Discovering Personal Legends
“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
The Alchemist tells the coming-of-age story of a shepherd boy named Santiago who spends his days leading his flock of sheep through the Spanish countryside. We later find that his parents wanted him to become a priest, for which he had even prepared himself. He instead decides that he wants to be a shepherd, and upon telling this to his parents that he wanted instead to become a shepherd, he is given their blessing and buys a flock of sheep, feeling that he has all he has ever wanted in life; soon after his introduction, however, he decides it may be time to marry, and falls in love with a wool merchant’s daughter. When he begins to have recurring dreams of hidden treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt, he cautiously begins to pursue it, coinciding with his dreams of one day traveling to far off lands and having exotic adventures. He hopes that his dream will come true one day, but does not view it as plausible or realistic. He understands that there is a purpose for everything and a reason behind the need to make decisions. Santiago’s strong belief that one should follow their heart is later reinforced throughout the story when he begins to forge his own “Personal Legend”. He values friendship and the prospects of a better life, learning to accept things that may come to pass.
Santiago’s world gets turned upside-down one day when a psychic tells him he must go to the Egyptian Pyramids to find a treasure. An eccentric old man claiming to be a king advises Santiago to take this journey to fulfill his “personal legend,” or destiny. Santiago’s journey to the pyramids spans the next few years, growing spiritually as he travels, learning from mistakes, while learning valuable lessons about the world, survival, and the lives and cultures of other people.
He encounters many characters on his journey towards fulfilling his Personal Legend, like the crystal merchant whom he asks for a job cleaning crystal – whom, at first, pays no mind. Santiago cleans the crystal anyway, asking only to be fed – an obligation the merchant fulfills and explains that it is one of five obligations of the Koran given to his people by the Prophet. The others are to believe in one God, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and to visit the holy city of Mecca; however, in spite of his desire to travel, the merchant believed that it was too late in his life for the pilgrimage, explaining that he was destined only to dream of visiting Mecca. Santiago later understands this in speaking with the alchemist, when it is explained to him that when a person goes for a long time without listening to their heart’s desires, their heart no longer desires things, and the man would instead be destined to dream of what could have been.
Another character, the Englishman, appears rude at first, to ignoring Santiago. He begins to speak to Santiago when he is surprised to discover that the boy possesses Urim and Thummim, the white and black rock crystals given to Santiago by the King of Salem. By coincidence, the Englishman shows Santiago that he, too, possesses the same stones, hinting at the idea that they may both be on the path to fulfilling their own Personal Legends. The Englishman allows Santiago to read his books on Alchemy, explaining the reason for alchemy and his interest in it as the key to discovering a “universal language” that all things could understand. Santiago also learns the importance of pursuing his dream from the Englishman when they reach the oasis and finally meet the alchemist who possesses the Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life. Santiago is told to try what he always has, and to search for the answers where he had once failed. He accepts this and continues to practice alchemy.
When Santiago is caught by a scout in the desert, he uses his knowledge of alchemy and the alchemist’s wisdom to become the wind. This fulfillment of one’s personal legend recurs throughout the book as Santiago and others consider what do and would complete their lives – though in ways one might not expect. For Santiago, this becomes a quest for identity and self-realization, which leads him to find the greatest treasure of all.
“What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.
Recommendations for Teachers
There are many themes in The Alchemist which can generate productive classroom discussion.
For one, many people have said that reading the Alchemist has changed their lives. But in the novel, the Alchemist says, “There is only one way to learn . . . it’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey,” (125). Students could discuss whether or not this means those people have missed the point of the book. This is a great way to get students to think critically about the best ways to foster their own learning. They can also discuss whether reading a book can be part of a Personal Legend and how reading influences people.
