Last year while I was slogging through my Book to Screen review of Battlefield Earth a friend of mine saw me reading through the monstrously long novel and asked me a simple question. She asked me if I liked the book. I looked at her with all the distain in the world and replied, “I hate this thing so much!”
My friend laughed and asked me if I would like to read something that was actually worth reading. I told her that good book reviews don’t get the kind of traffic that bad book reviews do. But she told me that this would be good for my soul. In fact, that it might even change my life. I was skeptical, but I considered it. One year later I finally decided to pick up the book.
The Alchemist is a short and simple tale about following your dreams. However, this short and simple tale also managed to become an international best seller, translated into nearly 80 languages, and is one of the top selling books of all time. How does a simple fable resonate with so many people all over the world? Let’s read!
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” – Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”
Written as an allegorical fable, The Alchemist tells the tale of a young boy named Santiago (who will from this point forward be referred to only as “the boy”). He is an Andalusian boy, who abandoned the path to priesthood to become a shepherd and see more of the world. The boy has learned to communicate and become one with his flock, and spends his days reading stories and considering his life’s path. However, he has a very peculiar dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. During the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. The boy then consults a gypsy woman to interpret the dream, and to his surprise she tells him to go to Egypt and find his treasure near the pyramids, and to bring him back 10% of the treasure he finds there as payment. The boy thinks he is being scammed, but he is further encouraged by an old man he meets while reading one of his books. The old man claims to be the King of Salem, and tells the boy that the dream is an omen, and he must abide by omens and seek out his “personal legend”. After considering it over night, he boy agrees to the old man’s terms. He sells 90% of his flock to a friend and gives the other 10% to the old man in exchange for passage to cross into Africa.
Thus the boy begins his journey towards finding his “personal legend”. Along the way, the boy faces many setbacks, but comes through each one having learned something that brings him closer to reaching his treasure.
Why It Works
“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”- Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”
The Alchemist is a simple story with a simple message: follow your dreams. There are but so many ways to relay this message, and so the author, Paulo Coelho, uses the journey of the boy, Santiago, to demonstrate how he learns these very basic universal truths during his journey. Much of these life lessons are spelled out for the reader as well as demonstrated by the protagonist. The result is a story that reads very much like a fable or book of affirmations. Each step in the boy’s journey can be read as an individual tale, which gave me a strong epic anthology feel akin to The Odyssey – if you switched out the idea of ‘man vs. the gods’ with ‘man receives motivational speeches from the universe.
Truly, the story feels as though it can easily be broken up into small chunks and verbally told to a child to teach a lesson; from the boy’s year working for a crystal merchant who dreamed of taking a pilgrimage to Mecca, to being captured by soldiers and escaping by becoming the wind. And each of these stories comes with appropriately quote-able lines that read like inspirational posters.
In fact, during my research into this book, I found many sites dedicated to posting the most motivational quotes from the book, with lists ranging from 10 to 40 quotes. Seeing this, it became easy to understand why this tale of a boy on a journey to find treasure became such a success.
If you take a look at some of the most internationally successful books of all time, you may notice a pattern. Most of them are geared towards children and young adults. Others that trail just behind them, but are also commercially successful, are self help books that hinge on very easy to follow ideas. The Alchemist, utilizes aspects of both, reading like a book of fables full of the kinds of motivational mantras that make people say a book “changed their lives”.
Success often comes from simplicity. This is true of books, tv, and film.
I have seen criticism of this book as being a flowery and presumptuous self help book. I’ve also read interviews with the author, where he claims that in the years since the book was published, he has gotten many people asking for advice towards living a better life. At first, I didn’t understand why anyone would see the book this way. I did not get any “self-help” vibes from the book, nor did I assume that the author was trying to relay to the reader that the way the boy goes about finding his treasure should be taken literally. However, after seeing the sites full of quotes from the book, I began to wonder if the difference was in how I had ingested the story.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”- Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”
I listened to The Alchemist on audible. While going about my day or taking a moment to relax I was able to listen to the theatrical voice of one Mr. Jeremy Irons tell me the story. The Alchemist lends itself well to the audiobook format and may have swayed the way I took in the story. From my first listen through, I accepted the story for the parable it was meant to be – no different than I would listening to a Grimm’s fable. You know there is a lesson the author wants you to get from the tale, and it is even structured similarly to such stories. Notice, rarely any names are used throughout the story. Coelho mentions his protagonist’s name once, “His name was Santiago” – but it is never mentioned again. He is simply referred to as the boy. The other characters go through this as well, The Alchemist, the Englishman, the Crystal merchant, etc. The only characters that are given names are Fatima and the King of Salem, Melchizedek. This is common among fables and similar parables, since the role that the characters play are more important than the character themselves. When telling a story to a child, every character in the story doesn’t need a name, you simply need to know the role they play; the witch, the prince, the forest animals, the sorcerer, the young adventurer.
Listening to The Alchemist in this way completed the effect, and likely made me enjoy the story more. However, I can see how reading it might be different. Seeing the “motivational quotes” written down on the page certainly elicited a different response from me than when I was simply listening to them.
Still, I enjoyed The Alchemist for the parable that it was and would recommend it. It didn’t change my life, like my friend claimed it would, but it was still an enjoyable read. Sometimes, in a world that often proves naysayers and negative people right, it’s nice to have a message of positivity.