Why do so many people love The Alchemist?
Famous celebrities rave about it, including Will Smith, Madonna, Kobe Bryant and Bill Clinton. Ordinary readers rush to buy it, with over 65 million copies sold in 150 countries. And now, you’re reading a book summary about it.
On the surface, The Alchemist story is a simple fable about a shepherd and treasure. But hidden underneath is a surprisingly deep message.
A message about:
- Following your heart or dreams,
- Journeying into the unknown, and
- Remaining faithful to the end.
Back when Jesus told simple stories about lost sheep and mustard seeds, he wasn’t actually talking about sheep or seeds. He was pointing to a deeper invisible spiritual truths. And for the same reason, I think that is why so many people connect deeply with this story.
In this book summary of The Alchemist, we will quickly explore the most important points, ideas, and takeaways. By the end, you’ll understand why many people call it ‘a self help book in disguise.’
About the author
Paulo Coelho (Britannica) was born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. During his 20’s, he worked various jobs and traveled extensively. He became a songwriter for some popular Brazilian music artists. Then he walked a long pilgrimage in Spain, along the route known as Camino de Santiago. During that trip he had a spiritual awakening, which inspired him to go after his lifelong dream of being a novelist. So he began an entirely new career, despite nearing the age of 40.
When The Alchemist was published, it sold very few copies and the first published actually dropped the book. But it was republished and through word of mouth, the book slowly grew in popularity, until today it is one of the bestselling books of all time. (Wikipedia)
1. Listen to Your Dreams: Santiago is a simple wandering shepherd boy who dreams of hidden treasure
The story begin a shepherd boy named Santiago. He spends his days wandering with his sheep across the grassy hills of Andalusia, an area of southern Spain.
For the night, he has come to the ruins of an old church in the countryside. The roof is caved in and there is a large beautiful sycamore tree growing through the middle of the church. (Remember this location, it will be important later!)
At the moment, the boy’s thoughts are occupied by a girl with “flowing black hair” that he spoke to last year, while selling wool to her father. In 4 days, he would be seeing her again, and planned to ask for her hand in marriage.
(However, he would eventually be forced to choose between seeing the girl or seeking his treasure. The first of many difficult choices on Santiago’s journey.)
Let’s have a quick discussion about the core theme of travel in The Alchemist…
Paulo Coelho mentions Santiago had been studying at a seminary until the age of 16 according to his parents wishes, then he dropped out and became a shepherd because he desired to travel. Here I notice a strong similarity to Coelho’s own life. You see, the author entered law school for his parents, but then dropped out and travelled across many countries, later becoming a writer.
Does following our dreams mean that we need to travel? Definitely not. Everybody’s dream is different. Some dreams—like for creative expression or community building—may be better achieved staying in one location.
However, travel is a great symbol for risking a journey into the unknown, which is true for most dreams.
And I will add a final thought. Many years ago, I believed that travel was very expensive. Then I read some writing (like The 4-Hour Workweek book) that opened my eyes about how travel can be cheap. It all depends on how you travel and where you go. For example, if you want to stay in a nice hotel in New York City? You better be rich. But what if you don’t mind staying in a hostel in Bangkok, traveling between cities by bus, and eating in restaurants beside local people? Then you may actually spend less money traveling compared to living in your home country. At least, that was my personal experience at 19 years old, when I left Canada for 6 months and backpacked around Southeast Asia… but that’s a different story!
Santiago is a boy shepherd in Southern Spain. He sleeps in an old ruined church that has a sycamore tree growing through the middle. He has a recurring dream of finding treasure under the Pyramids in Egypt.
2. Discover Your Personal Legend: Santiago resisted his calling, as we all do, because of fear and cultural conditioning
Santiago goes to see Tarifa, an old woman who interprets dreams. She promises to interpret his dream in exchange for 10% of the treasure. The boy agrees. She says the dream means ‘go to the pyramids, there you’ll find treasure.’ It’s such an obvious answer the boy is disappointed and angry that he wasted his time with her tricks. He leaves.
Next, Santiago meets a poor-looking old man who calls himself King Melchidezek. The boy only believes the man is a king after he reveals some private information about the boy’s parents. He also already knew about the boy’s dream, offering advice on how to find the treasure in exchange for 10% of the boy’s flock of sheep. During their talk, the King introduces the idea of Personal Legend, one of the most important themes in The Alchemist.
