The Alchemist (Coelho): Essay Q&A
1. How does the traditional theme of the conflict of Man versus Nature appear in the novel?
In The Alchemist, the young shepherd Santiago sets out on adventure, leaving his native Spain to cross the Egyptian desert, where he confronts many challenges. Like in most stories that include the theme of Man versus Nature, the boy faces the perils of the desert heat and lack of water and even a sandstorm. However, unlike the majority of novels centered around this theme, Nature also helps the protagonist overcome the challenges that face him, more frequently at the hands of his fellow man. While Man versus Nature is among the themes of the novel, Nature more often supports than threatens Santiago.
When Santiago first arrives in the Arab market, he is approached by a youth around his age who tricks him and steals his money. Thus it is a fellow human, rather than Nature, who first presents the former shepherd with a trial to overcome. Having left a solitary life tending sheep in relative peace with nature, this betrayal stuns Santiago, who calms himself by touching the magical stones and then falls asleep in the bustling marketplace as though it were an open pasture. He considers his environment primarily a safe place in which to pursue his treasure.
Santiago awakens one day ready to leave the crystal merchant’s shop, and joins the caravan bound for Al-Fayoum. The main obstacles in their way are not sandstorms, but rather the warring tribesmen who continually block their progress. During a stop at the oasis, Santiago interprets an image he has of two hawks circling overhead. The local alchemist has been awaiting this sign, so yet again Santiago’s ability to interact with animals has brought him closer to realizing his destiny. Just as he had chosen to tend sheep in order to travel, now interpreting the behavior of the hawks has earned him the attention of the legendary alchemist.
As the alchemist escorts Santiago toward the Pyramids, they are captured by men who agree to release them if they can turn themselves into the wind. Santiago is terrified, and recognizes it is well beyond his abilities as a mere mortal. He turns to nature as an ally, consulting with the desert, the sun, the wind and finally the hand that wrote all for their help. He is amazed to find himself transported to the alchemist’s side when the frenzied sandstorm dies down. So although sandstorms generally represent a danger to people, in Santiago’s case one has saved his life.
While the theme of Man versus Nature is evident in The Alchemist as its protagonist undertakes an epic quest, Nature is more of an ally of Santiago’s than his enemy as he confronts primarily challenges set by himself and his fellow men.
2. Why does Santiago leaves his flock in southern Spain to journey across the unfamiliar Egyptian desert, and why does he meets Fatima and the alchemist on an oasis in the middle of it?
Santiago’s repeated dreams about the treasure by the Pyramids awaken his spirit to venture beyond the confines of his homeland to discover more about himself and about life. Unlike the baker whose youthful ambition to venture further in life was surpassed by his wish for comfort and stability, Santiago is able to prioritize discovery of his own Personal Legend over all else. He at first doubts the meaning of his dream, and hesitates to heed the gypsy fortuneteller in setting out for Egypt. But the appearance of the spiritual king Melchizedek persuades him that he must embark on this quest to be at peace with himself.
The metaphor of a desert is frequently used to suggest a barren point in one’s life, and just as his fellow travelers in the journey of life find highs and lows along the way, it is no coincidence that Paulo Coelho has moved his protagonist from Spain to Egypt across the Sahara. Although Santiago enjoys the company of the caravan, the overall meaning of the desert is a place devoid of life. It is therefore fitting that Santiago meets both Fatima, the girl he loves, and the alchemist, the mentor who will help him fulfill his Personal Legend, at the oasis of Al-Fayoum. The oasis in literature represents a place of healing and regeneration, and in Santiago’s case it is of both his body and spirit. Water and trees abound, and the oasis is literally teeming with life, especially of the human variety. Santiago saves the lives of thousands by interpreting his vision for the village chieftains. Although he is tempted to stay on at the oasis as counselor to be with Fatima, he knows the alchemist is right in urging him onward to first finish what he has started.
The contrast in symbolism between the desert and oasis, with the tranquil Spanish pasture and the magnificent Egyptian pyramids at either end of his journey, shows that Santiago has ventured well beyond the metaphor of his own house to truly interact with the world and experience life to the fullest.
3. What role does reading play in the novel?
In the opening scene, the protagonist is described as a young shepherd who lies down to sleep in a church, using the book he just finished reading as a pillow. The juxtaposition of tending sheep, religion and reading so early on suggest three central themes in Santiago’s life at the point the story begins.
As is revealed in the pages that follow, his literacy has surprised the girl he is returning to see since selling wool to her father the year before. In presenting the reasons that an educated boy has chosen to tend sheep, it is clear that although Santiago is a religious person, he believes in finding God in the world rather than in the seminary, and has therefore preferred the traveling lifestyle of a shepherd to staying in one place, although he respects his parents and can understand why most people eventually settle down.
