The Alchemist


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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Santiago is a young shepherd in southern Spain who has a dream about finding treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. He seeks advice from a gypsy woman who provides little help but asks for a 10th of his treasure in return for her reading. Santiago is frustrated and ready to abandon his dreams when he meets an old man named Melchizedek, the king of Salem.

The man asks about the boy’s Personal Legend, or the dream he has always wanted to accomplish. He urges Santiago not to believe the lie that we all eventually lose control of our own lives and become controlled by fate. He says he can help Santiago realize his Personal Legend for a 10th of the boy’s sheep. Unlike the gypsy, Melchizedek knows things about Santiago that wouldn’t be possible without some special insight. The boy heeds and trusts Melchizedek’s counsel. He gives him 10 percent of his sheep, sells the rest and sails for Africa.

When all his money is stolen in Africa, Santiago goes to work for a Muslim crystal merchant. In his year at the crystal shop, he helps the man expand his business. The merchant now has the money to fulfill his religious obligation and life dream of traveling to Mecca. He doesn’t do it, though, saying he’s afraid he’d have nothing to live for and would be disappointed if he realized his dream.

Santiago leaves the crystal shop after rebuilding his savings. He plans to return to Spain and buy more sheep. Out of curiosity, he decides to find out the distance to the pyramids. He meets an Englishman who is joining a caravan across the desert, and the boy decides to go as well. The Englishman is searching for an old alchemist, a man who knows the universal language of the world.

At the desert oasis Al-Fayoum, Santiago meets a girl named Fatima. He immediately knows she is the one for him because they are wordlessly speaking the universal language to one another. He decides she is more important to him than finding his treasure, and he asks her to marry him. She tells him she has become part of him, but she will not allow him to forfeit his Personal Legend for her. She says he must go and she, like all desert women, must let him be free and wait for him to return.

Due to tribal wars in the desert, the caravan is forbidden to continue its journey. Santiago has a vision that warriors are coming to attack Al-Fayoum. He tells the leaders, who are unconvinced; the oasis is supposed to be neutral territory. Nevertheless, they pay attention to his concerns.

Then Santiago meets the alchemist there. The alchemist tells Santiago the wind told him the boy was coming and would need his help. The next day, Santiago’s vision comes true, and raiders attack the oasis. Because of Santiago’s warning, the leaders quickly capture the raiders.

The alchemist tells the boy that he will take him the rest of the way through the desert to the Egyptian pyramids. Tribesmen capture them along the way, and the alchemist gives Santiago’s savings to them. He also tells them that Santiago is powerful and can transform himself into the wind with three days’ preparation. The boy is tentative, as he isn’t an alchemist himself. He has conversations with the wind, sun and sand, and together they create a spectacle that terrifies the tribesmen. The tribesmen let Santiago and the alchemist go.

The alchemist finally leaves the boy, who begins digging at the pyramids for his treasure. He finds nothing. Then refugees from the tribal wars attack Santiago and want his money. He tells them about his dreams and says there is gold here somewhere. One of the men mocks Santiago. He, too, had a recurring dream of treasure, he says, but he wasn’t foolish enough to travel to a ruined church in Spain to find it. Santiago realizes the man is describing a church where he, Santiago, slept back home. The boy returns to the Spanish church, digs up the treasure and prepares to return to Fatima.

Christian Beliefs

Santiago learns a great deal by observing the world around him and the behavior of his sheep. He thinks that if God leads the sheep so well, He will also lead a man. The Englishman says he’s not surprised that a king like Melchizedek would talk to a shepherd. It was shepherds who were the first to acknowledge a king the rest of the world didn’t recognize, he says.

When the caravan leader asks everyone to swear to his own god that he’ll obey the leader, Santiago swears to Jesus Christ. A seer admits he only guesses at the future. He says the future belongs to God alone and only He reveals it under extraordinary circumstances. He says people should live each day in the confidence that God loves His children. A chieftain in the desert tells Santiago the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh’s dreams. The alchemist says it is not what enters man’s mouth but what comes out of it that is evil. He and others in the story contend that where a person’s heart is, his treasure is also. The alchemist tells the boy the Bible story about the Roman centurion who had faith that Christ could heal his servant. He points out that this man’s words have always been remembered. We often don’t know in our lifetimes how we may impact the future, he explains.

When the boy reaches the pyramids, he thanks God. He later notes God has chosen a strange way to help him find his treasure, but he has learned many things along the way.

Other Belief Systems

Santiago feels a mysterious energy that binds his life to the lives of his sheep. His parents wanted him to become a priest, but he felt knowing the world was more important than learning about God or the sins of man. As he looks at a sunrise, he says he couldn’t have found God in the seminary. Santiago meets with a gypsy fortuneteller. Though Santiago has learned not to trust gypsies, he thinks she must be OK because she has a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He recites the Lord’s Prayer as he nervously waits for her reading.