When we do go after our Personal Legend, all the universe works with us to help us get it. (That last line is incredibly important because it’s repeated many times in the book!) As we’ll see later, what that really means is the universe provides Santiago with signs or omens pointing him the right direction along his journey.
The next day, the boy brought the 10% payment to the King. However, the King only said basically ‘you’re treasure is in Egypt under the Pyramids.’ Then he admitted he only asked the money to help the boy make the decision to go. The boy felt he’d better make his own decisions, than pay others to keep telling him the obvious!
The King also left the boy with two stones named Urim and Thummin, that could help provide answers to questions. One stone was white and the other was black, meaning “yes” or “no” when picked randomly from a bag.
Let’s again step back and discuss what is going on in The Alchemist. Here we see another great illustration of something most of us do. We resist going after our dreams by overcomplicating them. The boy already knew his treasure was in Egypt, but for some reason he needed others to repeat the simple fact to him twice.
In the same way, if someone wants to be a writer, the most important thing is to sit down every day and write, according to bestselling author Steven Pressfield. The first step we need to take is simple, but it is not always easy. It’s not easy because we must wrestle with uncomfortable inner forces like procrastination, paralysis, and self-doubt. In his book The War of Art, Pressfield labels these forces ‘The Resistance,’ and we can only defeat it by sitting down and showing up each workday regardless of how we feel.
Santiago sees an old woman named Tarifa, who promises to interpret his dream for 10% of the treasure. Then he meets King Melchidezek, who offers advice how to find the treasure in exchange for 10% of his sheep. But they both ultimately disappoint the boy, telling him the obvious—that his treasure was at the Pyramids.
3. Go on a Quest: After all his money was stolen, Santiago learned to view setbacks as challenges
And so Santiago decided to go for his treasure, giving up seeing the black haired girl. He was able to sell the rest of his sheep to a friend, who happened to be looking to buy a flock of sheep. Santiago thought it was a lucky coincidence, but the King said it was Beginner’s Luck, a force in the universe that makes our journey a little easier in the beginning, because it wants to help us realize our Personal Legend.
Santiago bought a boat ticket to Tangier, Africa. It was only 2 hours away, but he arrived in a different world. Men smoking giant pipes, women totally covered, everybody speaking Arabic. Then his Beginner’s Luck ran out…
Santiago met another boy in a restaurant. The other boy spoke Spanish and offered to be his guide and friend. A few minutes later, while Santiago was distracted by something shiny, the boy ran off with all his money. It was a thief! Santiago now had no money, and was in a strange land where he couldn’t speak the language. A little later the boy discovered it would take one year for him to earn enough money to reach the Egyptian pyramids.
He broke down and cried because the universe was so unfair!
Yet little by little, Santiago slowly began to feel better, as he realized that he could choose how to interpret his situation. Instead of being stuck in a strange land, maybe he was in an exciting new place that he was lucky to see. Instead of being a poor victim, maybe he was still an adventurer on a quest for treasure!
Let’s have a quick discussion...
There is surprisingly deep psychology beneath this part of the story, when the boy pulls himself out of despair.
You see, psychologists say that we all have a certain way of interpreting what happens to us, which they call “explanatory styles.” (PositivePsychology.com) People with an “optimistic explanatory style” tend to bounce back from setbacks quickly because—as one example—they view negative events as temporary rather than permanent.
On the other hand, people with a pessimistic explanatory view themselves as out of control of their situation, a point-of view named “learned helplessness” that appears strongly connected to depression symptoms. These ideas come from scientific research, especially from Professor Martin Seligman who is known as “the father of positive psychology.”
I am also reminded of a fantastic quote from Viktor Frankl, a great psychologist and also a Holocaust survivor. In the Nazi concentration camps, he noticed men reacted very differently to the dehumanizing conditions. Some became terrible people, while others became selfless like saint. So Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Read more in our summary of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
At first, a force named Beginner’s Luck seemed to make Santiago’s journey easier. He quickly sold his sheep and bought a boat ticket 2 hours away to Tangier, Africa. The boy cried when all his money was stolen, but then he chose to view his situation optimistically, as an exciting adventure in a foreign land.
4. Accept Your Destiny: Characters in The Alchemist often say “maktub” which means “it is written”
Santiago needed a job for money, so he walked up a hill and into a local crystal shop. He took the initiative to clean the dusty glasses in the display window. Right away, two customers walked into the shop and bought some things. The crystal merchant saw this as a very good omen or sign, and Santiago was hired.