Like travel, reading opens Santiago to new perspectives and ways of being, and the book he sleeps upon also serves as a conversation opener to the stranger who soon sits behind him and introduces himself as Melchizedek. The man, who also calls himself the king of Salem, assures Santiago this book is like most others, discouraging as far as discovering one’s Personal Legend goes. Santiago is intrigued by this comment, and as his own story serves to show the centrality of this theme of following signs and dreams toward the fulfillment of one’s destiny, it is interesting to contrast the book he has just finished reading and the story he is beginning to live.
Reading is also important to the Englishman he meets in the caravan bound for Al-Fayoum, and Santiago is able to understand the foreigner’s books on alchemy better even than their owner. Reading is presented as an important skill, but perhaps not as important as listening, another of the boy’s talents. Even as he learns about the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life from books, his mind is reeling with the realities he knows, and rather than simply analyze words on the page as does his elder, Santiago searches his own soul and consults with his heart and with the Natural elements to interpret what he reads and to apply it to the world around him. While reading is clearly a central theme in the novel, Coelho seems to suggest that more important even than reading is questioning what one reads and hears, prodding life for answers to questions no book can deliver.
4. How are intergenerational relationships helpful in leading Santiago to pursue his Personal Legend?
The boy Santiago is presented as a respectful son, enthusiastic companion, and eager pupil. As he grows during his physical and spiritual quest, he relies on the wisdom and advice of his elders, from his father, the fortune teller and Melchizedek in Spain to the crystal merchant, the Englishman, and above all, the alchemist in Egypt. While he gets along well with the merchant’s daughter in his native land and falls in love with Fatima in Al-Fayoum, it is primarily intergenerational relationships that guide Santiago along his way of realizing his Personal Legend.
In the novel’s early pages, Santiago reflects on his decision to become a shepherd rather than find God in a seminary, and his parents’ support of his decision. His father in particular encouraged the boy to know what he wants and to pursue his goals. Thus upon hearing the fortune teller’s prophecy that he must follow his dream all the way to the treasure awaiting him at the Pyramids, while he is tempted to dismiss her words he is also curious. He is more trusting of Melchizedek, the mysterious King of Salem who befriends him on a bench and tells him intriguing tales. Fortified by the old man’s confidence, Santiago is determined to undertake the risk of selling his sheep and journeying to Egypt in search of his treasure by the Pyramids.
Santiago’s first interaction in the Egyptian marketplace is with a boy his own age who betrays him, and only then does he realize that the older shopkeeper had been trying to warn him of danger. Elders frequently have Santiago’s best interest at heart, for he seems to remind them of their own youthful dreams, as in the case of the crystal merchant. Although he himself never makes it to Mecca, the crystal merchant supports Santiago in leaving the city to pursue his dream. The Englishman similarly befriends him quickly and with warmth, and the two share the hope of the alchemist’s tutelage, which only Santiago is fortunate to receive. The alchemist is by far the most important elder to guide Santiago in his quest, and he imparts great knowledge and insight to the boy who appreciates his mentor’s gifts and wisdom both about realizing his Personal Legend and about understanding the mysteries of Life.
5 What examples of Christianity and more mystical beliefs are there in the novel and how do they relate to one another?
The first scene in The Alchemist takes place in a church, and it is no coincidence that Santiago’s spiritual quest begins when he lays his head down by the old sycamore, which has taken root where the sacristy once was. He is pleased to see an image of the Sacred Heart at the fortune teller’s in Tarifa, and although her methods include non-Christian traditions and beliefs, Santiago seems undaunted by non-Catholic practices so long as they do not directly conflict with the doctrine he fervently believes. He solemnly prays an Our Father and although he is dismissive of her belief he must find this treasure, it is not due to their religious differences that he is cynical. When he arrives in Egypt and is confronted by an unfamiliar language and religion, he is more intrigued than afraid, and adjusts to drinking tea rather than wine with minimal discomfort. He is respectful of the Muslims he meets, especially the crystal merchant, for he recognizes that the same “hand” wrote all and that all religions share the same basic precept of honoring a higher power.
Melchizedek is perhaps the character who best exemplifies the syncretism between Christian beliefs and a more mystical spirituality. The King of Salem is a Biblical reference who perhaps has pre-Biblical roots. His comments of having appeared to various central characters in the Old Testament strengthen his connection to Santiago as a Christian elder, while his gift of the stones Urim and Thummim illustrate a non-Christian faith tradition. The stones comfort Santiago in his times of trouble and remind him of his great mission in pursuing his dream, literally and figuratively, and realizing his Personal Legend. While this is not a directly Christian mission, the story is populated by characters who are modeled on Biblical antecedents, such as Fatima appearing at a well just as Rachel did to Jacob. These references serve to illustrate one of the central themes of the novel, which makes clear Coelho’s belief in the “hand that wrote all” speaking a universal language, and not just adhering to a single spiritual tradition. Thus Christian Spaniards and Muslim Egyptians are presented as good or bad with equal frequency, and while Santiago and his author seem most comfortable with Christianity as a guide, both Coelho and his character seem to respect all religions, cultures and faith traditions for they all emerge from the same Source.