shepherd asked the king why he was giving him this advice, the answer was simple: “Because you are at the point where you’re about to give it all up.” Melchizedec explained that this was his role and that he would reveal information to help Santiago find his treasure in exchange for one tenth of his herd.
After these two encounters, Santiago thought about what he had learned. In his opinion, he understood, in particular, the importance of freedom. He understood that the sheep, the merchant’s daughter and the plains of Andalusia were all steps on the path to his destiny.
The next day dawned, and in exchange for six sheep, he received the information from the old King that the treasure was to be found in Egypt, near the Pyramids. His advice was to remain attentive to signs from God and he gave Santiago two precious stones that would help him make decisions by himself. He would simply always have to ask himself objective questions. Before allowing him to leave, the old king told him a story that revealed the secret of happiness – being able to see the wonders of the world without forgetting what counts the most to you.
When he arrived in Tangiers, wondering what signs from the sky that Melchizedek had told him about he would see, Santiago was a little confused by all the cultural differences he saw. By chance, he met a young Arab boy who soon gained his trust and he offered to guide him across the Sahara Desert to the Pyramids. Unfortunately, his judgement was too hasty, and all his money was stolen. He found himself alone, without his flock, in a strange country where he did not speak the language. He cried because God was so unfair, and regretted having dared to believe in his dreams.
In the end, he was like everyone else. He was seeing the world the way he wanted things to happen and not the way that they truly happened. The young shepherd felt reassured that his quest was legitimate by questioning the two stones the old King had given him. He now understood that there are some things in life that you should not know ahead of time, so that you cannot escape your destiny.
With no possessions, Santiago now faced his adventure with the eyes of a free man. He realised that what he could read on the faces of others were the traces of their destiny, based on the satisfaction on their faces.
There was a crystal merchant who had been selling precious stones for 30 years. This business held no secrets for him. But business was declining from year to year. One day, a young stranger of modest appearance entered his shop.
The shepherd agreed to clean the vases for sale in the windows in exchange for a meal. When he noticed the beneficial effect on his sales, the merchant asked the boy to work for him. He also discouraged him from following his dream of going to Egypt. Even if he saved every penny of his wages, he would not have enough money to get to Egypt. Seeing that the young shepherd was disappointed, the merchant offered him enough money to return to his own country. The shepherd thought for a moment, and decided to continue with his quest, finally accepting to work for the merchant long enough to buy some new sheep.
Time went by and the young man continued to work well for the merchant. But the merchant found it hard to change his ways. He was afraid that if he took risks, he would be less successful. His employee explained that he should trust omens and believe in the principle of favourability that encourages beginners to achieve their destiny. When he saw how persistent the young shepherd was obstinacy in wanting to reach the Pyramids, the merchant confided that he was reluctant to realise his dreams because he was afraid that he would no longer have a goal once he achieved them.
One evening, after closing the shop, the merchant spoke to the young shepherd and admitted that he had been a blessing to him. Without this new point of view, he would have tried nothing new and would have been unhappy because he would have wasted his life. However, he also recognised that he could no longer hide from the truth – his destiny was in his own hands. This scared him. “Maktub” he pronounced. “It is written.”
By applying his employee’s idea to offer tea in crystal glasses to passers-by in the hilly street, the merchant’s business thrived.
Nine months after he arrived in Africa, the young shepherd saw his plans come to fruition. He had enough money to buy 120 sheep and his boss had enough money to achieve his lifelong dream of visiting Mecca. One evening, when preparing tea, the merchant surprised him by saying… “Maktub! Neither you nor I will realise our dreams! ”
When he parted ways with the merchant, even though he had planned to turn around and go back to Spain, the country from which he came, the shepherd thought that there was a universal language that everyone could understand. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, as part of a search for something believed in and desired. He hesitated, thinking that perhaps the merchant was right. After all, if he went back to being a shepherd, he would know what he was doing…
But no! In the end, he thought that there was no great risk in attempting adventure. At the end of the day, life had given him the money and now he had the time. “I am always nearby, when someone wants to realise their destiny,” the King of Salem had told him. He had nothing to lose by taking the path towards his treasure, the path to the Pyramids.