Santiago soon began suggesting ways to improve sales in the crystal shop:
- First, he built a display case for crystal, which would be placed at the bottom of this hill as effective advertising. Some people walking by would see the case and come visit the shop.
- Second, he suggesting selling tea in the crystal shop. Some customers would be impressed by the quality of the glass and buy some for their homes.
In the beginning, the crystal merchant resisted these new ideas. For 30 years, he’d been doing business in one way and now he felt it was too late or too risky to change things. Sure, when he was younger, the merchant had dreamt of success. Most of all, he had dreamt of traveling to Mecca, the most holy place of his religion of Islam. Yet today, the merchant felt more comforted by allowing those dreams to remain unrealized dreams. But finally, he allowed Santiago to go ahead with the changes, saying “Maktub.”
11 months later, Santiago had earned enough money. His ideas for the shop had worked even better than expected. So now, he could either go back home to buy a bigger flock of sheep, or he could continue to the Pyramids. Most importantly, the experience had given him confidence! If he could thrive here, he could do it anywhere! Since he could always go back to being a shepherd or a salesperson, Santiago decided to go for the treasure.
Let’s discuss what is going on here.
Santiago is the hero of the story. But what does it mean to be a hero? Experts on stories and myths like Joseph Campbell talk about how all heroic characters follow a general pattern called “the hero’s journey” (Wikipedia). Heroes voluntarily face the unknown, even though it is potentially dangerous. For example, in each Harry Potter book, Harry goes ahead to confront Voldemort, the source of danger. That act of courage will make other people around him safe and bring order to the world. Harry’s behaviour fits the symbolic hero and that is why people became so obsessed with those books.
By contrast, we have characters like the crystal merchant. He doesn’t want change and he doesn’t want to face the unknown. He’s found a stable pattern of living, daily habits that pay the bills. Now he wants to avoid discomfort and uncertainty. It’s the opposite of the hero’s journey into the unknown. Let’s put aside the question of whether seeking comfort over adventure is good or bad. We can all agree that it’s not very exciting, right? Nobody wants to watch a movie for two hours about a man waiting in shop for a customer to walk in! That’s why stories focus on a heroic character.
Now let’s return to “Maktub,” that idea of accepting our destiny. It’s a very old piece of wisdom. Even 2000 years ago, the ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about trusting in Providence. Providence was his word for destiny, he believed a higher power like God was guiding our lives and protecting us.
So when good or bad events happened, Marcus interpreted them as being for some higher purpose. It’s just like when a doctor gives us medicine that tastes bitter, but will make us feel better eventually. We are wise when we accept our fate without anxiety, rather than resisting the unavoidable.
Santiago found a job with a crystal merchant. He proposed ideas to improve sales, like making a display case and selling tea in the shop. The merchant resisted, but finally said “maktub,” accepting the changes fully as part of destiny.
5. Learn From Living: The Englishman reads endless books on Alchemy, but fear of failure stops him from trying
Santiago went to Egypt by joining a caravan. The caravan was a big group of about 200 people walking in the same direction, plus many camels and one leader they all swore to obey. Along the way, Santiago learned much from listening to the silent desert and talking with the camel drivers.
There was also an Englishman in the caravan, who became friends with Santiago after recognizing the two stones the boy was carrying. This Englishman had spent 10 years in university learning from books, and now seriously studied the mysterious science of alchemy. He was going into the desert to find an Arabic alchemist rumoured to possess great powers and to be 200 years old.
What is Alchemy? Here are the main points as it relates to this book:
- The Alchemists. They were almost like ancient scientists, in pursuit of unlimited wealth and eternal life. Some alchemists claimed they had gained these almost supernatural powers, after mastering the knowledge of how to create…
- The Master Work. At the center of alchemy were mysterious, cryptic instructions on how to heat metal in a laboratory for many years. This was supposed to bring out the purified essence of the world, which contained two parts:
- The Philosopher’s Stone. Supposed to give the owner power to transform any metal into gold.
- The Elixir of Life. Supposed to give anyone eternal life and health.
- The Emerald Tablet. A few short lines, written on a small emerald, were said to contain the most important knowledge of alchemy. But almost nobody had seen this.
Jumping forward a little in the book, the Englishman and Santiago do eventually find the master Alchemist that he was looking for. And he tells the Englishman to “go and try” to create the Master Work. Can you believe that? 10 years of studying books and he’d never once tried to do alchemy himself! So the Englishman rushes to build a small furnace and begin his journey, something he had avoided so long due to fear of failure.
