Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, first published in Portuguese in 1988 and then translated into English in 1993, follows the travels of a lone shepherd boy, simply named Santiago, in search of his treasure, which is recurringly mentioned in his dreams. With the help of a gypsy woman, his dream is deciphered and he is given a destination. Along the way, he meets King Melchizedek of Salem, the Englishman, the Alchemist, and many other characters, each of whom play a role in in his journey to reach his Personal Legend. The tale itself is also filled with many fantastical and magical elements that have been integrated into the characters’ reality in believable ways, qualifying The Alchemist to belong under magic realism, despite the fact that it is commonly associated with fantasy, adventure, and, dubiously, even science fiction. With the great utilization of the magic realism genre, the novel succeeds in making readers reflect on their own personal journey through life.
The fantastic. The eccentric. The marvelous. These are just a few words used to describe the genre of ‘magic realism’, which is also known as ‘magical realism’ (the usage of the term, as well as its history, has been debated from the beginning, but shall be bypassed as it is an entirely different topic from what is to be discussed in this commentary). Although Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy”, others have also interpreted the genre in various other ways. However, the genre itself has a consistent set of elements and characteristics that make them its own, which helps differentiate it from fantasy, as written pieces in magic realism are sometimes mistaken to be.
Most often the case, what occurs in the pieces of literary works enclosed in this genre is the usage of “magical” or unrealistic elements to draw attention to social dilemmas that may be prevalent within the real world’s own scope in an attempt to call these out for readers to reflect on and, in some cases, act upon, for the betterment of society. Another case is that the genre is merely used just for the purpose of bringing inspiration through outlandish premises via the representation of characterization, setting, and plot by allowing one to simply reflect on and reimagine one’s current life state.
Within The Alchemist itself, there are many instances in which the unconventional occur that do not break away from the flow and reality that the main character, Santiago, lives in. This is demonstrated when he meets Melchizedek, who displays his capacity to know about him, his personal history, and his thoughts without ever asking Santiago anything at all, and leads one to think that he might be an omniscient supernatural being with telepathy. This can be seen in the following extract from the book when the Salem king writes on the sand all he knows about Santiago:
There, in the sand of the plaza of that small city, the boy read the names of his father and his mother and the name of the seminary he had attended. He read the name of the merchant’s daughter, which he hadn’t even known, and he read things he had never told anyone. (Coelho 21)
In turn, Santiago accepts the king of Salem as he is, reflecting not too long on where he came from, but the message that Melchizedek bestowed on him instead; lessons on Personal Legends, the Soul of the World, and the Principle of Favorability — also known as Beginner’s Luck. Even the ability of the mystical stones, named Urim and Thummim, given to him by the king to help make decisions does Santiago not question. Bringing in fantastical elements into a real world setting, all the while authorial reticence is exhibited to heighten a sense of mystery, are all characteristics of magic realism.
Santiago’s reaction to his dreams is indicative of his view that they are guiding him towards a task that must be undertaken. His dream repeating twice ignites his curiosity to know more about it and what it means, leading him to discover that his Personal Legend is to find his treasure, just as the Soul of the World has communicated to him in his dreams, testing him along the way at the same time. His dream of the hawk, along with the tribal chief’s insight, averts an attack on the oasis he is staying at — supposedly neutral ground in a warring area — signifying how interconnected his dreams are with the Soul of the World.
Santiago’s interpretation and understanding of his dreams, as well as his understanding of his own heart and lessons he’s learnt along the way, gives him the willpower to stay his course, instead of deviating from what is meant for him. Only then will he be deserving of his reward. This is an idea of which is supported by the following extract from the book:
…before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that we learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one “dies of thirst just when the palm tree have appeared on the horizon.” (Coelho 132)
This indicates that the Soul of the World knows what is set out for each individual’s life and has dreams sent their way, while testing said individuals regarding what they’ve learned in order to evaluate and make certain that they have ascended a higher plane in terms of growth and are worthy to receive their “treasure”. Omens, nearly identical in their purpose with dreams within the novel, provides Santiago with guidance, as they are a part of the Universal Language of the World. All of this connects a supernatural entity with Santiago’s reality, while drawing inspiration to follow dreams and omens.