An English traveller he met along with way was waiting for a caravan. This clever man spoke several languages, knew all about religion, and had decided to seek out the Philosopher’s Stone. To do this, he had to find an Alchemist, someone he had been told could turn any metal into gold.
In the caravan that was leading them to Egypt, the young shepherd realised that the decisions we make in life are really just the beginning of something new. Without encouragement, almost against his will, he began a conversation with the Englishman who explained that he was also travelling to Al-Fayoum looking for an Alchemist.
The two men had the fact that they were European in common, as well as their belief that there is no such thing as coincidence. Destiny sometimes sends us challenges in order to meet certain people. “The closer one gets to realising his destiny, the more that destiny becomes his true reason for being,” thought the boy.
The Englishman spent all his time engrossed in his books. The caravan moved along, sometimes avoiding obstacles, but never losing sight of its goal. When he got talking to one of the camel drivers, the man confessed that his life had convinced him to believe in Allah, who one day said that people should not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want. “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand,” said the camel driver.
Santiago advised the Englishman to pay more attention to the caravans. According to him, “We make a lot of detours, but we’re always heading for the same destination.” The Englishman swore by his books, believing that they served the same purpose. The two men came to agree that they both had progress to make. For Santiago, although the desert was dangerous, it allowed the caravan to pass through it because they spoke the same universal language.
Why did his travel companion carry so many books? “So, we can understand those few lines,” the Englishman answered, mentioning the most important works about Alchemy. Once he had explained that the Philosopher’s Stone purified the soul as well as turning any metal into gold, the young man became very interested. But he understood that achieving the Master Work would not be easy…
Although the Englishman was frustrated that the shepherd had only retained a small part of the information in his books, he accepted that they each had their own way of learning. He respected him chiefly because, like him, he was in search of his own destiny.
The camel driver did not seem particularly worried about the threat of war that was increasingly felt around them. He explained to the young man that he was only interested in the present moment. “Life is the moment we’re living right now.”
The caravan reached its destination and the shepherd realised that he still had a long way to go before he reached the Pyramids. But from now on, he would live for the moment and moving forward, he would try to live with the lessons from his past and the dreams of his future.
When the Alchemist saw the caravan arrive at the Oasis, he knew that he would have to teach some of his secrets to a person unknown to him as yet.
The boy knew that he was safe in the oasis, sheltered from the wars between the desert clans. He also understood that what the old king had called “beginner’s luck” would no longer operate. He knew that from now on, only persistence and courage would help him achieve his destiny.
Along with the Englishman, they set off in search of the Alchemist, but realised that the oasis was much larger than they had imagined. What’s more, the people that lived there did not seem to want to help them with their search. They were two strangers who did not seem to have much respect for tradition. At that moment, the young shepherd locked eyes with the person he knew would become the love of his life. When their eyes met, he understood the universal language of love. He felt certain that a twin soul existed for every person in the world. “It is the hand that evokes love.” “Maktub,” he said to himself. Her name was Fatima.
The Englishman was very disappointed with the only piece of advice the Alchemist gave him: “Go and try!” when he asked him whether he had ever tried to turn lead into gold.
The shepherd told the young girl how he felt and asked her to be his wife. The war now seemed to him to be a blessing because it had brought him to Fatima. She also believed in omens and knew that their meeting had been written. However, despite this, she encouraged the young man to achieve his destiny. If she was part of his dream, then he would come back to her sooner or later.
The Englishman built a furnace outside his tent in the hope of reaching his goal. He accepted events in life philosophically. It was not that he had wasted many years on his studies; on the contrary, he had lots of time remaining.
The camel driver wanted to see his future, because men live in relation to their future, he said. So, he visited the seer who explained that only God decided to send omens, and that he did so only rarely. The reason was that as far as God was concerned, the written future can be changed.
The young shepherd, having seen a vision of a forthcoming attack on the caravan, went to warn the tribal chieftains. “Why would the desert reveal such things to a stranger, when it knows we have been here for generations?” they asked. “Because my eyes are not yet accustomed to the desert,” the boy said. “I can see things that eyes habituated to the desert might not see.” The elder agreed to break with tradition and prepare for war. He promised Santiago money if the prediction turned out to be true, but death if the opposite turned out to be the case.
