The Alchemist Summary - A book by Paulo Coelho

alchemist summary

The Alchemist Summary

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is about a boy named Santiago. He is a shepherd, an Andalusian one, whose destiny sets into motion when he decides to seek the meaning of his recurring dream which he believes to be prophetic. He visits a Gypsy woman, a fortune-teller in a nearby town who tells him that his dream is indeed a prophecy. As per the woman’s interpretation, the boy is destined to find a treasure at Egyptian Pyramids.

On his journey to find the treasure, he first meets an aged king called Melchizedek who is also referred to as the King of Salem. He is the first person who introduces Santiago to the concept of ‘Personal Legend’. He tells him that a person’s personal legend is something that they have always wanted to achieve; it is something every person known unconsciously or consciously from the very beginning.  Melchizedek tells Santiago to sell his sheep and go to Egypt.

As Santiago reaches Africa he meets a man who promises that he will help him get to the pyramids but betrays him. The man runs away with all the money Santiago got from selling his sheep. With no money, Santiago ends up working for a crystal merchant in hopes that one day he will be able to fulfill his personal legend.

The day dawns when he is able to embark on his journey to Pyramids again; on his way, he meets an Englishman who is on the path to find an alchemist. From there on they become travel companions.

During their travels, they reach an oasis where Santiago meets a girl named Fatima. He falls in love with the Arabian girl and one thing leads to another and then to a marriage proposal.  Fatima agrees to marry him only if he completes his journey. At first, Santiago is frustrated and angry, but later realizes that this is what true love is all about – it never stops you from achieving your destiny.

He sets on his journey and meets a wise alchemist, under whose kind eyes he learns about his true self. With the alchemist, he travels through a territory that is guarded by tribes. On this journey, the boy is tested and even submits himself to a simoom in order to prove that he is one with the ‘spirit of the world’. He succeeds and is allowed to proceed; however, when he reaches the pyramids & starts to dig, he is robbed again. But as destiny will have it, he learns from the leader of the thieves that the actual treasure is at the old church – the place where Santiago had originally dreamed about it.

Critical Analysis of ‘The Alchemist’

Why is the book titled ‘The Alchemist’?

Many people say ‘Should not the title of the book be ‘Santiago’ who is the protagonist?’ Why is ‘the alchemist’? Why is the old man Santiago meets so important? Especially when he emerges only in the second half of the book and is not even there in the end!

All we can say is that maybe by using ‘Alchemist’ as the books’ title, Coelho is trying to convey that anyone can achieve their personal legend (and on their individual journeys can come as close to being an alchemist as possible), no matter whether you are a shepherd boy or a king. 

On his voyage across seas and sand to fulfill his personal legend, he learns how to speak the language of the universe, listen to his heart, and purify his soul. The thing is that our hero, our protagonist, acquires a lot of traits on his journey, which makes him more or less an ‘alchemist’.

 ‘The Alchemist’ ending

Coelho’s novel ‘The Alchemist’ ends with Santiago returning to the old church & the sycamore tree under which it all started with a recurring dream. He finds the treasure and thinks of his lover which means the journey is not yet finished.

Therefore, ‘The Alchemist’ ends on an open-ended note with this:
"'I'm coming, Fatima,' he said".

What is the setting of ‘The Alchemist’?

The book is set in Spain and North America.  Santiago visits a lots of places on his journey across Sands & Seas like the Andalusian city of Tarifa which is in southern Spain

What does Alchemy mean in ‘The Alchemist’?

"The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves." - The Alchemist

As per the novel, Alchemy is not always related to greed which makes people want to convert everything into gold, like King Midas, but is also about purifying your heart & soul. As per Santiago's lesson, the universe is depicted as an alchemist who works tirelessly until Santiago an ordinary metal, turns into gold (which is a symbol of being better in-tune with his heart and the universe).

What is a Personal Legend as per ‘The Alchemist’?

This the phrase is used in the book by Salem and is defined by Melchizedek as something that a person always wanted to do. He considers it sacred because when one wished for something, it comes out from the depth of the soul of the universe. It will be correct to say that ‘it is our mission on Earth’.

What does the Soul of the World mean in ‘The Alchemist’?

The Soul of the World: It is the source of positive energy that has the capacity to help you accomplish your personal legend. But it comes into play only if you really want to achieve your goal. Also, you are closest to the soul of the world when you want something from the depths of your soul and it help you. ‘Beginner’s luck’, mentioned in the novel, is also one of the examples of how the soul of the world tries to put you on the right path from the very beginning.

What is Master Work in ‘The Alchemist’?

The masterwork is the goal of all alchemists. It is referred to as the combination of Elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone. On his journey, Santiago learns that Elixir of life is the liquid part of Masterwork while the philosopher’s stone is the solid part. While the elixir of life is the cure of all ills and the reason the alchemists never grow old, the Philosopher’s stone is all about richness as it can turn large amounts of metals into gold.

What is the Language of the World/The Universal Language in ‘The Alchemist’?

On his journey, Santiago learns that there is a specific communication that the universe uses to connect with the people who are in-tune with it. It is a language that is beyond words, which allows you to talk to the wind, desert, and the sun; they are the signs that convey messages from the universe like Hawk’s flight, shifting of sand in the desert, etc.

What does ‘Treasure’ signify in The Alchemist?

In Santiago’s case, the treasure appears as a promise of riches early on in the story through his dreams. The dream has been haunting Santiago from childhood and used to show him “a chest of Spanish gold coins. There were also precious stones, gold masks adorned with red and white feathers, and stone statues embedded with jewels" (Epilogue.7).

However, as the story progresses we learn that the material riches are not the only riches the dream symbolizes. It also speaks of the traits that Santiago acquires when he journeys across the seas and the sand to fulfill his personal legend.

What does ‘sheep’ signify?

Sheep symbolizes the people who don’t have any aim, who do not want to seek their call and fulfill their personal legends. They are the people that never make any decisions; they spend their lives only thinking about irrelevant things (like food and water in case of sheep).

What do the Hawks symbolize?

Suddenly, one of the hawks made a flashing dive through the sky, attacking the other. As it did so, a sudden, fleeting image came to the boy: an army, with its swords at the ready, riding into the oasis. - The Alchemist

The Hawks in 'The Alchemist' are used as a symbol for a symbol; in their violence, they show Santiago the violence that is going to unleash on the Oasis.

It just means that the universe is always trying to tell and reveal things to the people, but they need to be in-tune with the universe to listen.

'The Alchemist' Allusions

The following allusions are used in the novel:
  • The Bible (2.112-13)
  • A Thousand and One Nights (2.223)
  • Joseph of Egypt (2.347-48, 2.390)
  • Matthew 8:8 (2.726)

What is the cost of ‘The Alchemist’ on Amazon?

On Amazon, you will find different editions of the Alchemist. The kindle format costs $3-$11, paperback costs $4-$14, and if you want to buy the hardcover or the anniversary edition with illustrations it may cost $34 or more.