Both dreams and omens serve supernatural purposes in guiding Santiago towards his treasure. “Maktub”, an arabic term for “it is written” that is repeated a number of times throughout the novel, supports this idea. So long as Santiago goes after his Personal Legend, the concept of “maktub” relieves his fears and worries with the idea that his destiny has already been written in the world’s metaphysical history, with dreams and omens outlined throughout his journey to help him achieve his Personal Legend. As the Alchemist says, “Everything is written in the Soul of the World, and there it will stay forever.” (Coelho 123)
Santiago serves as the vessel with which readers journey through his life to learn the purpose of dreams and achieving Personal Legends. He stands for each person curious enough to find his Personal Legend, experiencing the struggles that undoubtedly fall their way. In the very end, he learns that experiencing the new is more worthwhile, compared to playing on the safer side of life; it is to be open to the new and magical.
All the other characters that enter the tale, regardless of the amount of time they are present, represent general archetypes of the people journeying through life. With regards to King Melchizedek of Salem, he is drawn from biblical references. Not much is known about him in the Bible, save for the fact that he is both a king and a priest, whose name means “King of Righteousness” and who rules a land with a name that means “Peace”. Within The Alchemist, not much is known about him either. However, he does play the role of the mystical wise man who imparts knowledge to the main character, while pushing him towards his destiny, delivering the message that if one is going after one’s Personal Legend and on the “right path”, hidden forces will help one attain it, just as Melchizedek tells Santiago: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” (Coelho 22)
The Englishman represents the people who are too focused on learning from books, disregarding experiencing the present, here and now, while the Crystal Merchant represents the people who are aware of their dreams, but are already complacent with life and are too afraid to pursue said dreams due to the belief that once it is achieved, there will be nothing else to look forward to. These two characters serve as cautionary cases to readers regarding what they both separately represent, as these traits could potentially inhibit one from reaching their real life goals — and using the novel’s equivalent, their Personal Legends.
While the Englishman and the Crystal Merchant serve to warn readers of what could occur if they didn’t try to chase after their Personal Legends, the Alchemist and Fatima represent the people who bring more positive influence into one’s life, just as they brought it to Santiago’s life, with the Alchemist serving as the teacher or mentor of the boy, while Fatima serves as the romantic interest who encourages him to go for his dream first and foremost. The Coptic Monk, despite appearing very briefly, represents the people who, in passing, helps one to get where one wants to go.
Among the aforementioned characters, save for Melchizedek and the Alchemist, the rest have no relation to magic. However, their serendipitous presence in the right places within the story helps Santiago advance towards his goal in such fortuitous ways that it makes it seem unrealistic and almost supernatural that they enter the tale during those very tough times that Santiago would most definitely need help. In a way, they represent silver linings usually found in life, wherever they are rightly placed, which is already quite mystical in its own way.
The Alchemist exhibits many characteristics of magic realism, which help in strengthening the message of the novel, wherein it gives some distance to reality while also still being quite grounded, as the supernatural occur in the real world. Probably one of the strongest examples of magic realism would be when Santiago speaks with the desert, wind, and sun to help him prove to the tribal leaders that he is an alchemist. It is done in such a way that it seems completely normal for Santiago to converse with these disembodied entities in reality.
Despite how well The Alchemist utilizes magic realism to create a supernatural atmosphere throughout the book that aids in inspiring, some may find it too bland since, in its essence, it reads just like a simple fable or a folktale. Some may even argue that the storyline is not very original. In fact, its general synopsis is identical to a couple of old pieces of writings, such as in the “Tale of the Two Dreamers” E. W. Lane translation of the Arabian Nights, which was also retold by the Argentine short story writer, Jorge Luis Borges.
This piece of literature’s use of magic realism provides an alternate perception of reality that allows readers to reinvent their view on their life journey and life purpose, through the concept of the Personal Legend. Following the life of a simple character as he transforms his life is symbolic in itself as it is what Latin American magic realism is all about, which is the self definition of one’s own culture and one’s view on the impact culture has on one’s life. The Alchemist, in its core, really serves as an inspiring metaphor of life, because, just like Santiago learns that his treasure was already there in the beginning and is rewarded for his perseverance at the end, we too shall get where we want to go if we remained patient and imitated Santiago’s journey.
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. Print.
“Magic Realism.” Oxford Dictionary (British & World English). Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/magic-realism>.