He had reached through to the soul of the world, but perhaps this would not be a blessing for him. At that moment, a huge horseman appeared in a cloud of dust. He was not worried about the danger. He would die for his destiny. Faced with the threat of the horseman’s sword, his coherent explanations and his belief in the existence of a Soul of the World saved him. The boy had met the alchemist.
The next day, as the shepherd had predicted, the oasis came under attack, but the tribespeople defended it easily. The shepherd received fifty pieces of gold and was offered a position as counsellor of the oasis.
The alchemist invited the boy to his tent to talk. “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realise his dream,” he said, repeating the words of the old king. Santiago understood that another man was on his path, the one that would lead him to his destiny. Despite the war between the clans, the alchemist offered to point him in the right direction through the desert, because he was ready. “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You’ve got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.”
The alchemist asked the boy to show him life in the desert as a sign that he could find treasure. When he admitted that he was not sure to be able to find life in the desert, the alchemist explained that life attracts life. When asked why it was so important to know the desert, the alchemist explained that it was because the Pyramids are in the middle of the desert. But the shepherd’s heart was no longer in his quest. He didn’t want to give up Fatima to go into the desert.
Then the alchemist explained that he could put off realising his destiny by settling down in the oasis with Fatima, but his destiny would catch up with him sooner or later. “Love never keeps a man from pursuing his destiny.” In the end, the boy decided to follow the alchemist and felt peace settle in his heart.
Having made his decision, the boy needed to see Fatima and explain that he was going to leave, but that he would return. He told her that his love was related to the fact that the universe conspired to help him find her. The young girl felt sad at the news. From now on, she would feel the oasis to be an empty place and the desert to be the promise of the return of the man she loved.
On the path that led through the desert, the alchemist told Santiago not to think about what he had left behind. “If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil.” Santiago was surprised when the alchemist told him that he was almost at the end of his journey. He congratulated him for pursuing his destiny. “And you’ve told me nothing along the way,” said the boy. “There is only one way to learn,” the alchemist answered. “It’s through action.” His journey was what was teaching him. The alchemist explained that if he wanted to understand the world, he would have to listen to his heart. His heart also came from the Soul of the World.
As they continued on their way, the boy tried to listen to his heart. “Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked. “Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.” The shepherd felt his heart to be agitated. He kept him from sleeping, made him emotional and passionate. The alchemist reassured him: “Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive.” If you know your heart well, it will never take you by surprise. The boy accepted this advice and stopped feeling scared. He no longer wanted to turn back. “Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. Unfortunately, few people follow the path laid out for them.
On the road, the alchemist demonstrated another law of the world. When three armed tribesmen stopped them, the alchemist told them that he was carrying a philosopher’s stone that could turn metal into gold, as well as the elixir of life. The three men responded to these revelations with laughter. The boy was amazed that his travelling companion would take such a risk by revealing his secrets, but the alchemist explained that there was nothing to fear. The men did not believe in the treasure.
When they had only two more days of walking to reach the pyramids, the boy pressed the wise man to teach him the secrets of alchemy. “You already know about alchemy. “It is about penetrating to the Soul of the World, and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you.” he said. But the shepherd wanted to know the secret that would allow him to turn lead into gold. As the sun was setting, the two men found themselves encircled by an army of tribesmen.
The two travellers were taken to the chieftain and the alchemist presented himself as the boy’s guide. He said that the boy was capable of destroying the camp by using his powers to transform into the wind. The men laughed. The chieftain took him at his word and gave him three days to carry out his prophecy. If unsuccessful, the pair would offer up their lives. “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure,” answered the alchemist when the boy told him that he did not know how to turn into the wind. “The world is only the visible aspect of God. And what alchemy does is to bring spiritual perfection into contact with the material plain,” he added.
The three days went by and on the third day, the whole clan gathered together around the shepherd. The boy looked at the horizon and spoke to the sands of the desert.
The desert advised him to speak to the wind. The wind had overheard the conversation because the winds know everything.
“Who taught you to speak the language of the desert and the wind?” asked the wind. “My heart,” the boy answered.
“That is what we call love.”
Faced with the shepherd’s determination, the proud wind became irritated. It started to blow harder and advised Santiago to speak to another power.
So, the boy spoke to the sun.