This lesson plan (Mrs. Koplik’s Alchemist Lesson Plan) from Ontario, Canada, has some wonderful post-reading activities such as “Write Santiago’s “How-To Find Your Treasure” Handbook, or “Personal Legends for Dummies” and “Make a Scrapbook (with explanatory notes) of Santiago’s travels—feature pictures and items which Santiago accumulates as he learns about life.” Koplik includes open-ended discussion questions such as, “Coelho states that ‘simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them.’ Produce a written or artistic response (or bring something to class) which depicts something that is ‘simple’ yet valuable to you. Be prepared to explain specifically why/ how the item is valuable.” Also included are many vocabulary words related to geography, religion, and other themes from the novel. Understanding these new words will help students better understand the story.
The Narcissus story in the prologue and the fable of the king, Melchizedek, relates to Santiago on pages 30-32 provide the opportunity to discuss the fables and legends. A teacher could introduce a class to the genres of fables and legends and discuss with the class how they influence the book.
NOTE: The book contains unconventional ideas concerning religion and how religion should be interpreted. Teachers should tread carefully when teaching in a religiously conservative area and explain that everyone is entitled to his or her own views regarding religion.
“The story has the comic charm, dramatic tension, and psychological intensity of a fairy tale, but it’s full of specific wisdom as well…A sweetly exotic tale for young and old alike.” – Publishers Weekly
About Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian native currently living in Rio de Janiero.
Throughout his life, Coelho had long-standing dreams of one day becoming a writer, but struggled for years working through jobs he found unfulfilling. He felt that his own personal legend (to use his book’s terminology) was to write.
Coelho briefly attended law school, but later decided against it as a career choice, choosing instead to travel across much of South and Central America, Europe, and Africa. After returning home, he spent two years as a popular songwriter.
According to Coelho, one of his life’s most defining moments was during his walk on the Road of Santiago de Compostela – spanning over five-hundred miles across northwestern Spain – he felt that he attained a spiritual awakening, or self-awareness, that he called “The Pilgrimage,“ a topic revisited in The Alchemist.
He is a firm believer in following one’s dreams, and that no matter what hardships a person might be confronted with, people will reach their goals if they believe in themselves. He published The Alchemist in Portuguese in 1988, and it has since sold over twenty million copies worldwide and has been translated into sixty-seven different languages. Paulo Coelho has won a number of awards for his books, and was awarded a Crystal Award for Artistic Achievement at the Davos Economic Forum Conference.
Coelho talks about connecting with literature during an interview at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. He reminds readers that books don’t change people’s lives—people change their own lives.
- Wikipedia – “The Alchemist” – Provides short summary of the novel, Coelho’s inspiration for writing the novel, cultural influences, and more.
- Paulo Coelho – Official Website – Links to Coelho’s biography, personal photos, links to information about The Alchemist and more of his novels, and other links.
- Reading Guide – Explains key facets of the book and includes a list of discussion questions.
- Harper Collins – Inside the book – Take a look inside the book The Alchemist. This sneak peak shows excerpts from the book and also the discussion questions at the end.
- Themes, Motifs, and Symbols – Explains deeper meaning inside The Alchemist. Includes themes, motifs and symbols in the book.
- The Alchemist, the upcoming movie – The movie is in development and is slated to premiere in 2011
- Paulo Coelho’s Twitter page – Many of the posts are in Portuguese, but Coelho also posts his spiritual insights in English from time to time.
- Paulo Coelho’s Blog – The author’s personal blog.
- Character Summary – A deeper look into each of the main characters, the narrator, and the setting. It also gives conflicts in the plot, and personal reader opinions.
- Urim and Thummim – A explanation of the Urim and Thummim in history and also references in popular culture.
- Inspiring Quotes – Inspiring quotations from The Alchemist.
- Publisher’s Website – HarperCollins – Publisher’s website with external links to author interviews, book summaries, essays, and reading guides.
- Interview with The Guardian – A podcast interview with Paulo Coelho
- Download of The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho is a supporter of peer-to-peer file sharing and has posted his own books on torrent sites.