Let’s again discuss and analyze what has happened…
In case you don’t know, alchemy was a real, historical thing. For hundreds of years, there were small groups of alchemists in many parts of the world, actually trying to make the Philosopher’s Stone. While none of them ever succeeded, there are many academics who see alchemy as the beginning of modern chemistry. And there is no doubt that science has helped people achieve longer life and greater prosperity. So maybe, in a way, the alchemists eventually succeeded in their goal?
The Englishman is another character who seems to be a deliberate contrast to our hero Santiago. This time, it’s about book learning versus life learning. The Englishman always seems to have his nose in a book, while the boy pays attention to the world around him, learning more by experience and interaction. I think most of us know that learning can sometimes be a form of procrastination, leading to what experts call “paralysis analysis.” On the other hand, taking action, even imperfect action, leads us a step closer to our goal. As the old saying goes: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Here’s a concrete example from the book: Santiago speaks to a camel driver in the caravan. The driver is a surprisingly interesting man who has experienced many ups and downs in life, recently losing all his possessions in a giant flood. But he says that he is not afraid of the desert, which often contains danger, because he enjoys each day, by living one day at a time. Now that is some great wisdom that will make anyone more resilient in life!
Another great personal growth book is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It explains that most people feel unhappy because their mind is often jumping into the past or future, not remaining in the present moment. So often, we become stuck in feeling regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, even though we cannot do anything about the past or future!
The only place that we actually have the power to change anything… is the now. Tolle writes, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” Some helpful exercises to help us get back in touch with the present moment include focusing on our breathing or on inner body sensations.
Santiago heads towards Egypt in a great caravan. He meets an Englishman studying books for years about alchemy. Alchemy is a mysterious science, with the goal of turning any metal into gold and living forever. The Englishman finds who he was seeking, the master Alchemist, who tells him “go and try.”
6. Watch for Omens: Signs and symbols in the world are God’s pointers, they speak The Language of the World
Santiago and the Englishman arrived at Al-Fayoum oasis. An oasis is a small area of life and green in the middle of the desert, usually existing thanks to an underground water source. This oasis was absolutely massive, with over 50,000 date trees and hundreds of water wells. The caravan’s leader said that tribal wars had started across the desert, so they would all remain in the oasis until the wars were safely over.
Santiago soon fell in love with a local girl named Fatima. It happened as he and the Englishman were looking in the oasis for the mysterious Alchemist. Santiago asked a girl where the Alchemist could be, but the moment he looked into her eyes, they felt a mutual love. Love—a universal feeling people in all cultures share that does not depend on specific words or phrases. We’ll get back to that idea in a minute.
Later Santiago was looking into the desert sky, when suddenly he witnessed two hawks attack each other. As that happened, he had a strong vision of an army invading the oasis. He immediately felt it was not a simple daydream, but a vision of the future that came from deep within the universe, a place he called The Soul of the World.
Santiago reported the vision to the 8 chief leaders of the oasis, who sat in an incredibly luxurious tent, dressed in white and gold. The main leader said they would prepare for the attack by arming the men in the oasis. If the boy’s vision was correct, then he would receive a large reward of gold. But if he was wrong, the boy would die. The next day, an army did attack the oasis, but they were easily defeated because the oasis was prepared. The boy was given 50 gold pieces and given the position of counsellor.
The Language of the World works by feeling and intuition, not spoken words. Santiago’s journey was always guided by these mysterious signs, which he viewed as God’s pointers. The oasis was a sign of safety, Fatima’s look was love, the two hawks were death. The Language of the World is non-verbal, or maybe the better word is pre-verbal, because it existed before any other language. It is how Santiago was able to communicate with his sheep and with foreigners. Isn’t it true that words are not needed for us to communicate the most important things, like love, purpose, enthusiasm?
The caravan arrives at Al-Fayoum oasis, seeking safety from tribal wars in the desert. Santiago and a local girl named Fatima fall in love at first sight. Santiago sees a vision of the oasis being invaded and warns the leaders who are prepared for the attack. The boy becomes ever more aware of a universal Language of the World that works by omens, signs, and symbols.
7. Endure the Final Test: With the Alchemist’s help, Santiago learns to speak with his heart and reach his treasure
The Alchemist becomes an important character during the final part of the book because he guides Santiago almost all the way to the Pyramids of Egypt. At first, the boy is resistant to go, feeling he wants to stay in the oasis with Fatima. But The Alchemist persuades him by showing his potential future of comfort but ever-growing regret. As it turns out, the girl wants him to continue also, she is not afraid of losing their love.