“If you know about love, you must also know about the Soul of the World, because it’s made of love.”
“It’s true that everything has its destiny, but one day that destiny will be realised. So, each thing must transform itself into something better, and acquire a new destiny, until, someday, the Soul of the World becomes one thing only.
“…it’s not love to be static like the desert, nor is it loves to roam the world like the wind. And it’s not love to see everything from a distance, like you do,” ended the boy.
“Speak to the hand that wrote all,” said the sun.
The wind screamed with delight, and blew harder than ever. So, the boy turned to the hand that wrote all, before reaching through to the Soul of the World and seeing that it was a part of the Soul of God.
He saw that he, a boy, could perform miracles.
The alchemist smiled because he had found his perfect disciple.
When they arrived at a Coptic monastery, the alchemist left the boy alone to continue his journey. “I only invoked what you already know,” he replied to the boy as he thanked him. Before leaving, the alchemist turned some lead into gold for the astonished boy. When he asked whether he too could learn to do that one day, the alchemist replied that this was his destiny, not the boy’s. Before they separated, he told Santiago one last story, filled with new teachings: “No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.” With those words, the men said goodbye to each other.
The young shepherd wandered through the desert, trying to listen attentively to any messages that his heart was sending him. The alchemist had clearly said that his heart would tell him the exact location of the treasure. “Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears. That’s where I am, and that’s where your treasure is.” At the top of a dune, his heart leapt inside his chest. Before him stood the majestic and imposing pyramids.
He fell to his knees and wept. From now on, he could retrace his steps, return to the oasis and find Fatima again. But no project is complete until its objective has been achieved. The young shepherd looked down and noticed that a scarab beetle was scuttling in the sand in the place where his tears had fallen. He knew from experience gained since the start of his journey that this animal was a symbol of God. The young shepherd decided to start digging in that exact spot. After a while, tired out by his task, he was interrupted by three refugees from the war. They beat him and raided his belongings, asking what he was doing there.
“What good is money to you if you are going to die?” the alchemist had said to him one day. “I’m digging for treasure!” he cried. After explaining the story of how he got there, the three men left him, face down, thinking he was crazy. Crazy for crossing a desert based on a dream he had twice. He stood and looked at the pyramids. They seemed to laugh at him, and he laughed back, his heart bursting with joy. Because now he know where his treasure was.
Santiago reached the small, abandoned church. He remembered the road he had taken since and thought that if he had not believed in his dreams, he would never have met the gypsy, never crossed paths with the thief, never talked with the king… But he also realised that he had been guided by many signs along the way and that, in the end, he could not go wrong. He began to dig, until he found a chest of gold coins and precious stones. “It’s true. Life really is generous to those who pursue their destiny, the boy thought. The wind began to blow, bringing the scent of a perfume he recognised. “I’m coming, Fatima,” he said.
Conclusion about The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho:
“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is one of the major classics among what I would describe as personal development books. Through the story of the young shepherd, the author helps us understand that we must all seek to realise our dreams at our own level. This book is a wonderful ode to life! Paulo Coelho invites readers to remove their “cement slippers.” They must dare to change the course of their destiny and live out their most personal dreams.
After reading this book, I felt an uncontrollable desire to make a list of all the projects I had not yet accomplished in my life, and do away with all the limiting beliefs that I had set in my path. Fear holds us back too often, preventing us from personal achievement.
Read “The Alchemist” and you will understand that nothing is impossible for someone who truly wants to realise their dreams! This book symbolises to perfection the saying “God helps those who help themselves.” You will realise your own destiny and live the life you have always dreamed of.
Nicolas Galli from the blog Développer sa confiance
- The book is very easy to read. The words and the author’s style are simple.
- The Alchemist is a natural and very subtle invitation to readers to draw a parallel between the story of the main character and their own life. While reading, and especially afterwards, Paulo Coelho encourages us to ask about our own life. Are we on the right road? Have we realised our deepest dreams? Have we tried to realise our dreams using every means?
- This book is more than a call to reflection; it persuades us that there is not a minute to lose. It is a call to action.
- I believe that the only “weakness” in the book is related to its qualities. It is much too short… When you get to the end, the only thing you will want to do is continue your personal reflection!
My rating :
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