In the Bible, Melchizedek, king of Salem, appeared to Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20). In The Alchemist, he’s an old man who says he can also show himself in many forms, such as a stone, a solution or a good idea. He knows things about Santiago that he has no way of knowing without mystical insight. He says it is important that the boy discover his own Personal Legend.

As time passes, he says, a mysterious force begins convincing people that they cannot realize their Personal Legend. Melchizedek says one’s Personal Legend is his mission on earth, a desire that originates in the soul of the universe. The Soul of the World gets its nourishment from people’s happiness, he says, and when a person wants something, the whole universe conspires to help him achieve it. A person’s only real obligation in life is to realize his own destiny. Melchizedek, who asks for 10 percent of the boy’s sheep, says Warriors of the Light teach that everything in life has a price.

Santiago is surprised to be able to sell his sheep so quickly, and Melchizedek calls this beginner’s luck, or the principle of favorability. He attributes it to the force that wants a person to realize his own Personal Legend. He says God has prepared a path for everyone to follow, but one has to read the omens God has left for him. Omens are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book after this point.

Melchizedek gives Santiago a black stone and a white stone, known as Urim and Thummim, to help him in decision making. If he can’t read the omens, the boy is to consult the stones, with black meaning yes and white meaning no. As Melchizedek watches the boy leave on a ship, he knows the gods shouldn’t have desires because they don’t have Personal Legends. Yet he hopes the boy will succeed.

The Muslim crystal merchant talks about the writings of the Prophet. He says the Koran requires him to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Englishman has Urim and Thummim stones like Santiago’s. He tells the boy these stones were the only type of divination permitted by God. The man is looking for an alchemist, a person who knows the universal language. He says luck and coincidence are the words with which the universal language is written.

When the boy tells the Englishman his life story, the Englishman says the story demonstrates the principle that governs all things or, in alchemy terms, the Soul of the World. He says a person is closest to the Soul of the World when he’s pursuing something he wants with all his heart. The Englishman also contends this doesn’t just work for humans. He says everything on the face of the earth — animal, vegetable or mineral — has a soul and is being continuously transformed.

Alchemists believe that if they can heat a metal long enough to free it from its individual properties, all that will remain will be the Soul of the World. Alchemists can then understand anything on earth because they have the universal language through which all things are communicated. Alchemists called this discovery the Master Work, part liquid and part solid. The liquid, called the Elixir of Life, could cure all illness. The solid part, the Philosopher’s Stone, has the power to transform metal into gold. The Englishman says an alchemist’s purification of metals led to a purification of themselves.

The leader of the desert caravan acknowledges his travelers worship many different gods. He says he serves Allah. He asks each person to swear by his own god that he will follow the leader’s orders on the journey.

Fatima says desert women are used to the desert taking their men from them. Those men who don’t return, she says, become part of the clouds and animals and water. They become the Soul of the World. The alchemist concurs that love must not keep a man from pursuing his Personal Legend. If it does, it wasn’t true love. He also says that anyone who interferes with the Personal Legend of another will never discover his own. The alchemist tells Santiago that no heart has ever suffered that has gone in search of its dreams because every second of the search is an encounter with God and eternity. He says before a dream can be realized, the Soul of the World tests the dreamer to see what he’s learned along the way.

Santiago decides that intuition is the immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, to which every person is connected. Alchemy brings spiritual perfection into contact with the material plane. The boy determines that alchemy exists so that everyone will search for and find treasure and then turn himself into something better than he was in his former life. As Santiago has conversations with the desert, the sun and the wind, he realizes an unseen hand took six days to make a universe, which has evolved into a Master Work. He reaches through the Soul of the World and sees that it is part of the Soul of God. He then sees that the Soul of God is his own soul and that he, Santiago, can perform miracles.

Authority Roles

Melchizedek urges Santiago to follows his dream and assists him in doing so. The crystal merchant gives Santiago a job and an opportunity to hone his skills. The merchant believes having a dream to sustain him is more important than actually following it. The alchemist helps Santiago learn many mystical secrets that aid him in speaking to nature and following his Personal Legend to its conclusion.

Profanity & Violence

D–n appears once or twice.

Sexual Content

A young couple kisses on a bench.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at

Additional Comments

Alcohol: Santiago is fond of wine and drinks it when he can.

Smoking: Santiago and the crystal merchant enjoy a hookah pipe together. Many Arab men smoke hookah as well.

Role of women: Fatima, the woman Santiago meets in the desert, doesn’t get to follow her dream. Her man becomes her dream. She must wait for him to return from his quest for his Personal Legend.

Author: An interview with the author about his beliefs and writings are included. Though he identifies himself as a Catholic, he contends the danger of religion is that people believe they have the ultimate truth.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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