So Santiago and The Alchemist left into the danger of the desert. The Alchemist dresses in all black, rides a white horse, and has a falcon that catches food for them. At one point, the Alchemist writes down the text of The Emerald Tablet, but Santiago is disappointed it’s in code that he can’t understand.
The Alchemist tells him it’s better anyway to learn by experience, and especially by listening to his heart. And so Santiago began communicating with his heart, slowly understanding that it connects him directly with “the Soul of the World.” Jesus has a famous line, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Paulo Coelho has the Alchemist rephrase this idea as ‘listen to your heart to find your treasure.’
Santiago and The Alchemist are captured by an army, that is ready to kill them for being spies. To buy time, The Alchemist tell them the boy has magical powers to transform into the wind. The leader of the army wants to see that, so he gives them 3 days, during which Santiago panics. He can’t become the wind! But on the third day, there is a surreal scene when the boy communicates first with the wind, then with the sun, then with God. A fearsome windstorm covered everyone and by the end, the boy was found on the other side of the army camp. So they were released.
The final lesson from the Alchemist is that just before anyone completes their Personal Legend, we must endure a severe test. On his own, the boy walks on and reaches the Pyramids. He cries in joy and begins digging where his heart says there is treasure.
But then several men come, they rob Santiago and beat him almost to death. When the boy admits he’s digging for treasure he saw in a dream, the men laugh. One of the men says he also had a dream, finding treasure under a sycamore tree growing in the middle of an old church in Spain… but he was not stupid enough to follow the dream!
Santiago recognizes the church in the man’s dream, so he returns to Spain and finds the treasure, a great chest filled with gold and jewels. Then he heads towards Fatima.
So a large theme during the last part of this book listening to our heart. Obviously the heart is just a metaphor, a way of talking that is a useful shortcut. In reality, our heart is a muscle that pumps blood and it doesn’t say anything. But the heart symbolizes putting our attention inside of our body, listening for what it may tell us through those subtle energies that we call feelings.
And it’s a fact that our organism absorbs and processes a lot of information about the world underneath the level of words, on the level of images and associations. This is demonstrated by psychology studies into the priming effect, (VeryWellMind.com) that prove we absorb cues from our environment that affect our behaviour, even though we are not conscious of this process happening.
One of the most popular modern authors on spirituality is Deepak Chopra. In his most popular book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, he says that we can access a more pure essence of our Self and the universe through practicing inner silence, stillness, meditation, non-judgment, and spending time in nature. All these are paths outside of fear and our little personal self, according to Chopra, into a larger open space of freedom, creativity and “pure potential.”
Well, what does it mean to “practice inner silence”? It means quieting ourselves, calming our mind, and paying attention within. It is essentially another way of explaining how to listen to our heart. In the same way, practicing non-judgment for a few minutes is another way to reduce the noise in our head, so that we can finally notice what our body is saying, through more subtle signs and energies. Hey, it’s worth trying at least, isn’t it?
Santiago travels through the dangerous desert with The Alchemist, who explains the importance of listening to his heart. They are captured by an army, and only released after the boy transforms into the wind. Finally, Santiago is beaten at the Pyramids as a final test, but learns the real location of his treasure, back in Spain under the ruined church.
- Write down the obvious first step towards your major dream. Remember that Santiago had dream of treasure under the Pyramids, but ended up paying the old woman and the King to tell him “go to Egypt.” In the same way, many of our dreams have first steps that are very simple, but emotionally difficult. Like if we want to write a book, at some point we must sit down and write.
- Write one way you could optimistically interpret a small setback from your past. Remember psychologists talk about an “optimistic explanatory style” being important for our well-being and resilience. They key is to understand how the bad situation was only temporary and you have the power to fix it. For example, I recently had a day with trouble focusing on work. An optimistic interpretation could be that experience gave me more insight into productivity difficulties that everyone struggles with, and that insight is useful for this website.
- Spend 5 minutes listening to your heart. Setting a timer would be useful here. To the best of your ability, try to make your inner self become quiet, silent and still. Put your attention into your body, maybe on your breathing. Now what do you notice? The message may not come in words, but through subtle images or feelings that you intuitively understand the meaning of.
For example, during a recent meditation session like this, I noticed some tension at the bottom of my stomach and recognized it was due to a personal disagreement with someone. I was able to breathe and release some of that tension, and it seemed at the same time my mind opened and released some negativity, too. And that helped me look at that conflict more objectively and peacefully.